Sixers Bring Back One of Spike Eskin’s Least-Favorite Plays

With the return of Joel Embiid comes a play that Spike Eskin hates.

The snug pick and roll.

Wrote Spike a few months ago, in a story about Ben Simmons:

To make pretend that Embiid and Simmons can run anything together in a half-court offense, Doc Rivers, just like Brett Brown before him, is trying to run absurd snug pick and rolls, eight feet from the hoop. It’s a ridiculous play that Embiid should not be forced to endure. It’s not realistic and would never be effective in any meaningful NBA game.

It’s weird in theory, isn’t it? We’re talking about a seven-footer and a 6’10” ‘point guard’ teaming up for a pick and roll that begins nowhere near the three-point line and has zero three-point threat. I do agree with Spike that this concept seems somewhat “ridiculous,” but it’s not about what we think; it’s about whether or not the play is effective.

We saw some of these pick and rolls in Tuesday night’s win over the Celtics, and both Rivers and Embiid were asked about it during their post-game availability.

Said Rivers:

“I thought the one in the second half, and I may be getting them mixed up, but it was probably the best one we’ve run the entire year, because of the patience. Joel was gonna come, but he let Ben get deeper, Joel was ‘playing the game’ and then he went. I told him coming off (the floor) that that was the best one. That’s how you have to run that. I thought they did a great job, and Ben came off with pace. That’s the other key to that.”

Here’s the play that Rivers is talking about. It actually starts with Simmons grabbing a long rebound and driving in transition, which forces Boston to scramble defensively:

Embiid goes to vacate and let Simmons post, but Seth Curry instructs Joel otherwise.

So we get that tight pick and roll right around the basket, with Embiid and Simmons being guarded by Tacko Fall and Jaylen Brown. Embiid screens Brown, Simmons kind of floats back to the free throw line, and then Joel is able to body the 6’6″ Brown under the basket, receive the return pass, and then draw a foul and go to the line.

The switch looks like this when you freeze the frame:

It’s a wonky way to get this kind of mismatch, but Embiid 1v1 under the basket with Jaylen Brown is something you’ll take 100 times out of 100, and it’s the product of the cross-match in transition.

Here’s Embiid’s take on the “snug” pick and roll:

“We had some success (tonight) and in the past we’ve had a lot of success running that. There are a lot of options that can come out of it. I can always go for a lob, and if it’s not open I can set the screen. He (Simmons) has a driving lane and can attack, and the last resort, if he doesn’t have anything, is that type of play is always going to cause a mismatch. Guards will switch on to me and give me an easier way to score.”

And that’s exactly what happened, the “last resort.” Simmons didn’t have much of anything with the 7’5″ Fall on him, so he floated a bit, created some room, and then played the entry for Embiid instead.

It’s really goofy on the surface, because the thought of a seven footer screening for a 6’10” player on the low block is just not something that seems like it would be feasible. It seems awkward, but I guess most offensive things involving Simmons are, indeed, awkward. So if the Sixers having success doing this, then who are we to criticize it? This is one of those things you do until the other team finds a way to stop it.

(a tip of the hat to Paul Hudrick of 97.3 ESPN for asking about this play last night, resulting in the above quotes)

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