One of the things we talked about when the Sixers traded for James Harden is the idea of putting him in pick and rolls with Joel Embiid.
The wrinkle is that Embiid has never traditionally been a pick and roll big. When he came into the league, he became an elite DHO screener with JJ Redick in Brett Brown’s motion offense. That two-man game was fantastic, but it was a different type of screening, a pivot turn while holding the ball and having a shooter run off you. Embiid can pop and shoot, but doesn’t have a highlight reel full of rim rolling, because it just wasn’t a big part of what the Sixers were doing offensively under Brett or Doc Rivers.
In Harden’s case, he’s played a ton of pick and roll in his career, but mostly with bouncy roll guys who are lob threats. Think Clint Capela and Nic Claxton. I don’t think anybody doubted that Embiid could learn those skills, but there wasn’t a large sample size of him doing it.
Harden/Embiid pick and roll not gonna be easy to stop.
And they know it. pic.twitter.com/cVilLlU5Bc
— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) February 27, 2022
That’s gonna be hellish for opposing teams to defend.
First off, you have to go over the screen. If you don’t, you’ve got a career 36% three point shooter willing to let it rip. And then when you do go over that screen, Harden is already turning the corner and coming downhill. He’s a high-IQ player who makes quick decisions.
This isn’t exactly a profound statement, but the thing that’s most impressive about Harden is the timing on these pocket passes and lobs. Watching him in Houston and Brooklyn, and now in Philly, I’m always thinking to myself, “man, he just picks the right pass and puts it in a great spot.” In this case, Embiid is gathering about a foot inside the nail and has two easy steps to the basket:
There’s just no good way for Mitchell Robinson to defend that.
You can try some different things, like blitzing, hedging, or drop coverage, and the latter is what you see Minnesota doing in this clip from Friday night’s debut:
Embiid/Harden pick and roll is just going to put pressure on teams. Minnesota in a drop here and you see what opens up. Harden engages KAT, Embiid right in the pocket at the FT line rolling and now he’s catchng in the paint. pic.twitter.com/hHRBLW4SSi
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 26, 2022
Same thing. Even with bodies there, Harden is rolling that pocket pass into the same spot and Embiid just tries to go up against Karl-Anthony Towns and two weak-side defenders who are showing help, leaving a pair of shooters wide open. He bulldozes his way in and draws the foul, and had the option of just firing to the second side for a wide open catch-and-shoot three.
One more clip, this from the Knicks recap story:
Some 4th quarter possessions from the Sixers' Sunday win. Harden handling the ball in these high-leverage situations is something they just haven't had in a long time: pic.twitter.com/oVjQ6fuqdG
— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) February 27, 2022
You see what happens if you slip up, or try to go under. Harden just takes the three. If you blitz/hedge, he’s just going to find the open man, and quickly, which means you’re scrambling. And then in that third sequence there, Evan Fournier blitzes the double action, Matisse Thybulle slips, and Harden gets him for a wide open dunk.
When Harden was signed, I pulled the pick and roll numbers for both he and Embiid, and they looked like this:
Embiid as a roll man –
- 156 possessions
- 13.1% frequency
- 1.14 points per possession
- 54.9 EFG%
- 19.2% shooting foul frequency
- 57.4 percentile
There just wasn’t a large sample size for Embiid as a roller. Now we’re going to see a lot more of it.
Harden as a PNR ball handler:
- 336 possessions
- 31.8% frequency
- 0.83 points per possession
- 48.5 EFG%
- 15.8% shooting foul frequency
- 48.2 percentile
You’re going to see both of those data sets go way up. They will enter the stratosphere along with Jeff Bezos, on Blue Origin. We’ll give it a larger sample size and then come back and see how they compare to pre-trade numbers.
“I thought I mixed it up pretty the well the last two games,” said Embiid in terms of rolling and popping. “It’s all about figuring out the feel. (Sunday), I felt like their bigs were either too high, or they were too aggressive, so that gave me a free lane to kind of attack the basket, which caused them to foul a lot. But it’s all about mixing. It depends on how they guard us. Sometimes I’m going to pop, sometimes I’m going to roll. But like I said, he (James Harden) attracts so much attention. You can’t go with both choices. The other night I made a lot of outside shots and was able to pop a lot. (Sunday) I felt like I could get to the free throw line when I wanted, that’s why I was so aggressive.”
So far, the Harden/Embiid is looking pretty, pretty good: