All it takes for an NBA defense to neutralize a typical post-up is a little bit of organization. It’s simple enough to station a few defenders within range of a posting giant, to pounce and swipe at the ball when he eventually makes his move. Even teams giving up size can run enough interference to make passing the ball into the post a chore, and scramble enough once it gets there to turn the shot clock in their favor. When pitted against efficient pick-and-roll machines that manufacture layup opportunities and open 3s, high-volume post play—like many of its Jurassic practitioners—is too cumbersome to be worth the trouble.
Joel Embiid is the towering exception. Every game Embiid plays in is a game about Embiid. He is, if not the main character, its central theme. Long before he can begin pummeling overmatched big men down on the block, opposing coaches are forced to reconsider their entire approach to defense. Should they double? Should they try that zone they’ve barely had time to practice? Embiid all but wrests away the lineup card and adjusts his opponent’s rotation himself—first by demanding that the biggest, beefiest center available match up with him in the starting lineup, and then by drawing so many fouls as to call second- and third-stringers into play.
Embiid is to the post-up what Kevin Durant is to the midrange jumper—not a savior of the medium, but an anomaly who overwhelms the math. So far this season, Embiid is hitting 70.6 percent of his shots from his go-to spot on the left block, according to NBA.com, an ungodly figure that doesn’t even include the free throws he generates on pump fakes and rip-throughs. That ability to draw fouls out of the post is an aberration in and of itself; in a league where post and perimeter play are officiated as two completely different sports, Embiid has taken to increasingly Hardenesque gamesmanship as a way to force a whistle. An official might not call a two-handed shove in Embiid’s back if he tried to plod his way into a hook shot, but facing up and flailing through the outstretched arms of a defender has given him a path to a league-leading (and career-best) 10.7 free throw attempts a game.
(Even Nikola Jokic, Embiid’s only real peer in terms of post play, draws fouls only about half as often down low.)
Some stars thrive by finding the cracks in the defense. Embiid has instead taken to steamrolling entire defensive systems, and flattening the logic that brought them into existence in the first place. That’s a profound impact—enough for the Sixers to hold firm on their reported trade offer for James Harden, even if that meant knowing the Nets would outbid them for the former MVP. After all, Philly could well have an MVP of its own; Embiid has made the most compelling case for the award to this point as the two-way anchor for the top-seeded team in the East. Keeping him and Ben Simmons together was the Sixers’ best chance at a championship-level defense. The key to Philly’s success, however, remains the same: whether Embiid, whose scoring largely defies the logic of modern basketball, could sustain Philadelphia’s offense without significant development from his All-NBA teammate or the addition of another.
Perhaps that sort of framing is a moot point, as the Sixers have scored as efficiently as any team in the league when their two stars have shared the floor this season—an alarming development for opponents considering Philly’s already outstanding defense. The requisite qualifier is that Philadelphia’s schedule has been incredibly forgiving; even the few games the Sixers have played against higher-quality opponents have been softened by injuries and COVID-related absences. (Wednesday’s meeting with the Lakers should be fascinating—both as a collision of MVP favorites and a more sophisticated test for Philadelphia’s offense.) The practical shift, however, is that Embiid and Simmons are flanked by more reputable shooters than ever before, headlined by Seth Curry (who currently sits second all-time in career 3-point percentage), three-time champion Danny Green, and the newly reliable Tobias Harris. Embiid has been an uncommonly effective low-post scorer for years. The translation of that skill set to stable, contending offense really might be as simple as giving him room to breathe.
“Nowadays in the NBA, you’ve gotta be able to shoot the ball,” Embiid said before the season, in praising the new acquisitions. “You’ve gotta be able to space the floor. It’s hard to play just inside-out all the time. I lead the league in post-ups, or I led it last year or the past few years. But people still want me to post up more. That’s understandable, but then again, you’ve gotta find a balance in between making sure everybody’s involved and also giving me the ball.”
There are more points of entry for the offense this season under new coach Doc Rivers, though every possession still points in some way toward Embiid. There are hand-offs between Embiid and Curry, kick-outs between Embiid and Harris, and even close-quarters pick-and-rolls where Simmons will come down to screen Embiid’s defender as he’s posting up, an action that often develops too quickly for the defense to react. More committed spacing also has allowed Embiid enough freedom of movement to catch passes on the perimeter and literally walk his man down to the block:
All the while, Simmons lurks along the baseline on the opposite side of the lane, ready to scavenge off the duck-ins and offensive rebounds that come when a post threat like Embiid unsettles an entire defense. “Our relationship continues to grow,” Simmons says. “We talk a lot more in terms of being on the floor and certain things we say. Knowing where he wants the ball, all the sets, and getting a good flow in the game and just trying to read it the right way.” After a recent game, Embiid texted Simmons to apologize for missing his cuts—an acknowledgment, in a way, of their shifting dynamic. Further establishing Embiid as an every-possession option on the block only has been possible because of Simmons’s willingness to broaden his responsibilities beyond those of a typical point guard. ”Little things like that,” Simmons says, “continue to help the team chemistry grow.”
Opponents jet-setting through the regular season have been overwhelmed by Embiid, and in some cases undone by his passing out of pressure. There is an appreciable poise to his game now—first physically, as the younger Joel played as though he were constantly teetering over, and now mentally, as he reads the game with improving clarity. “I feel like he’s taking his time,” Simmons observes. Meeting the challenge of the playoffs—when opponents will have more time to plan for a post-heavy offense—will put those reads to the test, but the promise of Embiid’s individual advantage is not something that can be schemed away. Any best-laid game plan against the Sixers will amount, on some level, to weathering the storm.
Under Rivers, the Sixers have taken to repeating successful sets and actions until opponents find a way to stop them. But what if Embiid can’t be stopped? What if, at a time when the vast majority of teams have moved toward leaner, more agile bigs, there’s no real solution for a 7-footer inviting pressure and beating it? This isn’t a thought exercise—it was the Celtics’ brutal reality when they met the Sixers in back-to-back games last week, and gave up 80 points to Embiid en route to two straight losses. This was their fate, doomed to be repeated:
Things didn’t go much better for the Bam-less Heat, who had their own back-to-back tussle with Embiid the week prior. In the opening game, he put up 45 points and 16 rebounds in an overtime win for the Sixers. In the rematch, Philadelphia built enough of an early lead to give its center the rest of the night off. Throughout both games, Embiid beat calculated defenses with the kind of patient post play they’re designed to stop:
On that possession, Miami had four defenders crowding Embiid in the paint, and one sprinting in from the perimeter for a hard double. None of it meant a damn thing. Rookie center Precious Achiuwa was so concerned with playing honest, hands-free defense that he allowed one of the game’s most confident scorers to slink into a turnaround jumper. The only way to combat Embiid’s physicality is with matching force, which Embiid will exploit to draw a foul. Avoiding the call, however, submits a defender to a positional game they are destined to lose—one in which a bigger, stronger player will mash them into the paint until a basket comes easy. Most of Embiid’s lower-scoring performances this season came against increasingly desperate defenses. No player sees more outright double-teams in the post than Embiid, according to Synergy Sports, less because the strategy is effective than because it’s less certain to fail.
These are the stakes of every sequence where Embiid, after testing an opponent with a requisite pump fake at the 3-point line, ushers them graciously down into the torture chamber. The terror of his game comes from how it meets a defense directly, combatively, overcoming its designed purpose. Even perfectly executed schemes have their limits. Embiid is showing how he can live in a crowd and still control everything. He’s proving that any extra help defender in his path is just another mark to sell a foul. The most daunting failures often come after everything goes according to plan. This is where Embiid leaves an opponent: exhausted, often defeated, and at a loss as to whether any of their efforts really mattered.