You’d be forgiven for forgetting, after all the excitement of Corey Brewer’s first two games as a Sixers starter, that the team still has a four-time All-Star named Jimmy Butler.
When Butler returns from his right wrist injury, he’ll obviously be vital to the Sixers’ success, and the development of his partnership with Joel Embiid will be critical for the Sixers.
It’s a pairing head coach Brett Brown is determined to grow, as he said last Tuesday after the Sixers beat the Timberwolves.
My mind is always, ‘what’s coming?’ And that is playoff basketball. Those two guys will be featured a lot. Last year it was Joel and JJ [Redick] a lot, and that will still happen. But at the end of the day, I really think that those two, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, will be featured in more prominent ways, maybe than any pairing.
Let’s examine the early stages of Embiid and Butler’s offensive partnership and how it could grow.
The easiest way to get Butler and Embiid working in tandem is the pick-and-roll.
Butler has generally preferred to reject Embiid’s screen, dribbling in the opposite direction instead of using the pick.
And Embiid’s preference has been to pop instead of rolling to the basket.
Because defenses are aware of those tendencies, Butler and Embiid have had a fair amount of early success when they've deviated from the norm.
A more conventional pick-and-roll worked well on the play below against the Pacers. Butler’s penetration forced Myles Turner to lunge at him and Embiid was open for a layup as a result.
The most promising (and predictable) part of Butler-Embiid pick-and-rolls is how much attention the two draw from the defense.
Patrick Patterson recovers well to block Mike Muscala on the play below, but notice how much space Muscala has because of the Thunder’s focus on Butler and Embiid.
In our film review from two weeks ago, we noted that the first play Brown ran for Butler on Jan. 8 vs. Washington was a pin-down screen from Embiid flowing into a side pick-and-roll.
The Sixers have recently introduced an additional component to that play, a bit of misdirection. The point guard and power forward now run a pick-and-pop to start the action, with the four-man feeding Butler on the wing.
Brown has also added another action with Butler, Embiid and Simmons as the centerpieces.
Butler loops up to the top of the key off Embiid’s screen at the elbow. Simmons gives him the ball, then gets a back screen from Embiid and cuts hard to the front of the rim.
It’s a promising play with a variety of options that the Sixers are just starting to explore, including Embiid coming up to screen for Butler if Simmons isn’t open in the post.
When Simmons gets the ball in the post, the Sixers like to make “split cuts” off him, meaning that the player who gave Simmons an entry pass and the next closest perimeter player are involved in a two-man screening action.
Below is a good example. Butler gives Simmons the ball in the post, then receives a back screen from JJ Redick. The off-ball movement gives Simmons space to work down low.
The Sixers rarely make split cuts off Embiid. Though you can understand the desire to give him as much room as possible and not potentially clog the lane with cutters, smart split cuts with Embiid in the post would remove a potential help defender. And given how excellent of a cutter Butler is, he’s the perfect man to involve in such an action.
Another way to get more out of the Butler-Embiid pairing could be occasionally plugging Butler into the point guard spot on certain sets, giving him a chance to attack downhill from the top of the key.
You can easily imagine him thriving on the play below, which Embiid often runs with T.J. McConnell.
McConnell passes to Embiid at the elbow, then gets the ball back and waits a half-second for Embiid to reposition himself for a pick-and-roll.
The timing on those type of plays takes a little time to develop, but the Sixers have a few months until the playoffs. As Brown said, that’s when his stars all being able to play well together is most essential. For the time being, it can’t hurt to keep trying to build the Embiid-Butler duo.
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