The Joel Embiid, James Harden pick-and-roll could be the championship key for the 76ers

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Optimizing the combination of James Harden and Joel Embiid for the 76ers means utilizing the pick-and-roll, a play neither player has used much the past few years.

With the NBA playoffs less than three weeks away, teams are clawing for spots within the standings, looking to cement their seeding, avoid play-in games, and secure the best possible route to playoff supremacy. In the upper half of the Eastern Conference, three teams sit within two and a half games of the first seed. One of those teams is the Philadelphia 76ers, who have renewed championship aspirations after acquiring guard James Harden at this year’s trade deadline.

Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia was controversial, surrounded by broken relationships, another disgruntled star, and two teams in the Atlantic Division with generational talents, desperate to maximize their championship windows. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Sixers, has had a longstanding relationship with Harden, dating back to their days in Houston together. Since departing from Houston, Morey has openly advocated for Harden to end up in Philly and join forces with Joel Embiid, an MVP candidate this season.

Embiid, much like Harden, is an undeniably brilliant offensive talent, capable of decimating his defender with an arsenal that has only expanded with each passing year. Individually, the two have been dominant. In his 13 games in Philly, Harden has averaged 23 points, 9.9 assists, and 7.6 rebounds, while Embiid has averaged just under 30 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on the season. Together, they have formed a nearly unstoppable pick-and-roll, and have shown subtle glimpses of becoming one of the most lethal offensive duos of our generation.

Outside of the pick-and-roll, Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia has bolstered an offense that ranks just outside of the top-10 in offensive rating this season, 10th in true shooting percentage (57.3 percent), and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.88). Embiid’s MVP-caliber year and Tyrese Maxey’s breakout were enough to keep the Sixers afloat throughout the first half of the season, but James Harden has seemingly unlocked another layer of Doc Rivers’ offense.

Even with an iso-oriented, heliocentric star like Harden, the Sixers have benefited greatly from his combination of point and shooting guard skills, enabling Maxey to play freely as the gifted three-level scorer he is, and opening the restricted area for Joel Embiid to obliterate his opponent on the block, or for Harden to penetrate and force defenses to collapse. Ranking second in the league in assists with 10.1, Harden has thrived in his role as the facilitator in an offense filled with willing scorers in Tobias Harris, Embiid and Maxey, who balance out the floor by forcing defenses to commit and keeping scoring opportunities plentiful for everyone involved.

The pick-and-roll plays to the strengths of James Harden and Joel Embiid, minimizing their weaknesses

Within the pick-and-roll, Embiid and Harden are still a work in progress, but the recent success has been undeniable. This season, Embiid is top five in the NBA in points out of the pick-and-roll (as the roll man), with an average of 5.1 points per game.

This season, Harden ranks inside the top 30 in the NBA in free throw frequency percentage out of the pick-and-roll, with an average of just under 16 percent. He also ranks just outside the top 25 in points per possession out of the pick and roll, with an average of 6.3 per game. Harden’s immediate success within this new play, particularly with Embiid, is incredibly impressive considering how seldom he’s run the pick-and-roll recently. In Houston, Mike D’antoni diverted further and further away from traditional lineups, often utilizing ‘small ball’ lineups to leave ample room for Harden to create.

While this granted Harden space, it also left him without a true pick-and-roll partner, especially after Clint Capela was dealt in 2020. His efficiency hit new levels with an extreme surge in isolations but it also limited the array of options that were available to him. Now, with arguably the game’s best big man, along with Tobias Harris and a burgeoning Tyrese Maxey, Harden is well-equipped to make the pick-and-roll Philadelphia’s most unstoppable play on offense.

While Harden’s effectiveness has been remarkable, Joel Embiid’s recent success within the pick and roll might be even more impressive, especially considering the minimal experience he’s had running the play in the NBA. Outside of Ben Simmons, Embiid has never played alongside an elite passing guard, particularly one who’s capable of scoring on all three levels, or one who’s proficient in the pick-and-roll. More importantly, Embiid has dominated as a one-on-one threat throughout his career, beating his defender with an array of low-post moves, face-ups, and jumpers.

Simply put, Embiid has never needed the pick-and-roll as a staple within his playing style, because his game never required it. Nevertheless, Embiid has adapted and thrived in the pick-and-roll this year. According to the NBA Court Optix stats, he has set an average of 19.6 screens per game for Harden since the two joined forces. That’s just a hair less than he’s averaged for every other ball-handler on the 76ers roster, combined (21.8). The 76ers have averaged an eye-popping 1.22 points per possession anytime Embiid has set a screen for Harden, regardless of how the play progresses after the screen.

As the roll man, Embiid’s size and skillset keep defenses at a constant disadvantage, allowing him to simply read whatever the opposition decides to give up. Shooting 36.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, Embiid’s touch forces defenses to commit to guarding him on the perimeter, pulling them away from the paint, and leaving room for driving opportunities. Not only does the 7-footer bring opposing bigs out to the free-throw line extended, but he also forces them to close out all the way to the 3-point line, widening the space within the pick-and-roll, and making him just as dangerous in the pick-and-pop.

What’s even more dangerous is that Embiid operating as the roll man enables him to gain momentum going downhill, leaving defenses vulnerable to giving up fouls, easy points, or both. In addition to being dominant in the low post (Embiid is second in post-ups per game this season), Embiid is now forming into an exceptional roll man, adding another element to his ever-expanding game, and another dimension to Philadelphia’s offense.

It can’t go unnoticed that in addition to being phenomenal offensively, Embiid and Harden are two of the most prolific foul-drawers in the league. As of today, Embiid and Harden are first and third in both free throws made and attempted per game. As a team, the Sixers lead the NBA in free-throw percentage, with an average of 82 percent from the charity stripe. This intangible keeps constant pressure on opposing defenses, forcing them to play sound, solid defense, which still often isn’t enough in certain spots on the floor. Embiid, (who is averaging a career-high of 11.7 free throws per game) has been especially adept at getting to the line, utilizing his exquisite, Olajuwon-like footwork to keep defenders on their toes.

Embiid has become an absolute nightmare to guard, baiting opposing bigs with head fakes, dropping his shoulders into smaller centers, and forcing slower ones to cover him on the perimeter, where he’s just as dangerous. Embiid’s playing style is a true testament to the past and present, as his game incorporates the old-school dominance of low-post big men, with a modernized skillset and feel for the game that doesn’t restrict him to the paint, and instead allows him to float on to the perimeter, giving him a multitude of spots on the floor to attack his defender. Drawing fouls at a high rate is one of the most uniquely acquired skills in the league, and it’s incredible that the Sixers have two of the best as the focal points in their offense, in addition to their outstanding shot creation abilities.

As phenomenal as Embiid and Harden are, legitimate questions remain around the new tandem. Can Embiid’s body sustain a deep playoff run after an MVP-caliber season? Can Harden guide a championship-caliber team as the sole floor general? And possibly the biggest question of all: Can two such massively gifted offensive talents defer enough to one another to be truly 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 look to capitalize on however much they can get through this year’s playoffs. The shades of brilliance between this duo have been apparent, but it remains to be seen how much their games will continue to assimilate this season. With their last Conference Finals appearance coming in 2001, Philadelphia fans are desperate for another shot at a title. After a whirlwind of a year, it looks like they might finally have the roster to compete for one — if the pieces come together quickly enough.

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