Philadelphia 76ers: Double-teaming Joel Embiid won’t work long-term

DeAndre Jordan isn’t a particularly bad center.

He’s been in the NBA for 13 years, played alongside about a half dozen future Hall of Famers, and has a pretty impressive list of accolades ranging from an All-Star berth to two rebound titles and two stints on the All-NBA team.

Not too bad for a player routinely characterized as a “$40 million best friend.”

But one thing Jordan can’t do – not at this stage of his career anyway – is defend a player as one-for-one dominant in the paint as Joel Embiid with regularity.

No, for the vast majority of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ win over the Brooklyn Nets, that fortunately was the case for Doc Rivers‘ current and former center, but, in a weird twist of fate, Steve Nash may have stumbled upon a new way to slow down “The Process” that almost left the Sixers tiebreaker-less in the two teams’ final showdown of the regular season.

The Philadelphia 76ers should expect a whole lot more double teams moving forward.

The Brooklyn Nets’ decision to hold out four of their top six players in their regular season closer against the Philadelphia 76ers was lame; smart, but still lame as all heck.

This game was supposed to be it. King Kong vs. Godzilla, Batman v Superman (Dawn of Justice), The Aluminum Monster vs. Fatty Magoo. By opting against showing his full bag of tricks – for some legitimate reasons, like LaMarcus Aldridge’s surprise retirement – Steve Nash robbed fans the league over of an opportunity to watch two titans clash, at least until the playoffs roll around.

For Doc Rivers, this was surely frustrating. While facing off against the enigmatic scorer currently known as Kyrie Irving surely presented a unique opportunity for Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle to test their wing defensive mettle, such an opportunity doesn’t compare to the Herculean task of toppling a three-headed monster that also features “The Slim Reaper” and “The Beard”.

But, in a weird twist of fate, by playing the Sixers the way he did, Nash inadvertently stumbled on a unique way to cover Embiid that may start being replicated by other teams around the league: Wing double-teaming.

It went a little bit like this: When Embiid got the ball, usually around the top of the key, Nash would blitz him with power forward Alize Johnson before doubling up with Nicolas Claxton and occasionally Bruce Brown shortly thereafter. Seems simple, right? Well, the Sixers were unable to find an answer for it, as the team didn’t make a single field goal in the final eight-plus minutes, and Embiid was only able to score two points from the charity stripe during his final shift versus two turnovers.

For a team with a generational offensive attack, using such a… unique defensive strategy to force Embiid into high-turnover situations, even if it could turn into a free throw party relatively quickly.

Now granted, Doc Rivers didn’t do Embiid any favors in the fourth quarter. He seldom scripted plays to get Embiid the ball in the paint, and after packing it in at the end of the third, he likely wasn’t even expecting to put him out on the court in the first place. Had the team opted to counter Nash’s strategy, either by surrounding Embiid with shooters or by keeping the ball in Simmons’ and/or Shake Milton’s hands, maybe things would have been different, but instead, the Rivers opted to play it straight and allow his starters to squeak one out against an inferior foe.

For teams like the Miami Heat, the New York Knicks, or even the Boston Celtics who have athletic centers and physical forwards, this sort of double-teaming may become as commonplace as “Hack-a-Ben” a few years back; at least, until the Sixers figure out a way to neutralize it.

But there is a silver lining to this situation. By presenting this look now and putting it on tape for the better part of four minutes, it gave Rivers a chance to dissect the tape and use what little time the team has to practice over the next month to formulate a strategy to bust it.

I mean, think about it, the Nets were able to execute these double teams by running a zone defense that often left a shooter on the opposite end of the court open on the wings. With a bit more practice, Embiid can easily identify these mismatches and shotgun an outlet pass to an open scorer for a high-percentage shot.

Alternatively, the Sixers could run their offense through Simmons, who was largely absent from the flow for the final half of the fourth quarter. Because Simmons isn’t an outside shooter, teams can effectively play off of him when he’s off-ball outside of the paint. By keeping the ball in Simmons’ hands, opposing teams have to play him honestly, as he’s still one of the faster players in the NBA capable of driving to the basket with the best of them for an easy two.

Heck, the Sixers could even shift to an Embiid-plus shooters lineup with Tobias Harris and Milton splitting primary ballhandling duties. While neither is a particularly elite ball-handler, both are solid free throw shooters and can serve as outlet options assuming double teams on Embiid remain the rule.

By introducing this new defensive look now, the Brooklyn Nets gave the Philadelphia 76ers a preview of their playoff strategy and a chance to formulate a counterpunch in time for the live bullets of playoff basketball. Even if that doesn’t help to gauge the team’s defensive fortitude against the likes of Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant at the same time, it’s still a welcomed opportunity nonetheless.