Joel Embiid bullies the 3-point revolution
On Daryl Morey's team, analytics teach more than one lesson
BY TOM HABERSTROH
Las Vegas odds call Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid the favorite to win this year’s NBA MVP award. The 7-foot, 280-pounder is averaging 30.2 points and 11.6 points on the East’s best team, and he’s incredibly old school. Joel Embiid has ascended by tweaking his game away from what most of the league is doing. The 26-year-old is:
Taking fewer 3-pointers than ever
Firing up a career-high 5.8 mid-range jumpers, the third-most in the NBA
Taking by far the most post-ups in the NBA
Enjoying the most efficient season of his career
Simply put, Embiid is a throwback’s throwback. He’s the modern Hakeem Olajuwon, but bigger.
Late in the fourth-quarter of a close game against the league’s best team, Embiid was covered by legendary defender Rudy Gobert. So what did Embiid do? They sometimes call it smashmouth basketball. He called for the ball on the left block. He faced up, put the ball behind his head a la Carmelo Anthony, drove hard to the baseline, powered his way to the rim in a way that left the two-time defensive player of the year on the floor. That was two of Embiid’s 40 points that he tallied in the win against the NBA’s hottest team. It’s like 1990.
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz just wrote a story about the league’s analytics-induced hard pivot to the 3-pointer. NBA teams are taking a record-breaking 34.8 3-pointers per game, up from 24.1 just six years ago. Is it too much?
It’s as if Embiid is dunking in the face of NBA analytics guru Daryl Morey and his whole gang of 3-ball nerds. If there’s a villain in the 40-year war over the 3-pointer, the co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, whose Rockets teams annually smashed 3-point records, is the guy. TNT’s Charles Barkley had a playing style like Embiid’s, and once called Morey “one of those idiots who believes in analytics … I’ve always believed analytics was crap.”
The only problem is: Morey is Embiid’s new boss. They talk all the time. “I actually bought an iPhone,” says Morey, “just so I could FaceTime with Embiid.” (It was a big step for Morey, because, he says, “I really hate Apple products.”)
And, Morey points out, analytics love Embiid just the way he is.
The 76ers lost in the first round last season—missing an injured Ben Simmons. They made a lot of changes, after which Embiid told Morey that this season he would be different.
“He came in with MVP aspirations, championship aspirations,” Morey says.
Different didn’t mean more 3-pointers. The analytics actually suggested otherwise. To Morey, “analytics” has become a dirty word in the public sphere often decoded to mean “shoot more 3s!” But that’s a misconception.
“Really,” Morey told me from his new iPhone, “it’s just using data to make good decisions.”
The data showed that Embiid and the Sixers didn’t need to shoot a lot more 3s to be successful, even if Morey made history, in his Android days, running a Rockets team that set records with James Harden.
Morey points out that it’s not the only way the Rockets won a boatload of games during his time there. When Morey took over the Rockets in 2007, he oversaw a highly-successful Rockets team built around Yao Ming.
“Yao was maybe one of the best 10-feet-in players of all-time efficiency-wise,” Morey says. “Just like Joel.”
Morey sees a lot of similarities. Embiid isn’t as tall as Yao, but his ball-handling and shooting abilities conjure similar nightmares for opponents.
Morey wants high-value shots. The overwhelming data shows that post-ups are not that. Last season, Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle staunchly defended his strategy to not post-up 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, despite calls from TNT’s Inside the NBA crew to have KP parked in the paint. Carlisle rebuked Barkley and company, saying post-ups are now a “low value situation.”
Morey agrees with Carlisle that post-ups aren’t a profitable strategy on average. Key phrase: on average. According to Synergy tracking, a typical post-up yields 0.949 points, one of the least effective play types in the game. But:
Embiid is scoring 1.072 points per post-up.
The best half-court offense in the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets with Harden and Mike D’Antoni on the coaching staff, scores at a 1.070 point clip.
In other words, analytics say post-ups are a fantastic idea—if it’s Joel Embiid doing the posting. On those plays, he’s shooting over 50 percent from the floor and living at the free throw line, where he shoots a tidy 86 percent. (One commonality between Morey’s stars, Harden and Embiid—they both work the referees. Embiid has taken Harden’s place leading all NBA players in free throws).
Embiid tends to put the ball in the basket, which means the opposing team has to take the ball out of the net and start offense from a standstill—a sneaky benefit of Embiid’s high-percentage post-ups.
“There are a lot of subtle things missed by shooting higher percentage shots even if they are 2s,” Morey says. “More often, the other team is going against our halfcourt defense, which is No. 1 in the league when Joel (Embiid) and Ben (Simmons) are playing.”
It turns out that the analytics don’t always prescribe 3-pointers. Under Morey, the Sixers are taking fewer 3s than they have in years.
“I’m worried about winning,” Morey says. “I’m not worried about how.”
The distaste for the 3-pointer, an advent brought over from the ABA in 1979, is nothing new. Here’s a sampling of quotes from NBA luminaries from a feature story I wrote for ESPN in 2015:
Gregg Popovich: “I still hate it … it’s not basketball.”
Larry Bird: “I don’t know why I never liked it. I really don’t like it.”
Pat Riley: “Today, there’s too much emphasis on the 3-point shot.”
Data shows that 3s are more common than ever. Data doesn’t show it has radically altered the game. By and large the change has meant that shots that were once long 2-pointers now tend to be taken from a few feet further back.
The voices screaming that the 3s must be stopped might be people who were never going to like 3s, under any circumstances.
Also important, though: 3-pointers are no small part of Embiid’s MVP campaign.
The Tom Thibodeaus of the world have long had incredible schemes to jam up the favorite attacking moves of big men like Embiid. Even a semi can get stuck in traffic. With center Al Horford on the floor last season, Embiid lacked oxygen, and had to battle through help defense for paint buckets. One of Morey’s first orders of business upon arriving in Philadelphia was to trade shaky distance shooters like Al Horford and Josh Richardson for two of the best 3-point shooters in the game: Danny Green and Seth Curry.
On shots labeled as “open” or “wide-open” 3-pointers on NBA.com, Seth Curry toasts opponents to the tune of 47 percent, or the equivalent of shooting 71 percent on a 2-pointer. This is better than his more famous brother Stephen. In other words, leaving that guy open is defensive insanity.
“I wish that was hard,” Morey says. “People often tell me, ‘Oh, your job must be hard.’ And I’m like, ‘No, sometimes it’s not. Just look up the best shooters ever.’
“Seth was available, we were pretty lucky.”
The very threat of Curry fireballing from deep has helped maximize Embiid’s otherworldly talents, forming a symbiotic relationship akin to a bee and a flower. Attention paid to Embiid gives Curry more room to shoot, and vice versa. With Curry on the floor, Embiid scores 44.3 points per 100 possessions, Embiid’s highest output playing alongside any of the Sixers' regulars.
The same relationship exists for Curry. With Embiid on the floor, Curry scores 20.9 points per 100 possessions, but when Embiid sits, Curry’s effectiveness plummets, scoring just 14.1 points, per NBA.com. Curry gives Embiid space and that oxygen leads to a more unguardable Embiid. The Sixers score a blistering 120.2 points per 100 possessions with Embiid and Curry on the floor, the most efficient two-man pairing on the Sixers roster.
Look at all the space! On this particular possession, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris, and Seth Curry camp out beyond the arc on the right half of the court. With a block of real estate all to himself, Embiid crushed Gobert one-on-one as Utah defenders could only watch from afar.
Interestingly, it’s not an approach that requires a ton of 3s. Curry is taking the fewest 3-pointers of his career. The Sixers as a team take the fifth-fewest in the NBA.
Morey is quick to give credit to new head coach Doc Rivers. Hired a month before Morey, Rivers assembled a coaching staff featuring former head coach Dave Joerger, Sam Cassell, and Dan Burke, that is programming an offense that maximizes Embiid and others around him.
“I can just focus on getting (Rivers) better players, because he’s a championship coach,” Morey says. “He brought in an unbelievable staff.”
The result is that Embiid might win an MVP. Morey hopes voters notice Embiid’s defense. “His defensive impact is so, so high,” Morey says. “Insane, truly insane. I think that’s why we need to be at the top of the conference (for Embiid to win). Defense is a little harder to judge.” (On DunksandThrees, Embiid is an 85th percentile defender this year, after spending most of his career among the very best.)
The Nets and Bucks loom. If the Sixers stumble, other MVP candidates like Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, and Luka Doncic figure to see their cases strengthen.
Other than Curry, all those MVP candidates take more 2s than 3s.
“The game is dynamic and fun,” Morey says. “You can’t just win one way. The scoreboard is all that matters.”
Thank you for reading TrueHoop! In case you missed it, here’s an excerpt from Thursday’s post, by David Thorpe, about Paul George:
Watching a lot of Paul George video this week gave me an idea ...
Do you know who leads the Clippers in assists per game?
Patrick Beverley, the team’s “starting point guard,” is sixth.
Kawhi is a vastly improved passer, averaging 4.9 assists per game this season and last.
Paul George, though, averages 5.4.
This is a huge opportunity. The Clippers are good—24-14, fourth in the West. But ten teams are tightly bunched and won’t all make the playoffs. Eleven times in the next 16 games the Clippers play West teams in the playoff mix. Now is the time to see what they can improve.
The Clippers have 34 regular season games, starting tonight, to see if George can play more as primary ball-handler. If the answer is yes, the Clippers will be a playoff nightmare for opponents.
And there are signals in the Clippers’ on-court play that George might be better suited to the job than you might think.
A former teammate of George’s once told me he “has a way of making his teammates feel comfortable on the court with him.” This trust is important to teamwork, and something to build on.
We heard the stories of Kevin Durant and Draymond Green battling each other. It was Stephen Curry who stepped in and healed the team. "When we returned to the Bay, he was an integral part of trying to repair our spiritual injury," Head Coach Steve Kerr said in a Facebook documentary. "Every good team has to have kind of coalition builders, guys who can build bridges and bring people together, who have the respect of everybody.”
Kawhi has two rings and two Finals MVP awards at home. That machine-like focus, the “Board man gets paid” quip, and, let’s admit it, that laugh. He’s not selfish. But he works best alone. He isn’t the guy who’ll look out for everyone else. Nor is their defensive specialist Patrick Beverley.
Paul George is the player with the game and the skillset to connect the team, perhaps now more than ever—after admitting to some vulnerability last summer. Athletes are taught to be pillars of strength, not showing their human side has long been seen as a virtue. But inside the locker room, vulnerability can lead to strong connection. Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ coach last season, spoke of how a number of players went to visit George in person in his hotel room after he admitted his internal struggles. That’s not a coincidence. The Clippers can build off that.
Right now, today, George isn’t ready to take over full-time ball-handling responsibilities. He is too careless with the ball. His 5.4 assists come with 3.4 turnovers. That ratio needs to be at least over two to one.
But I’d bet on quick progress if George is focused on helping his team this way. I pored over the video, and in a nutshell, it wouldn’t be hard for his turnovers to come way down. Many of George’s turnovers are easily correctable: mis-dribbles that bounce into enemy hands or out of bounds, soft passes into traffic, casual “pocket pases” to rollers after a ball screen, and silly offensive fouls when he puts his elbow into a defender’s face. The game comes VERY EASILY to George. He does not get most of his assists through fancy passes. Instead, they are products of sound reading and ball movement—the simple pass.
The types of turnovers he commits are from a lack of focus, not over-trying. Challenging George to raise his game, to be a leader, is the perfect motivation to tighten that up.
Would playing point guard curb his scoring instincts? I don’t think it’s likely. And the Clippers would do well to cultivate a steady scoring hand that isn’t Kawhi.
It’s a playoff strategy. In the playoffs, there are droughts. Things get dark at least a few times every series. When that happens, one player can’t save the day every time. Having a second guy who can steady the ship is deeply valuable. Playoff rivals in the West are already thinking, “stop Kawhi and we stop the Clippers.” Having the ball in the hands of one of the league’s most efficient shooters would frustrate that analysis.
The more experience George has running the team now, the better. He’s a very skilled ball handler, but can improve. Knowing his usage rate will climb in the playoffs, he can spend five extra minutes a day on his handle now. There are enough days left before the playoffs that five daily minutes can add up to six hours of dribbling work. Free throws, perimeter shots, weak hand finishes—a little bit of extra work, over months, could tighten the skills of an elite ball-handling guard.
You’d be surprised how much a player can evolve at this stage. Through his 30th birthday, Marc Gasol had made a total of 12 3s in his NBA career. In the past five years, he has hit nearly 400. Don’t tell me George can’t tighten his dribble and remove some casual passing errors. Of course he can, and it can start immediately.
A Clippers team that plays off Paul George is weaponized to score when Kawhi is on the court. They have been a top-five offense all season and should be very hard to guard in the playoffs. An empowered George helps diversify the Clippers’ offense. They are already using George in a variety of ways:
primary ball handler
pinch post receiver (leading to split cuts or weakside screens)
off screens away from the ball, as if were Duncan Robinson
That’s all smart, and possibly enough that George can top his best-ever season this year.
This is a season of many contenders. We call it Battle Royale. To win this year means solving the LeBron James/Anthony Davis Lakers, the electric Jazz, the surging Suns, and many other contenders besides. The Clippers need the MVP-candidate George. Placing the ball in his hands on more possessions and asking him to run the team more gives them the best chance. Kawhi had Tony Parker and Kyle Lowry run his previous title teams. That’s George’s job now. If that happens, when they say “Playoff P,” nobody is going to be laughing anymore.