How A Coach And A Trade Unlocked A New Level To Joel Embiid’s Dominance

Joel Embiid’s cannon-ball launch into this season has left many open jaws in awe at what may come next. After an offseason in which Philadelphia pivoted to head coach Nick Nurse, Embiid’s MVP encore has unlocked new levels of scoring dominance rarely seen in the NBA landscape. But in a year that rocked closer to a transition period for the Sixers‘ big man, it was a trade, and a coach, that has ignited the catalyst for what has become a historically dominant year.

Setting A Nearly Unreachable Offensive Bar

If the name Wilt Chamberlain is familiar to you it is probably somewhat connected to stories about the famous ‘100-point game’ painting Wilt as a giant among little kids in the neighborhood playground. The 1961-1962 Philadelphia Warriors were an iconic team, led by five (!) Hall of Fame players including Chamberlain’s own 50 (!!) points per game. While today’s NBA has leveled up the competition making it nearly impossible to duplicate such counting stats. Embiid’s 2023-2024 season is trending towards similar cartoonish-level dominance on a per-minute basis.

PLAYERS AVERAGING 36 OR MORE POINTS PER 36 MINUTES IN A SEASON PER STATMUSE (MIN. 2000 MINUTES)

Climbing the ladder of what some experts consider the greatest player of all time is no easy feat. But even in the context of the season Wilt registered his legendary ‘100-point’ game, Embiid stands out as the more indestructible force by NBA’s advanced metrics. Carrying a substantially larger credit for his team’s win success. The Sixers’ big man is currently on a near pace-setting standard among other MVP winners.

MVP WINNERS WITH WIN SHARES PER 48 GREATER THAN .300 (PER BASKETBALL REFERENCE)

No matter where you look Embiid’s season is on record to set a legendary offensive precedence. But after last year’s playoff flameout coupled with James Harden’s trade demands, the path to this point seemed a bit out of reach. Nevertheless, Philadelphia leaned heavily on change this offseason, and with such force, ancient basketball concepts were replaced by modern ones. In Nick Nurse, Embiid has been freed from scripted spots on the floor. And with newcomers like Nicolas Batum, he is finally surrounded by ball-movers with a single goal in mind. That is, to potentialize this generational offensive talent.

Out With The Old, In With The New

Nick Nurse’s arrival in Philadephia signaled a seismic shift in offensive philosophy. From Doc Rivers’ painfully predictable station-to-station ball, Nurse built on the idea of Embiid as the central playmaking hub of his motion-oriented offense. Think of how Denver deploys its own MVP in Nikola Jokic. While Embiid is not the same quick-trigger decision-maker, pulling Joel away from the elbow to the top of the key (and the three-point line) has unlocked new horizons for the league’s most devasting scorer.

EMBIID’S TOUCHES PER GAME PER NBA.COM

Moving Embiid to the perimeter early in possessions has contributed to an inversely positive outcome on his impact in the area most traditional big men are accustomed to, the paint. Embiid has morphed into a nearly unstoppable ball-handler for his size, with point guard qualities to pinpoint favorable matchups and attack with subtle skill, as evidenced by this drop shoulder fake to freeze his defender against Detroit.

Embiid’s uptick in drives per game has been a massive enabler in Nurse’s system. Through his first 25 games, the Sixers’ do-it-all big is up to 250 total drives, a robust 46% increase from last season! With the space to operate, Embiid can pick defenses apart against a rather undisturbed paint.

Another area where Nurse has tapped into Embiid’s neverending breadth of talent is in dribble hand-off actions. Again, the main premise is built on player motion and getting defenders under conflict when moving laterally. While we have seen Tyrese Maxey explode into the scene this season as a dominant hand-off scorer, Nurse has smartly flipped the dynamic to incorporate Joel as the one to receive the pass. The results? Well, big men are just not supposed to move like this!

Getting Embiid unimpeded and easy looks at or near the basket has rejuvenated Joel’s vigor for dominance. Most games this season have resembled something close to the early rounds of a heavyweight fight. Defenses come in looking to clinch and spar Philadelphia’s offense hoping for an Embiid ‘off night’. But in the end, leave bloodied and battered, nearly always a result of Joel’s unlimited combination of haymakers.

Spotlight In The Mid-Range Game

Joel Embiid’s dominance extends far beyond looks at the rim. Known for his feathery touch, Philadelphia’s superstar has leaned heavily on the ability to solve defensive challenges from the mid-range area. While his shot distribution from mid-range has remained consistent in recent years, it is the clear uptick in efficiency that stands out from other seasons.

EMBIID’S SHORT / LONG MID-RANGE OUTPUT PER CLEANING THE GLASS

With defenses on high alert to Embiid’s dribble, Joel continues to dip into his jump-shot bag as a way to unlock offense when defenders play off the ball. But it is Nurse’s presence that has also helped to manufacture open in-rhythm looks. The main idea is once again built on player motion, and having one action flow into the next as defenders come into conflict. This creates enough space for Embiid to comfortably settle into spots on the floor where he can impact the game with his jumper.

A basic possession can often look like this. Embiid steps into a pick-and-pop with Maxey. With the defender going over the screen, Maxey naturally flows into a dribble hand-off. Embiid fakes the hand-off pass putting Rudy Gobert on his back heel and in retreat mode. Do you play the pass to Maxey or Embiid? This split-second hesitation is just enough for Joel to settle into a partly uncontested pull-up jumper with effortless ease.

Embiid’s game-turning impact from any spot on the floor is a cheat code at any given possession. In part to the mid-range game, Joel currently leads all NBA players in field goals made within 4-0 seconds of the shot clock. When you project what playoff impact can mean, turning a dwindling clock into two (easy) points may just be the difference between the Embiid from the last postseason to the one we see this year.

A French Speaking Connection

Among the returns in the James Harden trade were a trio of expiring contracts that not many valued as potentially high-impact players. Ever since Ben Simmons’ departure, Philadelphia has struggled to surround Embiid with similarly high-IQ ball-movers that connect offensive concepts to high-value shots.

When you envision what that is for a 7’1″ 280-pound behemoth, oftentimes it is the simple entry pass over taller defenders that allows Embiid to attack his matchup before the defense closes in. In Nicolas Batum, the Sixers (perhaps unexpectedly) landed on the ideal connector to Embiid’s physical dominance.

Fronting the post and denying Embiid the basketball has historically been a massive pain point to Philadelphia’s offense. But Batum’s quick basketball mind and pinpoint passing touch have re-opened substantial offense under the basket. This is even more so impressive when you see a near All-NBA defender Alex Caruso closing in from the backside. That small window closes extremely fast in the NBA, but Batum is savvy enough to recognize the help and drop a perfectly placed pass away from the defender.

Embiid and Batum’s basketball marriage has been the talk of Philadelphia since the trade. The on-court flow between the two players is Mozart-esque, as is their impact on the offense. Among over 1,100 2-man combinations in the NBA, the duo is currently at the very top averaging an unworldly 1.323 points per possession when sharing the court. Simply stated, there is not a more dominant offensive pair at the moment, led by Joel’s sheer power.

The Singular MVP

Leading Philadelphia into postseason success will be the defining moment of Joel Embiid’s 2023-2024 season. But the journey to Spring and Summer success cannot be brushed off or erased from the history books. In a league where superstars reign, Joel Embiid has differentiated himself from the rest this year. Thus turning the ever-always hotly-contested MVP conversation from a pool of a few candidates to a pool of one.

Thiago Scabbia
Thiago Scabbia

Thiago is a NBA and Philadelphia 76ers writer who started his journey for The Painted Lines in 2020. Portraying the storyline with numbers is his passion, and this is seen in some of his work breaking down draft prospects and in-season topics. Thiago is also a constant guest in Sixer post-game shows where you can follow his analysis for the night’s game

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