Daryl Morey was largely credited for improving the roster of role players around Embiid and Simmons in just a month’s worth of offseason—namely improving spacing and shooting. However, despite a 3-1 record entering Thursday’s matchup with the Magic, the Sixers were hitting at just 30.7% from deep (4th lowest in the NBA).
The reality is the team was creating open looks that just weren’t falling, and it was only a matter of time until the lid came off. That moment came in a lights-out shooting performance vs Orlando that saw the Sixers shoot 56.3% from the field and 10/17 from deep on the way to a 75-point first half.
While there wasn’t much statistical evidence through the first four games that would suggest a more spaced and competent offensive roster around Joel and Ben, Thursday’s effort is hard proof of the improvements between this Sixers roster and past teams. You can see positives on just about every play from the blowout win over Orlando, but we only need to lock in on one possession from the first quarter to display a handful of these basic, yet critical improvements.
Three keys that contribute to the success of this possession:
- Embiid baiting & navigating the double team
- Optimal spacing
- Productive use of Simmons off-ball
It all starts with Ben clearing to the weak side dunker spot and Tobias dumping an entry pass into Embiid for the post-up.
Rather than immediately launching into attack mode, Embiid surveys the defense to determine a) where the defense’s help is, and b) whether or not he’s about to face a double team.
Once Joel identifies Michael Carter-Williams closing in to double him he gather dribbles and kicks the ball out to Tobias in a single motion.
It’s simple, yes, but Embiid hasn’t reliably handled double teams through his career; in the past he’s tended to force looks through doubles, both as a result of immaturity and a lack of reliable shooting around him. Through five games we can already see that habit changing—he’s mostly been patient, anticipatory, and decisive in response to extra defenders—and this is just one example of that.
The next key that needs to be pointed out in this play is spacing.
Could you buy some inches on that floor here and there? Sure, but each player is at least 15 feet away from another with the exception of Ben and Shake on the backside (who are no less than 10 ft apart), and that’s a hell of a lot better than what we’ve seen over the past few years—blame it on the roster, blame it on Brett, but the spacing you see in the above frame has been consistent through five games.
The final key to this play is the way Ben is used off-ball. In this instance, when Embiid kicks it out and the defense begins to shuffle, Fultz is responsible for rotating off Simmons on the block and out to Milton on the wing, and MCW is responsible for replacing onto Simmons (see below).
On the backside of this play, Simmons’ job is to screen whoever is rotating to Milton (in this case, Fultz). We see in the next frame that Ben does a good job of sliding in front of Fultz, who’s unable to fight over the screen and out to Milton.
MCW recognizes that Fultz is fully consumed by Simmons and tries to close out on Milton instead. Simmons continues to slide up the floor and into the path of MCW—succesfully screening both defenders responsible for rotating to the backside of the defense, and freeing up a wide-open Milton three.
Here’s the play in full again:
A lot of what you see in the play above is elementary, but these things weren’t consistent for the Sixers in the Brett Brown era. Possessions with Ben playing off-ball almost always used to end in a jumbled mess, with Ben not sure how to occupy himself. What you see above is a player who understands both how to carve out space in the interior, and how to contribute without the ball in his hands. On top of that, the Sixers spacing has improved dramatically from a season ago. We didn’t need Thursday’s performance to show us that, but it’s nice to have this sort of shooting effort as early validation.
Both of these developments clearly make for a more comfortable Joel Embiid, who’s been elite through five games and has seemingly turned the corner in his ability to handle double teams and read a defense. If these sort of improvements are here to stay, and the Sixers continue to get the quality of looks they have through these first five games, then Thursday’s win over Orlando should quickly become the norm rather than the exception.