The pressure is on Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey; only Daryl Morey and company can help relieve it
Hours after sources indicated to 97.3 ESPN that Philadelphia would likely not be in the market for any of Pascal Siakam, Zach LaVine, and Dejounte Murray, the Sixers licked their wounds from a 36-point home throttling at the hands of the New York Knicks.
Sure, there was a mighty disparity in shooting luck - the Knicks couldn't miss from beyond the arc, the Sixers couldn't buy makes on their share of threes. But, the way that loss unfolded served as something of a blueprint for how teams will defend Philadelphia when the playoffs begin.
No Daryl Morey organization will make a decision based on one singular regular-season outcome. This front office doesn't let itself get too high or too low off any one game. But, making decisions based on one data point and using data points to anticipate needs are two different things.
Joel Embiid shot 10-for-23 in that loss. He committed six turnovers. His teammates shot 4-for-16 on threes with him on the court.
Embiid's inefficiencies had as much to do with New York's defensive concepts as anything else. The Knicks showed Embiid size and mass with the primary defender, and then happily sold against other Sixers to help on the big man at the last possible second. In waiting it out, they got to him after he had already committed to a decision:
It didn't matter whether Embiid took a jumper or used force to get to the rim. New York waited until he had nowhere else to go and then bet against Philadelphia's shooters in order to prevent the big fella from beating them:
The Knicks eventually changed it up, timing the help earlier to prey on Embiid's passing game:
That partially originates with Nick Nurse, who inserted three red jerseys offering negative shooting gravity. New York felt empowered to roam away from those teammates, turning Embiid into a passer because there were two bodies closing on him. His best-shooting teammate in that lineup is, of course, just one pass away, effectively bailing a second helper out by letting him lurk close by.
Eventually, having so few teammates with scoring or shooting gravity makes it so that Embiid is in danger unless he keeps his shoulders squared to the basket and his head in a position to see the whole floor. Otherwise, helpers are compelled to attack from the blind side:
Embiid could be a better decision-maker by being less predictable. He could also operate with a larger margin of error as a playmaker if he were a quicker passer. But, he's not going to hit every single note as he toggles between scoring and playmaking for the first time in his career.
What he needs is more shooting gravity around him; teammates who keep help defenders at bay. Philadelphia can flirt with the idea of giving Tyrese Maxey some more off-ball reps; that would probably help both the big man and his running mate. But, there's also a point at which you've already covered so much of the season with one ball-handler that taking it out of that guy's hands for more than a few short stretches of game time can introduce risks to what had previously been a healthy offense.
In the playoffs, when the ball is not in Embiid's hands, it's going to be in Maxey's hands. Defenses will treat pick-and-rolls as opportunities to prey on Maxey's size. They'll blitz the ball, daring him to make clean passes over the top to Embiid as a popper or short-roller. And when that pass is in the air, helpers are going to sell out on their primary assignments in hopes of intercepting the ball for a steal in the open court.
Realistically, adding one player with that gravity won't change the entire equation for defenses. They'll discover other angles from which they can send help. They'll change up their timing and adjust the primary assignment on whomever the Sixers acquire to lessen the burden of accounting for that player. But, just because there may be more holes in the boat than plugs available doesn't mean you don't try to keep the water out. You do your best and hope it can stay afloat until you reach land.
The Sixers may not have enough resources to re-invent the gravity that Embiid's supporting cast lacks. But, they do have enough to go big-game hunting for a dynamic offensive weapon.
Perhaps it's one of the aforementioned names, or maybe it's someone else. For now, the pieces around Embiid and Maxey are who they are. Those teammates aren't going to change the way playoff defenses approach Batman and Robin. The vultures will swarm the best players when a championship is on the line.
It's on those who work outside the confines of the hardwoods to help relieve the pressure within those lines.
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