The optimal squad around Joel Embiid? The 76ers feel like they found it

INSIDE MCALISTER FIELDHOUSE on the campus of The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, all eyes are on a conversation between Joel Embid Y PJ Tucker.

For the second straight day of training camp in late September, the new Philadelphia 76ers teammates engaged in a long and rowdy discussion about basketball tactics. Among today’s topics: how Tucker and the Miami Heat smothered Embiid in the paint zone during last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals.

Tucker points out how he confronted Embiid in the paint, doing his best to make his life difficult even before he had the ball in his hands, and the ways Embiid could counter.

“Every day we work on ways to combat everything he does,” Tucker said. “And me protecting him now and trying to help him, understand the readings of what people want to do, that’s what it’s all about.

“It’s knowing that and being prepared for anything.”

Tucker is not alone. For the past several years, the 76ers have tried to optimize Embiid’s prime in hopes of making deep strides in the postseason. But each time, flawed roster builds have impeded the kind of advancement that normally follows a perennial MVP finisher.

There was Embiid’s ultimately doomed partnership with Ben Simmonsa point guard whose lack of a reliable jump shot forced the 76ers to build offenses in which pick-and-rolls, the lifeblood of the modern NBA, were rare occurrences.

There was the disastrous one-year pairing with fellow center Al Horfordthe player who gave Embiid a lot of trouble over the years with the Boston Celtics and gave him nearly as many as a teammate.

And there have been a number of one-way players over the years, from Matisse Thybulle Y Seth Curry to Marco Belinelli and T. J. McConnellwho helped win plenty of regular-season games, but they’re the kind of targets, one end of the floor or the other, that Eastern Conference playoff teams routinely exploit.

This summer, the 76ers were determined to change that. Superstar and elite pick-and-roll partner re-signed james harden at a discount big enough to land free agents Tucker and Daniel House Jr.., two strong defenders who can hit open 3-pointers.

Philly traded injured point guard Danny Green and a first-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for De’Anthony Meltonadding another high-octane perimeter defender to a roster that lacked them last season.

The Sixers enter their first full season with one of the best pick-and-roll tandems in the league, quality 3-pointers to give Embiid ample room to operate and enough versatile defenders to attack opponents.

Put it all together, and the 76ers, despite a rocky first impression Tuesday, are deeper, more balanced and better built around their 7-foot anchor than at any point in the ‘The Process’ era. ‘.

“There aren’t a lot of weaknesses around him,” Tucker said. “Do you want to mess with someone? Ahead. We have everyone.”

SIMPLY ARRIVE AT Eastern Finals, a feat the 76ers haven’t accomplished in more than 20 years, means nothing to Embiid.

“The whole idea of ​​getting to the first round, second round, conference finals, finals, it doesn’t matter,” Embiid said. “If you don’t win it all, it doesn’t matter why you lost. It probably makes it even worse… you feel like you just wasted your time.”

“Congratulations, you made it to the conference finals. Congratulations, you made it to the final.’ Did you win something? Nah.”

Some of those failures can be attributed to early injuries to Embiid: a broken orbital bone from colliding with a teammate in 2018 and a facial fracture and thumb injuries sustained last spring. A playoff loss can be attributed to the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonardwhose miraculous four-rebound jumper in Game 7 stunned the 76ers in the 2019 East semifinals. But much of the burden lies with poor design, namely various roster constructions surrounding Embiid: the awkward adjustments with Simmons or Horford, the accumulation of too many limited role players, or even the decision to let go of Jimmy Butler after that heartbreaking loss to the Raptors.

No matter what formula Philadelphia tried, the result was the same: an early exit from the playoffs. Changing the fit around Embiid, and, in turn, changing the 76ers’ playoff fortunes, has been president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s mission since he was hired by the franchise two years ago.

After the collapse against the Atlanta Hawks in 2021, and Simmons’ subsequent trade request, Morey bided his time before moving on to the Simmons-Harden trade in the final hours before the February trade deadline.

It didn’t take long for the two stars to start finding chemistry.

Embiid and Harden made the second-most pick-and-rolls in the league after the All-Star break, and only the Hawks’ duo, Bring Young Y Clint Capela, represented more. Philadelphia’s all-star tandem averaged 1.15 points per outright pick on those snaps, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research, fifth-best among 39 pairs to execute at least 150 such snaps.

Harden’s arrival raised expectations for Philadelphia, but it wasn’t enough to change the franchise’s playoff destiny. Harden, who has infamously shone in numerous playoffs, had his issues with the 76ers, including a disappointing 4-for-9 in Philadelphia’s season-ending Game 6 loss to Miami last season. Morey identified another problem: 76ers coach Rivers was paralyzed by too many specialists surrounding his star.

“What we saw in the playoffs was our inability to play both sides,” Morey said. “Like when Doc had to go to the bench, he was choosing all offense, no defense, or all defense, no offense.”

“That gets pretty challenging in the playoffs.”

However, it turned out that both Morey and Embiid had a similar solution in mind. Recruit Tucker, a versatile defensive forward with a good shot who had been a part of the Houston Rockets under Morey and Harden for several seasons. After the Game 6 loss, Embiid said he had never played someone like Tucker before, citing Tucker’s defensive energy and toughness.

Tucker, Melton and House have supplanted Thybulle, Shake Milton Y Furkan Korkmazthree players who got significant minutes during the playoffs last year, in Philadelphia’s rotation.

“I think Joel set the tone very helpful for my negotiations with Tucker,” Morey said with a laugh. “Asking about a specific player … I would ask all future 76ers to please don’t do that.”

EMBIID HAS BEEN REPEATED a similar response each time he references the hype surrounding the 76ers’ revamped roster in the run-up to the season.

“We have a long road ahead of us.”

On Tuesday, when Philadelphia opened its season with a 126-117 loss at TD Garden against the defending East champion Celtics, Embiid’s words of caution proved prophetic.

The Celtics, playing without the injured starting center Robert Williams III, beat the 76ers with the speed created by their smaller lineups. Boston outscored Philadelphia by a 24-2 margin on fast break points, a disparity so staggering that Embiid double-checked it on the score sheet during his postgame news conference.

“It starts on defense,” Embiid said. “Really, it’s all about defense. We scored, whatever, 117 points, and we weren’t good offensively today.

“We didn’t have any arrests all night. So, that’s where it starts. I think we have potential. But on every possession we have to play hard and support each other.”

There were glimmers of optimism for Embiid and Philadelphia. Even with the elite defenders Boston can throw at teams, including the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus SmartHarden and Embiid found success operating on the pick-and-roll.

Late in the second quarter, Harden drew a pick from Embiid and made a pocket pass that Embiid caught and completed over Noah Vonleh, of the Celtics, who committed a foul. On another play midway through the third, Harden flipped another screen and cleverly tricked the defense into converting an open floater.

“We have to find ways to get into that action more,” Harden said after the game.

Embiid lamented that the ball was sticking around too much and that the 76ers were falling back into old habits. He was right: According to Second Spectrum, Philly had an average touch duration of 3.5 seconds against Boston, the team’s third-highest mark in a game since the start of last season.

Still, as ugly as things looked for Embiid and the 76ers on Tuesday night, he and the Celtics’ stars, Jayson Tatum Y Jaylene Brownthey had the same message: it was the first of 82 games.

But while it was the first of 82 for a battle-tested Celtics core coming off an NBA Finals appearance, it was the first regular-season action for Philadelphia’s revamped roster, an experience gap Embiid said. that only time can reduce.

“That’s a team that just got to the Finals and they’ve been together for so many years,” Embiid said after the game. “We still feel new, with a lot of new guys trying to find the right fit and the right way to play.

“We’ll be fine”.

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The optimal squad around Joel Embiid? The 76ers feel like they found it