Joel Embiid Needs Space to Be a Hero

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2020

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 11: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts during a game against the LA Clippers on February 11, 2020 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Joel Embiid introduced a little drama to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday. One night later, he helped erase it during a 110-103 home win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," Embiid posted on Instagram on Monday, invoking Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent. He seemingly shared that quote in response to the cold reception his Sixers received during Sunday's win over the Chicago Bulls.

After Philly gave up a wide-open three to Bulls guard Zach LaVine toward the end of the third quarter, some Sixers fans began booing the team. Embiid helped Philadelphia come from behind to steal the win, but his repeated shushing of the crowd was the biggest story to emerge from the game.

"I don't care how it looks," he told reporters afterward. 

All of that likely would've been enough to put everyone on edge for Tuesday's national TV broadcast against the title-contending Clippers. But Embiid's ensuing social media activity all but assured that.

Miami Heat All-Star swingman and former 76er Jimmy Butler replied to Embiid's Monday post, saying, "I know a place where villains are welcome."

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Embiid replied, "Damn right my brother"

With hot-take machines in full gear and fans ready to express their opinion on the matter, Embiid received another shower of boos as he was introduced to the home crowd Tuesday.

He entered the arena as the villain, but he exited a hero. And all he had to do was win, play hard and show the Philly fight that has endeared him to Sixers fans over the years.

Embiid finished with 26 points on 8-of-17 shooting, nine rebounds, two assists and a game-sealing block on Marcus Morris.

The crowd was especially worked up for that moment, as Embiid and Morris engaged in a brief kerfuffle shortly beforehand. Some metaphorical fight goes a long way with fans, and Embiid showed plenty of it Tuesday.

It helped that he had a bit more room to operate than usual.

For the first time this season, fellow center Al Horford came off the bench. He still logged 28 minutes, compared to replacement Furkan Korkmaz's 23, but any minutes head coach Brett Brown can find with those two apart are a plus.

Coming into Tuesday's game, Philadelphia was minus-0.9 points per 100 possessions with both centers on the floor, a net rating that ranked in the 48th percentile. It was plus-5.2 (79th percentile) with Horford on the floor and Embiid off, and it was plus-9.6 (94th percentile) when Embiid played without Horford.

To Brown's credit, the sample with both bigs is the smallest of those three, making up only about a fifth of the team's total possessions this season. But the starting frontcourt registering a negative net rating is tough to sell as a positive. And it puts pressure on other lineups to make up the deficit.

As versatile as both centers are, they've grown accustomed to occupying roughly the same areas on the floor. Horford may have a bit more perimeter skill, while Embiid is more of a bruiser around the rim. But generally speaking, both have had a lot of control over their teams' respective offenses from the low to high post over the years.

The crowdedness that comes from playing them together is compounded when non-shooting point guard Ben Simmons is on the floor. Suddenly, three players (and their defenders) naturally gravitate to the middle of the floor, leaving the responsibility to space to Tobias Harris (a 36.4 percent career three-point shooter) and Josh Richardson (36.3 percent).

Occasionally, it worked. Often, it was just a congested mess.

"Spacing is an issue," Embiid told reporters in early February. "Sometimes we play fast, sometimes we play slow. But at the end of the day, when you think about it and as we try to get ready for the playoffs, the game slows down. It becomes a half-court game, and that's where we struggle the most."

There's some truth to that. Philadelphia ranks 20th in the league in points per half-court possession. In a seven-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics or Miami Heat, that spaceless slog just won't cut it.

Tuesday's strategy makes more sense.

Horford came off the bench and didn't spend many minutes with Embiid. Both had more room to operate than usual, and both finished with positive plus/minus ratings.

The additional spacing seemed to help more than just the centers, too. When Simmons doesn't have two big-bodied centers to drive into, he's one of the league's most devastating slashers.

When he's on the floor and at least one of Embiid or Horford is off, Simmons averages 17.2 points (with a 64.5 true shooting percentage) and 9.2 assists per 75 possessions. When all three are on the floor, Simmons averages 15.1 points (with a 54.7 true shooting percentage) and 6.1 assists per 75 possessions.

Given the wide-ranging skill sets of Embiid, Horford and Simmons, it wasn't hard to see why the Sixers' front office thought they could all work together. But nearly three quarters of the way into the season, there's enough evidence to know it's time to go in another direction.

Ultimately, if more space (or a little drama) unlocks the idealized version of Embiid, Philly might be able to reclaim its status as a legitimate contender.

When he's engaged, he's borderline unstoppable.

"Embiid running the floor hard and getting a deep seal negates so many offensive problems for the Sixers," The Athletic's Dave DuFour tweeted after Embiid buried Ivica Zubac under the rim before drawing a foul on Tuesday. "Easy buckets."

On nights like this, defenders often have no choice but to foul or give up a layup to Embiid. He went 8-of-13 from the stripe against L.A., improving his team's record to 9-4 (.692) when he takes at least 10 free-throw attempts. The Sixers are 25-17 (.595) in all other games.

When the Sixers surround Embiid with floor-spacers and tailor their lineups to give him more opportunities in the middle of the floor, things just make more sense.

And when Embiid and the Sixers are flowing, the big man can play the villain to opponents rather than to the home crowd.

ESPN Senior writer and podcaster Zach Lowe returns to The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss Kobe Bryant’s game and legacy, missed trade deadline opportunities by  Miami, Orlando and Oklahoma City, buyout season, and the plights of Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets.