Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid needs a new pick-and-roll partner

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

2020-21 was a banner season for Philadelphia 76ers superstar center Joel Embiid.

He set new career-highs in points, field goal shooting percentage, and 3 point shooting percentage, earned All-Star, all-NBA, and all-defense honors, and, most impressively of all, finished out the season second in All-Star voting behind Nikola Jokic.

But there’s one aspect of Embiid’s game that took a notable step back in his fifth professional season: Assisted points scored.

Despite having a new head coach and a new offensive identity, the Sixers only had two players finish out the 2020-21 NBA season in the top-100 assisted points created per game, and one of the two – Tobias Harris, not Ben Simmons – did so on only 3.5 assists per game.

Those numbers are all fine and good, except when you have a generational big man who needs to get the basketball in the paint.

While some of this could be remedied by a bigger role from efficient passer Tyrese Maxey – assuming Rich Paul doesn’t force him out of Philly too – one aspect of Embiid’s best offensive stint in the NBA is currently missing for the Philadelphia 76ers’ offensive portfolio and should really be addressed as the team turns its attention to trading Ben Simmons: A pick-and-roll partner.

The Philadelphia 76ers need to run their offense through Joel Embiid and a buddy.

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In 2018-19, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler were an elite offensive duo.

The duo accounted for 39.6 percent of the team’s points per game on average – 45.7 of 115.2 – and formed a near-unstoppable two-headed, two-way attack that took a quadruple doink to thwart in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Over that playoff run, Butler ran an average of 6.3 pick-and-rolls per game, by far and away the most of any player on the team, and was able to generate .91 points per drive versus a turnover rating of 9.5 percent. While Butler wasn’t elite per se in the PnR game, as his efficiency actually only ranked in the 60th percentile, his ability to play off of Embiid made both players better and the team incredibly hard to defeat regardless of an opposing team’s composition.

How essential were Embiid and Butler to Brett Brown’s end-of-game strategy? Well, let’s just say the duo accounts for more shots in the final 5 minutes of any given quarter than every other player on the team combined and scored 7.5 points versus 6.8 from the rest of the squad combined; a stat skewed significantly by a single made 3 by Mike Scott on his lone clutch playoff attempt.

Since Butler left, however, things haven’t been quite as efficient.

While the Sixers did find some success with Point Shake during his unique tenure in 2020, no one, not even Tobias Harris, has found success as a primary offensive option either with Embiid off the court or while playing off of them, as evidence by the elevated clutch numbers from “The Process” from 2019-21.

Could that change in 2021-22? Potentially. Harris was an efficient pick-and-roll scorer in 2018-19, more efficient than Butler even, but he just doesn’t seem to like running that particular play, instead relying a bit too heavily on his dribble-heavy midrange game.

And what about Tyrese Maxey? While he was by far the team’s most effective pick-and-roll ballhandler in 2020-21, his offensive game still isn’t quite mature, and his inability to let 3s fly at an efficient clip will limit his overall efficiency in end-of-game situations.

Could Jalen Springer become the second coming of Butler in his forthcoming rookie season? I guess anything is possible, but if the Sixers want to replicate their 2019 playoff magic, they’ll surely need to secure an offensive pick-and-roll specialist in the Ben Simmons trade.

Fortunately, there are a few good options who could be had on the trade market.

From CJ McCollum to Norman Powell, T.J Warren,  and even *gulp* Andrew Wiggins, there are plenty of viable pick-and-roll/pop players who could serve as viable partners for Embiid both on the perimeter and in the paint, all of whom run laps around Simmons, who is far better suited as a PnR blocker than ballhandler.

Next. Don’t discount the addition of Georges Niang. dark

In the NBA, you can win without running the pick-and-roll. Plenty of teams have done it in the past and will do so again from this point on. But when you have the best scoring center in the NBA with limitless range drawing near-constant double teams in the paint, failing to secure him an offensive partner in crime is a serious dereliction of team building duties, especially when you just committed a supermax deal to retain his services for the next half-decade .