The Whiteboard: How James Harden changed Joel Embiid for good

Today on The Whiteboard, Joel Embiid is playing like James Harden is still here, the Lakers are big mad and more.

Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers
Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

Tyrese Maxey's breakout and the Harden trade shenanigans have been the biggest stories around the Philadelphia 76ers hot start this season but Joel Embiid took center stage last night.

He put up 48 points in just three-quarters of a 146-128 win over the Wizards, including an almost unbelievable 29 points in the third quarter, when he went 10-of-10 from the field and 9-of-9 from the free throw line.

Seeing him this dominant offensively is a great sign for the 76ers but the ways in which he's scoring are meaningful as well. As Jared Dubin pointed out at Last Night in Basketball, Embiid has been doing a ton of work with Maxey in the pick-and-roll:

"Maxey and Embiid are running an average of 17.4 pick and rolls per game so far, the fourth-most of any duo in the NBA, according to Second Spectrum. And among the 43 teammates that have executed at least 50 ball screens together, Maxey-Embiid checks in seventh in points per possession."

Joel Embiid stays picking and rolling

Last year, his first and only full season with James Harden, Embiid significantly adapted his game. In 2020-21, before Harden arrived, Embiid finished 9.3 possessions per game with post-ups, nearly 40 percent of his total offensive possessions used. Last season, that number dropped to 4.5 possessions per game nad just 15.6 percent of his offense.

To accommodate Harden, Embiid sacrificed a ton of his back-to-the-basket opportunities to work more in the pick-and-roll. The upshot of this change was a lot more touches around the elbow and a big surge in efficiency. From the elbow, it was easier for Embiid to see double teams and find open shooters than it was in the post, and he was able to leverage both his mid-range touch and his quickness and size to attack opposing bigs off the dribble and score even more efficiently.

It would be understandable if, with Harden out of the picture, Embiid had been jockeying for an offensive structure more similar to the way he had played in his past. But the numbers Dubin highlighted show that the 76ers haven't reverted and they've been continuing to use Embiid in similar ways.

In his dominant 29-point third quarter just one of his 10 buckets came with his back to the basket. His first three came on layups out of the pick-and-roll with Maxey, like this ...

He also had a trio of catch-and-shoot jumpers around the free-throw line and a pair of gorgeous face-up possessions — the first for a layup ...

... and the second for a pull-up jumper from the elbow.

It may some counter-productive to have your 7-foot center with a massive strength advantage playing farther from the basket but Embiid is not your normal center. His rare combination of shooting touch and handle means that touches from the elbow and beyond give him the greatest range of opportunities to hurt a defense.

And you can see it in his numbers. He's once again leading the league in scoring, at 32.5 points per game. He's also averaging a career-high 6.2 assists and a career-high 9.0 drives per game. He's shooting a ridiculous 76.0 percent on those drives and drawing a foul on another quarter of them. And then he's hitting 48.0 percent of his mid-range jumpers.

He's among the most impactful offensive players in the league and his versatility is a huge part of the equation. It's still early in the season but 76ers fans have to feel incredibly optimistic about the ways in which the team is continuing to use the lessons they learned from the failed Harden experiment about how to get the most out of him.

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James Harden, Paul George, Russell Westbrook
Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers / Katelyn Mulcahy/GettyImages

The Clippers have a lot to figure out

James Harden finally made his Clippers debut and things did not work out they way they were hoping. Los Angeles was pounded by the Knicks, 111-97, and while Harden did have 17 points and 6 assists on just nine shot attempts, the holes showed.

The Clippers new starting lineup — Harden, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Ivica Zubac — was outscored by 31.8 points per 100 possessions in the 18 minutes they played together, struggling to score and hemorrhaging points at the other end.

George and Leonard can be two of the best perimeter defenders in the league when they're healthy and engaged. Harden and Westbrook are two of the worst, almost regardless of circumstance. And then there is the issue of who has the ball in their hands to run the offense.

Against the Knicks, Westbrook had the ball in his hands about a minute shorter than his season-long average and Harden finished the game with a longer time of possession.

They still have a lot of time to figure things out, but it was a bit discouraging to see the obvious issues crop up so quickly and so dramatically.


LeBron James
Los Angeles Lakers v Miami Heat / Megan Briggs/GettyImages

Frustrations boil over in Los Angeles

It's been a rocky start for the Lakers after a 108-107 loss to the Heat dropped them to 3-4. Jarred Vanderbilt, Gabe Vincent and Rui Hachimura have been out of the lineup, Cam Reddish has been a disaster, D'Angelo Russell has been wildly inconsistent and, after claiming his minutes would be limited to about 30 per game, Darvin Ham had LeBron James on the court for 37 minutes against the Heat — the fifth time he's broken 35 minutes already this season.

The Lakers were hit with five technicals against the Heat and, after the loss, LeBron pointed out specific plays in which he thought the officials had been wrong. Frustration is starting to show, and, for now, at least, it's directed at the officials.


Recommended Reading:

1. The next Victor Wembanyama: "Alex Sarr has placed a legitimate claim on the No. 1 spot on draft boards. It's way too early to operate with any confidence, of course, but Sarr has been productive in a notoriously physical pro league. His physical measurements — 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan — jump off the page. He's mobile for his size, moving his feet in space on defense and attacking from the perimeter on offense." NBA Draft stock up, stock down, games to watch: New No. 1 on the rise as CBB begins

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