Tweaking the combination of James Harden and Joel Embiid for the 76s means utilizing the pick and roll, a game neither player has used much in recent years.
With the NBA Playoffs less than three weeks away, teams are battling for standings spots, trying to consolidate their standings, avoid play-in games, and secure the best possible path to playoff dominance. In the top half of the Eastern Conference, three teams are behind the first seed within two and a half games. One such team is the Philadelphia 76ers, who have renewed championship aspirations after acquiring guard James Harden at the close of this year.
Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia was controversial, surrounded by broken relationships, another disgruntled star and two Atlantic Division teams with generational talent desperate to maximize their championship windows. Daryl Morey, the Sixers’ general manager, has a long-standing relationship with Harden, dating back to their time together in Houston. Since leaving Houston, Morey has openly advocated for Harden to end up in Philly and team up with Joel Embiid, an MVP candidate this season.
Much like Harden, Embiid is an undeniably brilliant offensive talent, capable of decimating his defenders with an arsenal that only grows with each passing year. Individually, the two were dominant. In his 13 games in Philly, Harden averaged 23 points, 9.9 assists and 7.6 rebounds, while Embiid averaged just under 30 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists during the season. Together, they’ve formed a nearly unstoppable pick-and-roll and provided subtle glimpses into becoming one of the deadliest offensive duos of our generation.
Outside of the pick-and-roll, Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia has bolstered an offense that ranks just outside the top-10 in offensive scoring this season, 10th in true shooting percentage (57.3 percent) and seventh 1st place in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.88). Embiid’s MVP Caliber year and Tyrese Maxey’s outburst were enough to keep the Sixers afloat through the first half of the season, but James Harden seems to have unlocked another layer of Doc River’s offense.
Even with an iso-oriented, heliocentric star like Harden, the Sixers have benefited greatly from his combination of point and shooting guard skills, allowing Maxey to play freely as the gifted three-level scorer that he is, and opens the lockdown area for Joel Embiid to obliterate his opponent on the block, or to penetrate Harden and force the defense to collapse. Harden, second in the league with 10.1 assists, has proven himself in his role as go-between in an offense full of willing scorers in Tobias Harris, Embiid and Maxey, who level the playing field by forcing the defense to tighten engage and get scoring chances, successfully develops everyone involved.
The pick and roll plays to James Harden and Joel Embiid’s strengths and minimizes their weaknesses
Within the pick-and-roll, Embiid and Harden are still work in progress, but recent success has been undeniable. This season, Embiid is the NBA’s top 5 in points from the pick-and-roll (as a rollman), averaging 5.1 points per game.
This season, Harden ranks in the top 30 in the NBA for pick-and-roll free throw frequency, with an average of just under 16 percent. He also ranks just outside the top 25 in points per possession from the pick and roll, with an average of 6.3 per game. Harden’s instant success in this new game, especially with Embiid, is incredibly impressive considering how rarely he’s picked and rolled lately. In Houston, Mike D’antoni continued to deviate from traditional lineups, often using “small ball” lineups to give Harden room to create.
While that gave Harden space, it also left him without a real pick-and-roll partner, especially after Clint Capela was dealt in 2020. Its efficiency reached a new level with an extreme increase in isolations, but it also limited the range of available options at its disposal. Now, with arguably the best big man in the game, along with Tobias Harris and an up-and-coming Tyrese Maxey, Harden is well-equipped to make the pick-and-roll Philadelphia the most unstoppable play on offense.
While Harden’s performance was notable, Joel Embiid’s recent pick-and-roll success might be even more impressive, especially given the minimal experience he’s had leading the game in the NBA. Outside of Ben Simmons, Embiid has never played with an elite passing guard, particularly one capable of scoring at all three levels or one skilled in pick-and-roll. More importantly, Embiid dominated his entire career as a one-on-one opponent, defeating his defender with a series of low post moves, face-ups and jumps.
Simply put, Embiid has never required the pick and roll to be an integral part of his playstyle because his game has never required it. Still, this year Embiid has adapted to the pick-and-roll and thrived. According to NBA Court Optix stats, he has averaged 19.6 screens per game for Harden since the two merged. That’s just a hair less than he averaged for every other ballhandler on the 76ers roster combined (21.8). The 76ers have averaged a staggering 1.22 points per possession every time Embiid screened Harden, regardless of how play progresses after the screen.
As a roleplayer, Embiid’s size and abilities keep defenses at a constant disadvantage, allowing him to easily read what opponents are giving up. Embiid shoots 36.7 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, Embiid’s touch forces the defense to guard him on the perimeter, pulling them away from the paint and leaving room for driving opportunities. Not only does the 7-footer get opposing bigs onto the extended free-throw line, but it also forces them to close all the way to the 3-point line, expanding the space within the pick-and-roll and making it just as dangerous in pick and pop.
What’s even more dangerous is that Embiid, acting as a role man, allows him to gain momentum when the going is downhill and leaves the defense vulnerable to giving up fouls, easy points, or both. Not only is Embiid dominant at the low post (Embiid is second in post-ups per game this season), but he’s also emerging as an exceptional Rollman, adding another element to his ever-expanding game and another dimension to Philadelphia’s offense.
It can’t go unnoticed that Embiid and Harden are not only phenomenal on offense, but are also two of the league’s most prolific foul pullers. As of today, Embiid and Harden are first and third in both free throws and attempts per game. As a team, the Sixers lead the NBA in free throw percentage, averaging 82 percent from the charity streak. This intangible factor keeps opposing defenses under constant pressure, forcing them to put up solid defenses that often fall short at certain points on the floor. Embiid (who averages a career-high 11.7 free throws per game) was particularly adept at getting down the line, using his exquisite, Olajuwon-like footwork to keep defenders on their toes.
Embiid has become an absolute nightmare to guard as he lures opposing bigs with head fakes, dropping his shoulders into smaller centers and forcing slower ones to cover him at the perimeter where he is just as dangerous. Embiid’s playstyle is a true testament to the past and present, as his game incorporates old-school low-post-big-men dominance with a modernized skillset and feel for the game that doesn’t limit him to color, but instead enables him allows him to levitate to the perimeter, giving him a multitude of points on the ground to attack his defender. Drawing high-rate fouls is one of the most unique skills in the league, and it’s incredible that the Sixers have two of their best offense focal points alongside their outstanding shot-making skills.
As phenomenal as Embiid and Harden are, legitimate questions remain about the new tandem. After an MVP season, can Embiid’s body survive a deep playoff run? As the sole ground general, can Harden lead a championship-caliber team? And perhaps the biggest question of all: Can two such highly gifted offensive talents put off enough of each other to be really successful? While it’s hard not to wonder what kind of chemistry Harden and Embiid will have after a full season, Doc Rivers and his staff will be looking to capitalize on what they can bring through this year’s playoffs. The brilliance between this duo was evident, but it remains to be seen how much their games will continue to align this season. With their last appearance at the Conference Finals in 2001, Philadelphia fans are desperate for another shot at a title. After a whirlwind year, it looks like they’ll finally have the list to contend for one – if the pieces come together fast enough.
https://fansided.com/2022/04/08/joel-embiid-james-harden-pick-roll-76ers/ Joel Embiid’s pick-and-roll, James Harden could be a championship key