The 76ers’ pick-and-roll with Joel Embiid and James Harden could be the key to their championship
This is a play that James Harden and Joel Embiid haven’t used much in the last few years. The pick-and-roll will be used to get the most out of the 76ers’ combination of these two players.
With the NBA playoffs less than three weeks away, teams are scrambling for positions in the standings, hoping to solidify their seeding, avoid play-in games, and secure the best possible path to a championship.
Three teams in the Eastern Conference’s upper half are within two and a half games of the top seed. The Philadelphia 76ers are one of those teams. This year, they added guard James Harden at the trade deadline and now they have a chance to win the championship again.
Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia was marred by shattered relationships, another dissatisfied star, and two Atlantic Division clubs with generational talent trying to maximize their championship windows.
The Sixers’ general manager, Daryl Morey, has known Harden for a long time, dating back to their days in Houston together. It has been morey’s goal for Harden to play with Joel Embiid, an MVP candidate this season, as soon as he left Houston.
Embiid, like Harden, is an unquestionably gifted offensive player, capable of decimating his opponents with a repertoire that has grown with each passing year. Both have been dominant on their own. Harden has averaged 23 points, 9.9 assists, and 7.6 rebounds in his 13 games in Philadelphia, while Embiid has averaged just under 30 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 4.2 assists.
They’ve made a pick-and-roll that is almost impossible to stop, and they’ve shown that they could be one of our generation’s best offensive duos.
Aside from the pick-and-roll, Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia has improved an offense that is just outside the top-10 in offensive rating, true shooting percentage (57.3%), and assist-to-turnover ratio this season (1.88).
Joel Embiid’s MVP-caliber season and Tyrese Maxey’s breakout were enough to keep the Sixers in the game during the first half of the season. But now James Harden has opened up another layer of Doc Rivers’ offense.
The Sixers have benefited greatly from Harden’s combination of point and shooting guard skills, allowing Maxey to play freely as the gifted three-level scorer he is, and opening the restricted area for Joel Embiid to obliterate his opponent on the block, or for Harden to penetrate and force defenses to collapse.
Harden has thrived in his role as the facilitator in an offense filled with willing scorers in Tobias Harris, Embiid, and Maxey, who balance out the floor by forcing defenses to commit and keeping scoring opportunities plentiful for everyone involved, ranking second in the league in assists with 10.1.
The pick-and-roll plays to James Harden and Joel Embiid’s strengths while limiting their flaws.
Embiid and Harden are still works in progress on the pick-and-roll, but their recent success is apparent. With an average of 5.1 points per game in the pick-and-roll (as the roll man) this season, Embiid is in the top five in the NBA.
Harden is in the top 30 in the NBA in terms of free throw frequency percentage out of the pick-and-roll this season, with an average of just under 16%. With an average of 6.3 points per possession out of the pick and roll, he is just outside the top 25 players.
Harden’s immediate success with this new move, particularly alongside Embiid, is remarkable given how infrequently he has used the pick-and-roll in recent years. Mike D’antoni veered away from standard lineups in Houston, frequently employing “small ball” formations to give Harden plenty of opportunities to create.
While this freed space for Harden, it also left him without a genuine pick-and-roll partner, particularly after Clint Capela was traded in 2020. With an enormous increase in isolation, his efficiency reached new heights, but it also reduced the range of possibilities available to him.
Harden is well-positioned to take the pick-and-roll, which is probably the best big man in the league, combined with Tobias Harris and a developing Tyrese Maxey, and make it Philadelphia’s most unstoppable offensive move.
While Harden’s efficiency has been outstanding, Joel Embiid’s recent success in the pick and roll may be even more amazing, especially given his lack of NBA experience running the play.
With the exception of Ben Simmons, Embiid has never played with an exceptional passing guard, especially one who can score on all three levels and can run the pick-and-roll. Throughout his career, Embiid has dominated as a one-on-one threat, outshining his defender with a variety of low-post moves, face-ups, and shots.
Simply put, Embiid has never needed the pick-and-roll as a fundamental part of his game because his game has never required it. Embiid, on the other hand, has adapted and thrived in the pick-and-roll this season. According to NBA Court Optix analytics, since joining forces with Harden, he has set an average of 19.6 screens per game.
That’s just a smidgeon less than he’s averaged for the rest of the 76ers’ ball-handlers combined (21.8). Whenever Embiid sets a screen for Harden, the 76ers have averaged 1.22 points per possession, regardless of how the play continues after the screen.
Embiid’s size and skill set as a roll man put opponents on notice, allowing him to simply read whatever the opposition chose to throw up. Embiid’s touch causes teams to commit to guarding him on the perimeter, pulling them away from the paint and creating openings for driving possibilities, as he shoots 36.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s.
The 7-footer not only forces opposing bigs to close out all the way to the 3-point line, extending the space within the pick-and-roll and making him just as dangerous in the pick-and-pop, but he also makes them close out all the way to the free-throw line.
What’s more frightening is that Embiid’s ability to gather momentum as a roll man allows him to gain momentum going downhill, leaving defenses exposed to fouls, easy scores, or both.
Embiid is developing into an exceptional role man, adding another dimension to his ever-expanding game and another dimension to Philadelphia’s offense. This season, Embiid is second in the league in post-ups per game. He is also forming into a great roll man, which adds another element to his game and another dimension to the Philadelphia offense.
It can’t be overlooked that, in addition to their offensive prowess, Embiid and Harden are two of the league’s most prolific foul-drawers. Embiid and Harden are currently first and third in both free throw attempts and made per game, respectively. With an average of 82 percent from the charity line, the ‘Sixers lead the NBA in free-throw percentage.
This intangible keeps opponent defenses under constant pressure, pushing them to play sound, solid defense, which is often insufficient in some areas of the court.
Embiid has been especially good at getting to the line, using his excellent, Olajuwon-like footwork to keep defenders on their toes. He is averaging a career-high 11.7 free throws per game.
Embiid has turned into a nightmare for opposing big men, baiting them with head fakes, sinking his shoulders into lesser centers, and forcing slower players to cover him on the perimeter, where he’s just as dangerous.
Embiid’s game combines the old-school domination of low-post big men with a modernized skillset and feel for the game, allowing him to float on the perimeter and attack his defender from a variety of angles. How hard is it to draw fouls at a high rate in the NBA?
The Philadelphia Sixers are lucky to have two of the best as focal points of their offense, and they also have great shot-creation skills.
Even if Embiid and Harden are incredible, there are valid concerns about the new duo. Can Embiid’s body withstand a long playoff run?As the single floor general, can Harden lead a championship-caliber team? And, perhaps most importantly, can two offensively gifted superstars defer enough to one another to be truly successful?
While it’s difficult to speculate what kind of synergy Harden and Embiid will have after a full season, Doc Rivers and his staff will want to get as much out of this year’s playoffs as possible. Although there have been flashes of brilliance between these two, it remains to be seen how much their games will evolve this season.
Philadelphia fans are yearning for another chance at a championship after their last appearance in the Conference Finals in 2001. After a hectic year, it appears that they may finally have the team in place to compete for one — assuming the pieces fall into place soon enough.