Joel Embiid knows he has a knack for irritating opposing players and coaches.
New Sixers defensive coordinator Dan Burke voiced his disdain for the three-time All-Star after a Pacers' loss last season in Philadelphia during which Embiid attempted 15 free throws and the frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner combined for 11 fouls.
“I hate that team,” Burke said. “I really wanted to win that game. I think Embiid gets away with a bunch of crap the league ignores. It would’ve been a good one to just walk away from.”
A Pacers assistant since 1997, Burke joined Doc Rivers’ coaching staff this offseason and is now establishing a relationship with a player he once detested.
“We’re great,” Embiid said Thursday. “I think he’s a great guy. We’ve actually been very close since he got here. I think him and the whole coaching staff are going to look at me to kind of be the driving force of our defense, especially when we talk about being the Defensive Player of the Year. Just making sure we have the best defense in the league, protecting the rim. The past couple years when I’ve been on the floor, we’ve always had, most likely, the best defense in the league. They’re going to look for me to keep it going and keep that same energy.
“As far as the comments, it’s easy to say stuff when you’re playing against somebody. I’m sure nobody likes to play against me because all I do is either score or get fouled. I know the rules and stuff, and I just take advantage and play my game based on that. If someone wants to reach, I’m going to get fouled and I’m going to get to the free throw line. It’s harder when you play against somebody that plays that way, but when you’re actually on the same team, I’m sure he’s going to love it. We’re going to get fouls, we’re going to foul people out, we’re going to get to the free throw line, we’re going to score a lot of points. It’s going to be fun.”
The claim that all Embiid does is score or get fouled is obviously a tad hyperbolic; despite being the league’s most efficient high-volume post player, he occasionally gets stopped. Outside of that, though, he makes fair points.
Embiid attempted 10.4 foul shots per 36 minutes last season, third among NBA regulars, thanks to his size and skill. Rip-through moves and theatrical efforts to lean into or embellish contact from off-balance defenders certainly helped, too. It’s also true that the Sixers’ defense has fared well when Embiid’s on the floor. Opponents scored 104.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time Embiid minutes last season, per Cleaning the Glass. For context, the league-worst Warriors had a 104.9 offensive rating.
There are, however, areas in which Embiid and the Sixers can improve defensively. Under Brett Brown and Ime Udoka, the Sixers’ defensive coordinator last year, the team usually asked its guards to fight over screens and had big men drop into what Udoka called “center field.” Al Horford ventured beyond center field more than Embiid, but the Sixers preferred to stick with their core pick-and-roll coverage in most situations.
“Long before analytics told us about the three-point shot, pick-and-roll defense kept coaches up,” Brown said two years ago. “It hasn’t changed. When you really get back to the notion of what are you prepared to die on, it’s as simple as a long, contested two."
One compelling argument for pushing Embiid further up in pick-and-roll coverage is deterrence for pull-up shooters like the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker and the Nets’ Kyrie Irving. If perimeter defenders are failing time and time again to work on top of screens and open pull-up jumpers are therefore available to the extent that they’re efficient shots, it’s logical to switch things up.
The early indications are that Burke plans to have Embiid play more “up to touch,” meaning Embiid should be able to reach out and touch the back of the screener.
“He’s been up at the level of the screen,” Justin Anderson said Monday of Embiid. “He’s been switching off on guys, he’s been guarding some smalls, sliding his feet really well, keeping guys in front. He’s really bought in, he’s been a willing defender — very different from what I’ve seen in the past.
“Our coaches challenge him. Coach DB is challenging him to be up to touch, and he’s sliding his feet. After practice just talking to him about how he feels, he’s been feeling great. For him to say he’s feeling great and to also be up to touch and guard guys, it speaks to his hunger and his willingness to try to take his game to the next level.”
Embiid confirmed Thursday that the pick-and-roll coverages have been varied during training camp. He’s acclimating to the changes, though admitted he’s wary about being placed in vulnerable positions against smaller players. That might happen if a guard takes a poor angle on a play and Embiid, extended out to the three-point line, is isolated against a shifty scorer.
“Yeah, of course that’s been an emphasis,” he said. “I feel like you’ve got to mix it up. Being 7 feet, you can also have limitations as far as the way you move and the way you react. The times that we’ve been running (up to touch) in practice, at times it’s a little bit hard, because it puts me in a bad spot. So I think it’s just about getting comfortable every single day. And of course I’ve always done what the coaches ask me to do. Hopefully, it does work. But if it doesn’t, we also as a team have to make adjustments.”
As Anderson alluded to, it’s another physical challenge for Embiid, in addition to Rivers’ plan to increase the Sixers’ pace.
According to Embiid, his body is in a good place.
“I feel great,” he said. “This is my seventh year — I’m getting up there. I guess I’m getting old. I’ve learned a lot and I feel like this (offseason) is the one that I tried to really focus on it by having my own chef, nutritionist, my own PT and massage therapist. Just doing whatever I can to take care of my body so I’m able to play 20 years here in Philly.
“I think that’s the thing I’ve learned the most since I’ve been in the league. It was a short time between the end of this past season and this new season, but it’s a work in progress. Got to start somewhere, but it’s been going great. Still learning every single day.”