Philadelphia 76ers: (Zone) defense is the key to winning without Joel Embiid

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

When the Philadelphia 76ers take the court without Joel Embiid playing center, it’s a borderline guaranteed loss.

Well, technically, through the first Sixers’ first 20 games of the 2020-21 NBA season, the word borderline wasn’t necessary, as Doc Rivers and company had lost every game they played without Embiid and did so by pretty unsettling margins.

Call it a logical byproduct of having one player be such a focal point of an offensive and defensive unit, but without Embiid to set screens, provide instant paint offense, and anchor the efforts on defense, the Sixers simply couldn’t get much going on without their three-time All-Star on the court – a matter that became increasingly alarming when they started losing to bad teams they outmatched from a talent perspective (I’m looking at you, Cleveland Cavaliers/Detroit Pistons).

But how could this be? Surely a combination of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and company should still be able to win more games than they lose, right? Dwight Howard has looked good coming off the bench in relief of Embiid too, why hasn’t he been able to expand that sparkplug-ability out over 30-plus minutes without Embiid to fall back on? Is it coaching? Talent? Or something else?

Even without Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers’ defense is formidable.

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After being a surprise go in the Philadelphia 76ers’ upheaval of the Minnesota Timberwolves on a Middle America road trip, Joel Embiid was officially scratched for the team’s contest against T.J. McConnell Malcolm Brogdon and the Indiana Pacers – much to the chagrin of his *sarcastic cough* “rival” Myles Turner.

Surely this too was destined for a loss, right? I mean, the Pacers are a double-digit win team under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren and even without Victor Oladipo/Carvis LeVert had a 3-2 record in their previous five contests. With the not so formidable tandem of first-time starter Tony Bradley and Howard set to face off against a pair of dynamic, high-scoring big men in Turner and Domantas Sabonis, the Sixers were surely headed for another dash in the loss column, right?

Well, if that was your take, you probably felt pretty vindicated when the Sixers were down 28-18 after the opening quarter and held a nine-point deficit heading into the half.

Throw in an ugly third quarter where Indiana once again outpaced the Sixers by four points, and it looked like Rivers may have had yet another opportunity to employ his bench and give a few minutes to young players like Isaiah Joe, only, the good Doc still had one trick up his sleeve to thwart Bjorkgren’s momentum right in its tracks thoroughly.

In a move that would have surely given Brett Brown fits, Rivers switched things up to a zone defensive concept utilizing an amalgamation lineup build around starts and reserves and held the Pacers to 15 points in the fourth quarter – including a grand total of zero field goals in the final 5:57 of regulation.

Riding high on the unlikely offensive-defensive combo of Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle, the Sixers played like the kind of team fans had long since believed they could be in games without Embiid. They played fast, chased deflections, and stole passes, all the while keeping the movement and energy alive on the offensive end of the court. With seemingly no idea how to score on a zone defense – which, again, is very Brett Brown – Bjorkgren’s squad fell apart, and the Sixers were able to score a game-high 37 points in 12 minutes and have officially snapped their Embiid-less losing streak (hopefully) once and for all.

How? By playing good defense.

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Now sure, will the Philadelphia 76ers be able to suddenly stop any offense with a switch to a 3-2, 2-3, or even 4-1 zone look? Even with two of the league’s premier ball hawks on the court in Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, the answer is no. But the team should be able to remain one of the better defensive units in the game, even without Embiid around to clean up their errors in the paint. If the Sixers can maintain their defensive integrity in games – or even minutes – without Embiid, it’ll go a long way to adding the multi-dimensionality to continue to win games at a high-level – even if said wins are by a score of 96-92 as opposed to 118-92.