Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid has been starved of quality playmaking

(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

“I mean, we’re playing out here without a point guard.”

This statement, made by Doc Rivers after his team dropped a gimme to all nine of the Brooklyn Nets, is both a low-key burn on Shake Milton, who finished out the game with zero assists in almost 34 minutes of action, but also a very valid statement about where the Philadelphia 76ers are today, a week before Christmas in Joel Embiid‘s sixth professional season on the basketball court.

Despite knowing full well of Ben Simmons‘ intended absence, the Sixers entered training with zero true blue point guards on their roster.


Granted, they did have a few combo guards, and Tyrese Maxey has developed into a much better passer than most could have expected from his production over the two seasons prior – which is more of a happy accident than 4D chess- but the rest of the team’s guards, Shake Milton, Seth Curry, Jalen Springer, Grant Riller, and Shaquille Harrison weren’t particularly rebounded for their ability to facilitate an offense, let alone average five-plus assists over an NBA, or even NCAA season.

But why? I get Daryl Morey achieved his greatest success with a ball-dominant scorer leading the way on offense, but the Philadelphia 76ers don’t have the guy either, as much as the front office might wish they did. If the goal of the 2021-22 season is to win games with Joel Embiid as the team’s offensive engine while they tread water waiting for a trade, why did no one think to get him a point guard who can place procession passes in the paint?

The Philadelphia 76ers have severely undervalued playmakers over the Embiid-era.

Joel Embiid has technically been a member of the Philadelphia 76ers since 2014.

While he didn’t ultimately take the court until the fall of 2016, the team made a concerted effort to build their offense from the center position out for Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in the short term and the player eventually known as “The Process” whenever he was healthy enough to go.

Over that tenure, how many players did the Sixers employ who averaged five or more assists per game? Seven: Michael Carter-Williams, Tim Frazier, Ish Smith, and Tony Wroten, all of whom played for the team before Embiid took the court, plus Sergio Rodriguez, T.J. McConnell, and Ben Simmons after 2016.

That… feels wrong, no? I mean, Embiid has averaged 16.9 shots per game over his 279 regular season games and counting, how has the team never thought to pair him up with a plus passer other than Simmons?

That’s a good question.

Since Embiid was selected in 2014, the team has drafted 12 players in the first round. Of those players- excluding ones like Mikael Bridges, who was drafted and traded – only two were point guards, three if you retcon Tyrese Maxey into that group.

Now granted, had those two players, Simmons and Markelle Fultz, lived up to their potential as long-term building blocks for the Sixers, maybe we wouldn’t ve having this conversation right now, as the duo could have conceivably split point guard duties for a decade-plus and kept Embiid with a steady stream of plus paint passes, but alas, that just wasn’t mean to be.

Since Fultz was traded to Orlando on the day after Elton Brand shipped Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala and picks to the Los Angeles Clippers for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott, the Sixers have signed two more point guards to fill out their roster in Trey Burke and Raul Neto and traded for a third in George Hill, but none of those players are on the team today and it’s up for debate how helpful any of them would be on the team today.

So what gives? How did the Sixers look at their roster and say “eh, good enough,” heading into free agency, let alone when they opted to release George Hill back in August?

Frankly, your guess is as good as mine.

For all of Embiid’s strengths, he’s not the best pick-and-roll screener in the NBA. Chalk it up to the players he’s been tasked with running the play with but in 2021-22, Embiid falls in the 36.1th percentile as a roll man according to the NBA’s advanced stats, which is 11.3 percentage points lower than his teammate and noted frenemy Andre Drummond.

No, Embiid likes to have the offense run through Embiid, with the ball being passed his way at the charity stripe or deeper in order to attack the hoop with his front to the basket. When he’s paired up with a passer like Simmons, great things can happen. When he’s instead given someone like Shake Milton to facilitate the offensive set, well, you get the Boston series in the NBA Bubble where he’d have to track passes like a center fielder.

If you want to run an offense with Embiid as the engine in the painted area, you sort of need a point guard to turn the key, right?

Next. To trade or not to trade Danny Green. dark

Can Tyrese Maxey be the Philadelphia 76ers’ long-term point guard? Yes, I genuinely believe he can be. While his game isn’t perfectly suited to play off of Joel Embiid, he’s talented enough to make things work and be a top-3 option on a really good team. But just like how fans have been clamoring for more opportunities for Maxey to run the second unit as a green-lighted full court scorer, it would be equally as advantageous to get Embiid some snaps with a veteran backup point guard who can get him choice looks as to make his life a little easier. Who is that player? I’m not quite sure, but it’s on the front office to find him; they owe that much to Embiid after years of playmaking neglect.