For many opponents, one defender isn’t enough to handle Joel Embiid.
It’s no surprise that Embiid has seen a fair number of double-teams, given his dominance in the low post.
Let’s look at the film to analyze how Embiid is dealing with the double-teams he encounters and how he can improve.
Quick, good decisions
There actually haven’t been too many opponents who have consistently double-teamed Embiid as soon as he catches the ball. The Hawks, on Oct. 29, were an exception — Embiid had a season-low 10 points in that game. The Cavs also doubled him rather aggressively on Nov. 23.
But for the most part, Embiid has been faced with sporadic double-teams and lurking help defenders. On the play below against the Pacers, Bogdan Bogdanovic drops well off his man at the three-point line, Furkan Korkmaz. If Embiid goes to the middle on Myles Turner, Bogdanovic is there for a double-team. Embiid is aware of Bogdanovic and makes a strong move baseline.
The key in these situations is Embiid recognizing where the help defense is looming and knowing where his teammates are on the floor. It’s easier said than done.
Embiid does an excellent job on the play below noticing the Spurs’ Davis Bertans start to lean in his direction. Ben Simmons makes a sharp cut to the rim, and Embiid hits him for a dunk.
Before the Sixers’ win over the Knicks on Wednesday night, head coach Brett Brown acknowledged the difficulty of reading help defenders waiting to pounce for a double-team.
I think that the game is clear, when you see it, and we’ve got the power as coaches to look at stuff in slow motion. When you’re playing it and you’re thinking in his mind vs. a coach with a clicker. He needs to play and react to what the sport tells him to do… If there is a crowd, he’s gotta pass the ball. It’s really that simple. I think that his decision on how quickly he goes maybe at times could beat double-teams coming. I think that there’s the delicate sort of ecosystem of can he score quick, disregarding if there’s a double-team coming or not, vs. it’s clearly a crowd — pass.
Embiid started 5 for 5 against New York, which led the Knicks to experiment with doubling more frequently, and led to a few of those “clearly a crowd” situations.
At the end of the first quarter, Embiid drew a double at the elbow when he spun back to the middle of the floor. He did well to maintain his composure and find Furkan Korkmaz for a four-point play.
Quick, questionable decisions
A quick decision against a double-team is not automatically a good decision.
When Embiid recognizes a double early, he often defaults to taking a contested mid-range jumper.
Those shots are better than Embiid turning the ball over, but they’re not high-percentage looks for the Sixers. While there are occasions where a contested Embiid 15-footer is the best option, throwing the ball back out to the open man on the perimeter and then re-posting is typically preferable.
When Embiid’s decision-making out of a double-team is slow, he usually pays for it.
He just can’t afford to catch the ball, look in one direction, then turn back the other, as he does on the play below vs. the Pacers.
And when he makes the wrong read of the help defender, it’s probably going to result in a turnover. Matthew Dellavedova is waiting in the middle to help on an Embiid drive on the play below, and Embiid dribbles right into him.
Embiid also doesn’t have the luxury to start a drive to the basket, then abort it. Below, he drives to the right block against Rudy Gay, then takes two dribbles away from the rim. His indecision allows LaMarcus Aldridge to arrive with the double, and Embiid is too slow to notice.
If you include Markelle Fultz, the Sixers’ point guards have made 10 three-pointers this season. The team’s point guards aren’t a threat from the outside, meaning they tend to linger around the short corner (also known as the “dunker’s spot”) when Embiid catches the ball in the post. This tends to make Embiid’s job more difficult.
They also like to cut to the rim, which can sometimes help Embiid out. More often, though, it forces Embiid’s hand. As opposed to conventionally stationing himself in the right corner, T.J. McConnell cuts to the basket on the play below. Doug McDermott rotates over to McConnell as Tyreke Evans doubles Embiid, and Embiid has to toss the ball back out to Wilson Chandler.
If McConnell was more capable from three-point range and set up in the corner like a typical guard, it’s possible Embiid has two viable options to pass to on that play, not just one.
Again, the right corner is the optimal spot as far as spacing purposes for McConnell on the play below. And again, he cuts to the rim and then slows to a near-stop at the left block.
The turnover is on Embiid for trying to make an impossible pass, but you can understand why he occasionally has these kinds of mistakes. The only way he can create offense for Simmons and McConnell out of a double-team is by threading passes through to them on cuts to the rim. He has less space to operate when double-teamed and fewer viable passing options than the average big man.
That’s not to say Embiid is helpless against double-teams because of his point guards’ limitations.
He still has plenty of room to improve at identifying help defenders early and making sharp, smart decisions. Given how effective he’s been in one-on-one situations, you’d expect he’ll get a lot more practice refining his game against double-teams.
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