By the bitter end of the 2019-20 season, it seemed nobody associated with the Sixers was pleased with the composition of the team’s roster — Joel Embiid included.
Asked in a Zoom call with reporters Friday whether he’d communicated any roster-building preferences to the Sixers’ front office, Embiid first noted that he doesn’t like to assign blame anywhere besides his own shoulders. He did, however, want to see specific repairs.
“I felt like we didn’t have what we needed, especially when it came to shooting, because nowadays in the NBA you’ve got to be able to shoot the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to space the floor. It’s hard to play just inside-out all the time. I led the league in post-ups this past year … but people still want me to post up more. That’s understandable, but then again, you’ve got to find a balance between making sure everybody’s involved and giving me the ball. And then you’ve also got to mix your game.
“If I spend a lot of time on the block all game, they’re not going to respect my outside game. And I also need to be able to do that to space the floor and give my teammates some space. I think you’ve just got to find a balance. What I told them is just, ‘We just need more shooting.’ That was apparent looking at last year. We weren’t able to shoot the ball well. I thought they did a good job. I feel bad for the guys that we lost; those were my guys. But I thought (the front office) adding shooters was great.”
On draft night, new Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey acquired Danny Green and Seth Curry in trades, parting with Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Horford took a career-high 4.2 three-pointers per game last season in an ill-fitting power forward/backup center hybrid role. Richardson didn’t shoot well from three-point range (34.1 percent) and also favored inside-the-arc jumpers over threes too often.
According to Cleaning the Glass, 36 percent of Richardson’s shots were threes and 22 percent were long mid-range efforts. In contrast, 55 percent of Curry’s attempts were threes and 16 percent were long mid-range tries. (Curry also happens to be a very good mid-range shooter, as we explored here.)
The bottom line is Green and Curry both fire frequently from three, an important quality for a Sixers team that was ninth last season in long-distance percentage but 22nd in three-point attempts. And, outside of simply scoring more by making more of the most valuable shot in the sport, there are the spacing-related benefits Embiid mentioned. Though transition will likely be a trendy subject given Rivers’ desire to boost the Sixers’ pace, Embiid knows the team’s half-court offense must improve.
“Where we had our struggles last year was in half court,” he said, “so one of the things I told Coach was basically we’ve got to make sure our half-court game is great, because last year at times we didn’t know what to do. I felt like we always had to have the game plan going into these types of situations. Because at the end of the day, we’re getting ready for the playoffs. We’re not fighting to make it. … We think we can win an NBA championship this year.”
The Sixers took the league’s most field goals with seven to four seconds left on the shot clock. They were often stagnant, aimless and inefficient, posting a 46.2 effective field goal percentage in those late-clock situations, the fourth-worst mark in the NBA. No elite perimeter shot creator has swooped in to save the day, but there’s now greater risk in defenses packing the paint to stymie Ben Simmons and in double teaming Embiid, the NBA’s best high-volume post-up player in 2019-20.
One interesting element of the changes to come is that Rivers’ plan to play faster and run more pick-and-rolls doesn’t intuitively mesh with Embiid’s strengths. Screening and rolling is far from Embiid’s best skill, and Brett Brown’s offense didn’t include many pick-and-rolls. As for the pace initiative, that seems better suited for Simmons than an All-Star big man who thrives down low.
“I think we can mix in both, for sure,” Embiid said. “When you think about the game, especially in the regular season, especially the first three quarters, you’ve got to get stops and you’ve got to run. And when you get to the fourth quarter and the defense toughens up and it’s harder to get those opportunities, now you get to (half-court offense) and the game kind of slows down.
"That’s when I come in. My ability to just score the ball in 1-on-1 situations or draw fouls I think is up there with the best in the league — or probably the best in those types of situations. … Coach has definitely talked about mixing in pick-and-rolls and just playing out of the elbow or the nail, which also gives me a lot of space, playing in those areas of the floor.
“And then also, with the added shooters, I think it’s going to help us just open up the floor, especially for someone like Ben who is so good driving down downhill, rebounding the ball and pushing in transition and finding shooters. So I think it’s going to be great. And then when we get to the playoffs, it’s harder to get those opportunities. That’s why my emphasis has been really on half court, too. We’ve got to be great at that because I’ve played in the playoffs a few times and the main thing is, if your half-court offense is not great, you’re not going anywhere. And you’ve also got to have great players that can make plays happen.”
Embiid requested and received the surrounding shooters that enabled him and Simmons to excel together during the 2017-18 season. That doesn’t mean everything will click immediately under a new coaching staff or that the team’s style will be ideal for Embiid.
Tricky details and on-court nuances aside, though, Embiid likes the look of the team around him. That clearly matters for the Sixers.
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