Sixers Star Joel Embiid Puts Team on Notice with Strong Demand

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Getty Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Philadelphia 76ers project to field one of the league’s deepest rosters next season. The team made key additions to the rotation this summer by adding De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House, and Montrezl Harrell to a second unit that already featured Matisse Thybulle and Georges Niang.

The Sixers are also headlined by superstars Joel Embiid and James Harden, along with rising star Tyrese Maxey. It’s a wealth of offensive firepower: Embiid won the league’s scoring title last season, Harden is a former MVP and pick-and-roll maestro, and Maxey shot nearly 43% from deep last season.

But Embiid has his sights on proving that the Sixers are more than just offense. At media day on September 26, Embiid shared his goal for the Sixers this season, demanding the same from his teammates in the process.

[W]e know what we have to do, and then for us our focus is on defense. We aim to be the best defensive team in the league. And that’s going to take all of us,” Embiid said.

If Embiid & Co. expect to put out a league-leading defense, it will require the former Jayhawk to rediscover his old ways next season.

Can Joel Embiid Regain All-Defense Form?

Since making his debut for the Sixers in 2016, Embiid has made three All-Defensive Second Teams (2017, 2018, 2020). In all three of those seasons, Embiid finished top-15 in defensive win-shares.

And while Embiid didn’t earn All-Defense honors last season, his defensive win-shares actually peaked last year: he finished with the league’s fourth-best figure.  His defensive rating, though, was the highest of his career last year (105).

Some of that defensive drop-off came as a result of Embiid being forced to manage the lionshare of offensive duties after Ben Simmons requested a trade. Instead of focusing on being that domineering paint presence on defense, Embiid expended his energy on the other end of the floor, to great effect (see: scoring title).

This season, Embiid enters with more capable defenders on the roster (PJ Tucker, De’Anthony Melton) and far more offensive firepower (Harden, Maxey). The depth and offensive help should allow Embiid to fall back on his old defensive ways, as Rich Hofmann of The Athletic noted.

“Last season, when Embiid was tasked with doing everything, the Sixers gave up 109.0 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. That is good, the 80th percentile of all players per Cleaning The Glass, but it was the lowest mark of his career. With a better, deeper team, might Embiid burn some more fuel on the defensive end?,” Hofmann wrote on September 21.

Yes, Embiid can be the point-person for Philadelphia’s defense. But if the Sixers are to have a premier defense, Embiid will need help from his supporting cast — a tall task.

Can Embiid’s Supporting Cast Improve Defensively?

Last season, the Sixers finished with the league’s 12th-best defense based on defensive rating. While that number were bolstered by top-ten finishes in blocks and steals, the team was below average in defensive rebounding (19th in the league).

It’s hard to imagine Harden suddenly finding another gear defensively after a career of lackluster play. But there’s still hope for his backcourt partner Tyrese Maxey to make defensive improvements. Fortunately, he’s trended in the right direction over the last two seasons, per 538’s RAPTOR stat.

The addition of PJ Tucker should also solve problems defensively. In Tucker, the Sixers have a go-to option to stick on the opposing team’s best player. Last season, those duties went to Matisse Thybulle, who, while effective, left the Sixers playing four-on-five offensively.

In all, the Sixers should have a far more balanced defense next season. Whether they can overcome the Boston Celtics for the league’s best remains to be seen.

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