With the Sixers in the midst of a losing streak and fresh off being blown out by the Heat, Joel Embiid was especially candid about the Sixers’ offensive struggles on Feb. 5. One word he used jumped out.
“Sacrificing,” he said. “How we played last year, obviously a different structure, the ball movement was better, and this year we've got different players. I've sacrificed a lot, trying to make everybody feel comfortable, and that's normal.
“We've all got to sacrifice and if it means taking less shots just to make sure everyone is happy and keep winning, then that's what we've got to do. But at the same time, we've still got to understand what's going on around us and how we can help each other be better.”
It’s a nuanced question, but whether Embiid did actually “sacrifice a lot” for the Sixers this past season is interesting to consider. One good place to start is his usage rate — the percentage of a team's plays used by a player when he’s on the court — which has indeed declined each season he’s been in the NBA but remained first on the Sixers by a landslide.
Embiid’s usage rate (Minimum 30 games played)
- 2016-17: 35.6 (3rd in NBA)
- 2017-18: 33.0 (2nd)
- 2018-19: 32.7 (2nd)
- 2019-20: 31.5 (8th)
Of course, usage rate isn’t a perfect way to capture “sacrifice.” Embiid technically “used” possessions when he flung up a hot potato at the end of the shot clock, and he didn’t “use” possessions when the Sixers tried to post him up and aggressive double teams forced him to give the ball up. Still, the notion that someone who takes a high proportion of a team’s field goals, attempts a lot of its free throws and turns the ball over often is a “high usage” player seems reasonable enough.
There are other numbers that support the notion of Embiid ceding to his teammates, at least on the surface. While the classifications aren’t necessarily flawless, NBA.com tracks a player’s touches at different areas on the floor. From 2018-19 to 2019-20, Embiid’s overall touches per game dropped from 87.0 to 68.1. His paint touches decreased from 7.4 to 6.7, his elbow touches from 5.7 to 5.0.
A massive caveat here, however, is that Embiid played 4.2 fewer minutes per game as the Sixers focused more on load management during the regular season. While the dip in usage rate is fair to scrutinize, stats like touches and points per game aren’t in the same category, since they don’t account for minutes. For example, Embiid’s scoring average decreased by 4.5 points, but his scoring average per 36 minutes only dropped by 1.4 points.
Meanwhile, Embiid’s three-pointers per 36 minutes went from 4.4 to 4.1, which suggests that he wasn’t selflessly taking long-range shots any more than in 2018-19.
Embiid’s partnership with Al Horford appeared to be, at times, the purest form of his “sacrifice.” The duo was a poor fit offensively as the Sixers’ 103.1 offensive rating with them together was the worst of any two-man pairing on the team that played at least 300 minutes.
Ultimately, though, the numbers show that Embiid (and the Sixers as a team) sacrificed efficiency and effectiveness when he played next to Horford, not usage.
- Embiid w/Horford: 50.3 effective field goal percentage—0.82 assist-to-turnover ratio—32.7 usage rate
- Embiid w/o Horford: 52.0 effective field goal percentage—1.05 assist-to-turnover ratio— 30.5 usage rate
The best way to evaluate Embiid’s claim might be simply acknowledging that the Sixers’ offense wasn’t exactly conducive to anyone’s success in the 2019-20 season. However one defines “sacrifice,” the adjustments Embiid and his teammates made in Brett Brown’s final year weren’t fruitful.