How 76ers’ Joel Embiid adapted his offensive game to maximize pairing with James Harden
There are plenty of strong couples in the NBA today, but none have been as productive this season as the dynamic Philadelphia duo Joel Embiid and James Harden. Embiid is the league’s top scorer for the season, averaging 33.4 points per game, while Harden is the Association’s top assister, dropping 10.8 dimes per game. Unsurprisingly, these two sets of skills have proven to be quite complementary.
No player has helped another player more this season than Embiid Harden, and it’s not particularly close. At the time of writing, Harden has provided Embiid with 210 assists – 194 two-pointers and 16 triples. The next closest pair is in Indiana, where Tyrese Haliburton has 135 assists against Buddy Heald. That’s a 75 assist difference between Harden and Embiid and the next duo.
Thanks almost entirely to the evolving two-player game between Harden and Embiid — and the space created for others by the attention they draw in and around the painted area — the Sixers are third on offense in the league after finishing. outside the top 10 in that category in each of the last two seasons.
To maximize their potential as a couple, Embiid made significant adjustments to his game, becoming a prolific pick-and-roll rollman, something he didn’t do very often during his career. career until this season.
In the current campaign, Embiid serves as a screening ball, throwing 6.9 possessions per game, the vast majority of which are screenings for Harden at the top of the key. This number leads the league by a wide margin. The next closest player is Deandre Ayton of the Suns. Embiid also leads the league in points per game with 8.3. Anthony Davis is second on this record with six points per game.
Overall, Embiid covers 23.6% of offensive balls. This number is much higher than in previous seasons. Last year, Embiid covered the ball 16.6% of the time, a number that has increased since Harden arrived in February. In the previous season, Embiid only acted this way 12.5% of the time, or 3.2 possessions per game.
As a result of his frequent use in PNR, Embiid is much less played off post. During the 2020-2021 campaign, Embiid worked off-post 36.5% of the time. That number dropped to 28 percent last season, but he still led the league by a wide margin. This year, Embiid works off-post only 16.7% of the time, which is 20% less than just two seasons ago.
This huge number is indicative of how much Embiid has changed his offensive approach to match Harden as closely as possible. The scale of this adjustment seems to have escaped national attention a bit, perhaps because Embiid made the change so easily.
What makes the action so lethal is simply the sheer number of ways Sixes can harm you. Watch any 66ers game and you’ll see the many possibilities Embiid has created by placing a screen for Harden at the top of the key. If the defenders follow Harden, Embiid will roll back to the ring for an easy dunk or pop out of his sweet spot at the nail for a shot. If defense assistance is limited, Philadelphia’s corner shooters will have new opportunities. If too much attention is given to Embiid off the list, Harden will take advantage of this and get to the basket. If you go under the screen to interfere with the drive, Harden can pull up for three. This is a real mystery to protect.
If Embiid continued to work from under the post at such high speed, Harden would be pretty much relegated to off the ball, which is not where he is at his best (although he has been working on improving his agility and… shooting into a guy with Embiid).
Having Embiid serve as a controller increases Harden’s abilities much more, allowing him to do what he does best – organize an attack and create open opportunities for the big guy and others. Embiid’s advantage is that he doesn’t have to fight so hard to get open views. Instead, he can simply slip through the screen and be wide open for Beard’s 15-foot courtesy.
Embiid’s adaptability paid dividends and provided Philadelphia with a solid and extremely effective game. The Sixers are averaging 1.2 points per possession with Embiid as a starter this season. That’s more than they ever received on average when he played off post. By comparison, the Sacramento Kings have the highest average ball possession score of the season at 1.18.
The next time you watch the Sixers, pay attention to how often Embiid covers Harden at the top of the key to launch an attack. The power of this game makes it an invaluable weapon for Philadelphia, and one that anyone they face in the postseason will have to contend with.
All statistics in this article are provided by NBA.com and PBP Stats.