Every season, Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers tend to be overshadowed, whether it be by Eastern Conference opponents, a whirlwind of the news cycle, or the inclusion of James Harden. Yet through it all, Embiid is a tried and true superstar upholding the success of a team that won at least 59% of its games for the last five years including three 50+ win seasons.
Meanwhile, Harden, who is out for a month with a foot strain, has looked more like his old self to start this season, averaging 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds through his first nine games of the year. But with him out of the lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers managed to win three of their last four games as Embiid re-entered the rotation.
During that span, Embiid is averaging a monstrous stat line of 40 points, 11 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.8 blocks, cruising past three current Playoff teams in the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks and Utah Jazz. The lifeblood of the Philadelphia 76ers and a perennial MVP candidate, Joel Embiid has only just entered his prime years and is only going to get better. If they are going to contend for an NBA championship this season, it’s going to begin and end with him.
With or without Harden, the heart of the Philadelphia 76ers is Joel Embiid.
Heliocentric offenses might be the way of the superstar in this modern NBA, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything needs to run through a perimeter player. Harden is a magnificent talent whose shot creation is unmatched. He is doing a nice job of adjusting to his co-star and prioritizing his playmaking when sharing the floor with Embiid.
Still, we know about the ceiling of a team that runs through Harden while a Joel Embiid-led Playoff team has yet to be fully realized. That disparity is further evidenced by the valley between their on/off differentials. Philly is 11.3 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor versus when Harden is on the floor, though they’re both net positive.
Philly is 4-2 when Embiid shoots 56% or better — a sharp contrast from their 1-3 record when he’s not playing to the best of his ability. When they feed Embiid and prioritize his isolation reps, it tends to yield positive results. Averaging the fourth-most isolation possessions in the league right now, Embiid ranks in the 80th percentile for points per possession, which is better than anyone else in the top five besides his teammate, Harden. Of the 14 players with at least four iso positions per game, Embiid is second in score frequency behind Damian Lillard.
Relegating Embiid to any one style is a failure to maximize your team’s chances of winning. He’s a talented finisher in the pick-and-roll, a dangerous spot-up shooter from the mid-range, and a capable catch-and-shoot option from three. His post-game and footwork are impeccable, oftentimes turning defenders around with his unrelenting trickery using the pivot foot. An enormous rebounder who scores off putbacks frequently, Embiid generates his own buckets while remaining just as impactful as part of a one-two tandem.
This is what Doc Rivers needs to figure out before James Harden returns to the lineup: How can we maximize Joel Embiid while still empowering your star guard? From a talent standpoint, the 76ers have enough firepower to compete with any team in the league. Yes, President of Basketball Ops Daryl Morey may have room to build on the margins, but even if they don’t make a single rotational change, this team has the talent of a contender.
And yet the only way they’ll be able to reach out and grasp that trophy is if they maximize the star who has been here all along.