Sixers Reveal Secret to Improved Ball Movement During Winning Streak

Joel Embiid, Sixers

Getty Joel Embiid #21 and James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers react during overtime against the Toronto Raptors at Wells Fargo Center on December 19, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Flashback to a few weeks ago and there was some real panic surrounding the lack of ball movement within the Philadelphia 76ers‘ offense. Through the first 26 games of the season, they ranked 27th in pace and there was a tendency for the ball to stick in both the hands of James Harden and Joel Embiid. While the manageable schedule is playing a role in the Sixers’ current six-game winning streak, the style of play has taken some massive strides forward. Harden and Embiid are finding ways to maximize each other on the court and the ball movement has been effective in creating looks for the complementary floor spacers as well.

Following the Sixers’ dominant 113-93 victory over the Pistons, this change in the style of play was a theme pointed out by the team. Tobias Harris, who has been playing some of the best basketball of his career, was asked about the biggest takeaway of this winning streak so far. The veteran replied simply, “If I had to pinpoint two things, I think it would be pace from time to time and ball movement.”

On the season the Sixers rank 19th in the league in assists per game with 24.2 per night. However, during the recent six-game win streak they are averaging 27.8 assists per night which ranks 3rd in the NBA behind only the Nuggets and Warriors. Their 67.1% assist percentage over this stretch is 2nd in the NBA behind only Golden State.

Embiid’s Influence

At the epicenter of the Sixers’ recent turnaround, and the team’s play as a whole, has been the performance of Embiid. The superstar has shaken off his slow start completely and looks like the MVP candidate that has come to be expected. While his NBA-leading 32.5 points per game are impressive in itself, he also is recording a career-best 4.7 assists per game so far this season.

Embiid’s absence of playmaking and tendency to turn the ball over has been circled as a weakness in the past, but the superstar seems to be taking it more personally this season. This was especially the case during Harden’s absence when Embiid took it upon himself to run the halfcourt sets. During the nine games that Embiid played without Harden, the big man averaged an impressive 6.2 assists per game in addition to his 34.2 points.

Harris also agreed that Embiid has done an improved job this season of playmaking when asked. As the 30-year-old put it, “I just think he’s taking his time out there and really figuring and understanding that he can pick apart a lot of other team’s defenses”

Opposing Defense Forcing Sixers Hands

During his time speaking with the media, Georges Niang revealed some of these changes have been driven by the way defenses are matching up with the Sixers. As he put it, “A lot of teams are sending doubles- I hate giving away the courting report but- like for no reason. Like before he even dribbles. (Embiid)’s doing a great job of just holding the ball and beating them and if they don’t come, then he goes into his move. If they do come right away, just finding someone else and the ball is hopping. We’ve done a great job of making shots and making plays off his playmaking.” Niang has been one of the primary beneficiaries of this as he is launching a career-high 5.5 three-point attempts per game and connecting at a 41.6% rate.

While it may seem simple, this has been something Embiid has struggled with in the past. His tendency to suffer from “tunnel vision” and attempt to do it all himself has hurt the Sixers at times. The growth in his ability to trust his teammates is crucial moving forward and will continue to be put to the test.

Embiid also gave credit to the Toronto Raptors for forcing him to become the playmaker he looks to be this season. The Sixers’ big man has had some of his lowest moments against the scrappy squad, particularly in the postseason. Their unique game plan to guard him has forced him to make changes throughout the years. As he put it when speaking to reporters following Monday’s overtime victory, “They just play recklessly, sending three guys on me as soon as the ball is in the air, which made me better honestly over the years just playing against them and watching them. They definitely made me a better playmaker, so I enjoy playing with them,” per Justin Grasso of Sports Illustrated.

The next step for Embiid and the Sixers will be for this ball movement to continue when facing off against more talented teams. This homestand has been crucial to getting their style of play right, but they now must see how it stacks up against the other contenders around the league. Their next test will be on Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers who have plenty to prove as well.

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