How Joel Embiid of the 76ers changed his attacking style to best complement James Harden

Although the NBA is home to many strong duos, none have been as effective this year as Philadelphia’s explosive tandem of Joel Embiid and James Harden. Harden is the top assist provider in the Association with 10.8 assists provided every game, while Embiid leads the league in scoring this season with 33.4 points per performance. It should come as no surprise that these two skill sets compliment one another quite well.

Harden and Embiid are the players who have helped out other players the most this season, and it’s not even close. As of this writing, Harden has given Embiid 210 total assists, including 194 2-pointers and 16 3-pointers. Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield at Indiana have the next-closest pairing, with 135 assists each. The gap between Harden and Embiid and the next pair is 75 assists.

The Sixers have the third-ranked offense in the league after finishing outside of the top 10 in that category each of the previous two seasons. This is almost entirely due to the two-man game that is developing between Harden and Embiid, as well as the space they create for other players by drawing attention to themselves in and around the painted area.

Embiid has significantly changed his game to become a prolific roll man in the pick-and-roll action, something he didn’t do nearly as frequently over the course of his career previous to this season, in order to maximize their potential as a pair.

On 6.9 possessions per game during the current campaign, Embiid is acting as a ball-screener; the majority of these are screens for Harden towards the top of the key. By a significant margin, that number is the best in the league. Deandre Ayton of the Suns, who screens for Phoenix on 4.7 possessions a game, is the next player closest. With 8.3 points per game as a roller, Embiid also tops the league. At six points per game, Anthony Davis is second in that statistic.

In 23.6 percent of his offensive possessions overall, Embiid screens. This figure is significantly greater than it has been in previous seasons. 16.6% of the time last season, Embiid was the ball-screener; this percentage increased after Harden joined the team in February. In the previous season, Embiid only used that approach 12.5% of the time, or 3.2 possessions per game.

Embiid is playing far less out of the post as a result of his heavy usage in PNRs. Embiid used the post 36.5 percent of the time during the 2020–21 campaign. Last year, that percentage fell to 28%, but he still far and by dominated the league. Only 16.7% of the time this season, Embiid is playing in the post, a 20 percent decrease from just two seasons ago.

That enormous total demonstrates how significantly Embiid altered his attacking strategy to improve his compatibility with Harden. Because to Embiid’s seamless transition, maybe, the significance of this move has gone somewhat unnoticed on a national level.

The move is particularly dangerous because of how many different ways the Sixers can harm you through it. Any Sixers game you watch will feature Embiid establishing a screen for Harden at the top of the key, which creates a variety of opportunities. Embiid will slide to the rim for an easy slam or pop out for a jump shot from his sweet spot at the nail if the defenders pursue Harden. The corner shooters for Philadelphia will have open opportunities if the help defenders are compressed in. Harden will take advantage of any extra focus on Embiid off the roll in order to reach the basket. Harden can pull up for three if you go beneath the screen to stop the drive. It’s a genuine conundrum for defenses.

Harden would have primarily been reduced to an off-ball player, which isn’t where he’s at his best, if Embiid had continued to play out of the post at such a high rate (though he has worked to improve as a catch-and-shoot guy alongside Embiid).

By giving Embiid the opportunity to do what he does best—manage an offense and create openings for the big guy and others—serving as a screener more effectively utilizes Harden’s abilities. The advantage is that Embiid doesn’t have to struggle nearly as much to obtain open shots. Instead, all he needs to do is sneak a screen and The Beard will leave him wide open for a 15-footer.

Because to Embiid’s ability to adjust, Philly now has a dependable, really effective go-to play. When Embiid is the roll man for the Sixers this season, they score 1.2 points on average per possession. With him playing out of the post, they have never averaged more than that. The Sacramento Kings have the greatest points per possession average of any club this season (1.18), for the purposes of comparison.

Pay attention to how frequently Embiid screens for Harden at the top of the key to start offense the next time you’re watching the Sixers. The play’s effectiveness makes it a priceless tool for Philly, and everyone they play in the postseason will have to deal with it.