Joel Embiid’s absence dramatically impacts the play of the Sixers’ perimeter threat and one of the best two-man lineups in the NBA.
Through the course of the 2018-19 NBA season, the two-man lineup of Joel Embiid and J.J. Redick has been on the court together for a total of 1613 minutes over 59 games (42-17). In that time period, the lineup has an offensive rating of 111.2 and a defensive rating of 99.6, good for a net rating of +11.6. That net rating is over 2.0 points higher than the next best two-man pairing of Redick and Jimmy Butler, as well as accumulated over 600 more minutes. It should not be a surprise that Joel Embiid is involved in the Sixers best lineups given his two-way dominance, but the presence of Redick, a 34-year-old athletically challenged shooting guard, might be.
The chemistry between the odd couple can best be described by Embiid himself, who stated that “I wish [Redick] was 24 years old so we could be here for 10 or 15 years, but he’s old as s***”, according to Sixers reporter Jon Johnson. They have a unique ability on the offensive end to play a two-man game both close to the basket and from behind the 3-point line.
The first clip shows one of the bread and butter plays for the Sixers this year, a basic Embiid to Redick dribble hand-off. In fact, according to Synergy, approximately one-third of Redick’s possessions on the season have been used on a handoff, where he’s scoring at 1.05 points per possession.
Given that Ben Simmons is a total non-shooter, Embiid is hovering around 30 percent from 3 on the year, and Jimmy Butler is about a league average shooter from deep, this instant offense from Redick’s shooting is sorely needed. The Sixers as a whole lead the NBA in both the number of dribble hand-off possessions (775) and their efficiency (1.05 points per possession). As a counterpoint to their hand-off heavy offense, the Sixers seldom utilize pick-and-rolls, sharing the bottom of the NBA rankings with the iso-heavy Golden State Warriors. The location of where Embiid and Redick do their hand-off damage (left-center, 3-point range) is nicely seen in Figure 1 below, which breaks out the density of Redick’s shots based on Ben Simmons assists or assists from another player.
Next, we look at some nifty passing and screening by Redick to Embiid in the post. While not a primary thrust of the offense, Redick and Embiid have shown the ability to link up around the basket by constantly being aware of the others’ presence.
That’s all well and good, but what happens when Joel is either off the court due to rest or his currently balky left knee? The Sixers obviously lose an All-NBA level player whenever Embiid is on the bench, injured or otherwise, but what happens to J.J. Redick’s game is equally important. When Redick is on the floor and Embiid is off, those lineups have a roughly -6.5 net rating, cratering in both offensive rating and defensive rating from their two-man lineups. Redick is at best a below average defender, with the third-worst DBPM of -3.3 among qualifying players, according to Basketball-Reference, and the loss of his defensive backstop only exacerbates that problem. However, in terms of the offensive dependency of Redick on Embiid, Figure 2 breaks out his shooting percentages and assisted field goal percentages by Embiid on-off data. As always with these charts, the percentages are smoothed approximations of a point pattern and should be considered descriptive, not predictive.
The difference in the assist density is subtle but appears to indicate that Redick does slightly more creating with Embiid on the floor, potentially coming long around the corner on dribble handoffs or in some other manner. The field goal percentage chart is far more obvious. Redick’s field goal percentage drops from approximately 46 percent and 42 percent from 3) with Embiid on the court to approximately 39 percent (35 percent from three) with him off. Quite simply, without Embiid, Redick’s offensive game takes such a precipitous dive, that it is worth potentially staggering them together exclusively when healthy, and figuring something else out entirely when Embiid is hurt.
With a starting five that has shown all year to be competitive with anyone in the NBA, the Sixers desperately need Joel Embiid on the court not only to anchor their offense and defense but to serve as a pseudo-shot creator for J.J. Redick, their primary (and sometimes only) long-range shooter. Embiid’s presence can cover for Redick’s declining defensive capabilities on the defensive end as well. Hopefully, Embiid’s knee allows him to get back on the court for a full minutes load, as both he and Redick will be needed to get through the first round, let alone further.