After the Sixers’ loss Wednesday night in Toronto, the habitually honest Joel Embiid admitted the adjustment to playing with Jimmy Butler hasn’t been easy.
“It’s hard,” Embiid told reporters. “I’m trying to figure it out. My place on the floor. Sometimes I’ve got to space the floor. A lot of times with the way our plays are set up I tend to spend a lot of time on the perimeter. That’s just an adjustment we've got to make with the coaches. Figure out how to keep me down low. I don’t know … changing the plays or whatever.
“I've got to do a better job. It’s on me. I haven’t been efficient and got to make sure I work on my game.”
Embiid expanded on that sentiment before Friday night’s game in Detroit, telling The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, “I haven’t been myself lately. I think it’s mainly because of the way I’ve been used, which is I’m being used as a spacer, I guess, a stretch five, which I’m only shooting  percent" from three-point range.
“But it seems like the past couple games, like with the way I play, our setup, [Brett Brown] always has me starting on the perimeter … and it just really frustrates me. My body feels great, and it’s just I haven’t been playing well.”
Those comments are no reason to panic about some sort of deep turmoil within the Sixers or a fundamental problem with the construction of the team. Let’s break down how Embiid has played in his first 11 games with Butler, and where exactly his “place on the floor” should be.
Embiid has been … pretty good with Butler
Here’s a comparison of Embiid’s numbers before Butler’s arrival (15 games) and after the trade (11 games):
Field goal attempts: 18.6/18.5
FG percentage: 48.4/43
Free throw attempts: 11.1/8.7
FT percentage: 80.2/77
Three-point attempts: 4.2/4.0
3PT percentage: 30.2/27.3
Offensive rating: 106.3/108.7
Defensive rating: 101.3/102.7
Net rating: Plus-5.7/Plus-6.0
His only stats that have taken a notable dip are field goal percentage and free throw attempts.
While that might be a slight concern, the field goal percentage is skewed by Embiid’s mini three-game slump, during which he’s shot 33.3 percent from the floor.
The bottom line is Embiid has still been a highly efficient player since the addition of Butler, and it’s not as if he’s had to drastically change his game. He’s still shooting a near-identical number of three-pointers, still taking a healthy number of shots, and still comfortably leading the NBA in post-up possessions.
Are there serious, long-term worries?
As Embiid mentioned, he does spend a fair amount of time on the perimeter for a 7-foot center, and that’s by design.
Given the fact that Ben Simmons is still an infrequent and inefficient shooter (he’s 3 for 24 on attempts of 10-plus feet this season), Embiid can’t spend all of his time in the low post if the Sixers want to maximize their current offensive potential. There just wouldn’t be any space for Simmons to cut to the rim or establish position in the post if Embiid occupied the lane every possession.
It’s absolutely fair to say the Embiid-Butler pairing hasn’t clicked as naturally as the Butler-Simmons “headband brothers” duo. This is Embiid’s first professional experience playing with a skilled perimeter shot creator, and you’d expect it to take a little time for the two to figure out how to play to each other’s strengths. Butler has just four assists to Embiid.
As far as “changing the plays or whatever,” as Embiid mentioned, a few more Butler-Embiid pick-and-rolls and Butler-Embiid dribble handoffs would make sense as ways to help the Sixers accelerate the pair’s growth together.
Embiid’s place on the floor
Embiid’s three-point shooting has been a hot topic for a while. To some, it’s mind-boggling that a player of his size and strength would take multiple threes per game and not dedicate himself entirely to low-post dominance.
In a different era, the idea of Embiid shooting four three-pointers per game would be inconceivable. But in the modern NBA, it’s not such an unorthodox concept.
As our Tom Haberstroh detailed, the NBA is more obsessed with the three-point shot than ever.
It’s rare that a team runs the majority of its offense through a player in the low post, and the biggest reason for that is post-ups simply aren’t very efficient.
Embiid, obviously a very, very good low-post player, is averaging 1.01 points per possession on post-ups.
Let’s put that number in perspective: If you take a league average three-point shooter — Markieff Morris, for example (35 percent) — and look solely at possessions which end with that player taking a three-point shot, he averages 1.05 points per possession.
That’s not to insinuate the Sixers should abandon Embiid in the post; he’s still a weapon they should use down low. But there’s zero doubt a tightly contested midrange jumper from Embiid is a worse shot than a wide-open three-pointer.
And Embiid has been getting a lot of wide-open threes — 3.4 of his 4.1 three-point attempts per game come with the closest defender six or more feet away.
We knew when the Sixers acquired Butler that the fit wouldn’t be perfect, that sharing the ball among three stars wouldn’t be an effortless adjustment. While the Sixers would do well to incorporate more actions into their offense involving Embiid and Butler, Embiid’s comments don’t mean the duo is doomed to fail, or that Embiid will forever be a less effective player with Butler around.
If Embiid can knock down a few more of the shots he typically hits and break out of his mini-slump, you'd expect his frustration about how he’s being used to dissipate.
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