With playoffs in mind, how Sixers are developing Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler pairing

With playoffs in mind, how Sixers are developing Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler pairing

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 basics

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. 

New layers 

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. 

The possibilities 

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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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 

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Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K


Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K

Matisse Thybulle is known for his defense in real life. In NBA2K, that is definitely not the case.

With the NBA season suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak, Thybulle and the Suns’ Mikal Bridges played each other in 2K on Friday night and streamed the action on Twitch.

Though Thybulle gave Bridges a little bit of a scare with a big third quarter, the virtual Suns beat the virtual Sixers, 75-64. 

While the intensity obviously didn’t compare to a typical game night at Wells Fargo Center, both Thybulle and Bridges — a Villanova product and a Sixer for about 20 minutes before a draft-night trade two years ago — were very into it.

Thyulle decided to sub himself into the game after just 28 seconds, and Bridges did the same 30 seconds later. 

“Which one’s shoot again?,” he asked. “Square?” 

As his team fell behind, Thybulle had some stern words for his players.

“Al, you’re better than that,” he said when Al Horford bit on a pump fake. “You’ve been in the league too long to be making those mistakes.” 

When Ben Simmons had a floater blocked, Thybulle wasn’t thrilled. 

“Ben, you’re 7-foot,” he said. “Just dunk it.” 

And a Mike Scott lay-up early in the third wasn’t what Thybulle was hoping to see. 

At one point, he tried begging for mercy from Bridges.

“Stop running pick-and-roll, I don’t know how to guard it,” he said. “Please. Come on, man.” 

Unfortunately for Thybulle, Bridges did not stop and the rookie left with a loss, albeit an entertaining one.

“I apologize to the Sixers, to my family, my friends, the people of Philadelphia,” he said. “This is not acceptable.” 

After personally finishing with no points on 0 for 3 shooting, Thybulle promised he'll be practicing.

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