Off-court weirdness and uncertainty aside, one thing we can say with confidence about Joel Embiid is that, when healthy, he’s going to encounter plenty of double teams.
Embiid has handled double teams well recently, identifying the help defender early and making the right read.
He realized Sterling Brown was doubling middle off Tobias Harris here and smartly spun back toward the baseline for the layup.
He seems to have preserved his ability to make these type of instinctive decisions despite his frequent absences.
In Chicago, Embiid again noticed the double team coming from Harris’ man, Brandon Sampson. Ryan Arcidiacono slid over to pick up Harris, leaving Jonah Bolden open momentarily. Embiid found him as JaKarr Sampson’s rotation was just a split second late.
There are still hints of the over-dribbling and indecisiveness that were problems for Embiid earlier in the season.
He just doesn’t often have the time to take a couple of dribbles in one direction and spin back in the other. With Giannis Antetokounmpo doubling on the play below, Embiid needed to commit to his baseline drive on Brook Lopez, not dribble right into Antetokounmpo’s path.
Though the defense often makes Embiid’s mind up for him, the Sixers have started to dictate the terms of their post offense around Embiid more.
One way they’ve done that is through Embiid manipulating help defenders. Against a team like the Bucks, who doubled Embiid time after time in the second half Saturday, with Ben Simmons’ man typically the help defender, it’s a simple and smart strategy.
Embiid sees Antetokounmpo coming to double off Simmons in the short right corner here, and his pass fake makes Antetokounmpo think twice.
Another way is more of the proactive “slashing” Brett Brown told us about a few weeks ago.
Brown said he was interested in Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler cutting behind Embiid against “blind” defenders, which we’ve yet to witness much of. However, Simmons is often a good candidate to cut off the ball when his defender doubles Embiid.
Instead of taking up his customary spot in the short left corner, Simmons seals at the front of the rim on the play below when he notices Antetokounmpo is doubling Embiid. He earns position in front of Pat Connaughton, who’s been forced to take Simmons and abandon Mike Scott in the left corner.
Both Simmons and Zhaire Smith slashed on this next play vs. the Bucks. It wasn’t especially pretty, as the two ended up in the same spot, but it did confuse the Milwaukee defense. George Hill and Antetokounmpo collapsed into the lane to pick up Smith and Simmons, and neither rotated over to the open Scott.
A benefit of Simmons cutting from the top of the key or the weak side wing instead of the short corner is that his defender has to go a couple steps further to double Embiid.
It’s not a big difference, but, with Simmons starting on the right wing, Antetokounmpo has slightly more distance to travel to reach Embiid on this play than if Simmons had been stationed in the short corner. Even though Simmons is a non-threat to shoot from three-point range, Antetokounmpo isn’t comfortable leaving him completely until Embiid has already started to make his move.
You’d expect the Sixers will mix up Simmons’ starting points a little when Embiid has the ball down low in the postseason, and also encourage more off-ball movement around Embiid. The primary focus is on nailing the fundamentals of sound spacing, but they’ll also aim to throw in some slashing and place pressure on the defense.
An irregular but intriguing option to counter double teams for the Sixers is the “snug pick-and-roll” between Simmons and Embiid.
Embiid gives the ball to Simmons in the post here and sets a good screen, which forces the Bulls to put Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot on Embiid. If Simmons gets Embiid the ball down low quickly, that’s a golden opportunity for Embiid to score on a much smaller player.
It likely won’t be a go-to option, but the snug pick-and-roll could be a good way to get Embiid deep post touches. The deeper he gets the ball, the more difficult and ineffective it is to double him.
Embiid is far too dominant in the post not to see frequent double teams in the playoffs. We'll see whether the Sixers can put him in favorable positions for countering double teams, and we'll also see just how much Embiid has refined his skills at dealing with them.
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