Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers and the arduous task of building around a superstar

AT MCALISTER FIELDHOUSE On the campus of The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, all eyes are on a conversation between Joel Embiid and PJ Tucker.

For the second straight day of training camp in late September, the Philadelphia 76ers’ new teammates engaged in a lengthy — and vocal — discussion of basketball tactics. Among today’s topics: How Tucker and the Miami Heat Embiid choked on the post in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Tucker gestures how he confronted Embiid in the paint — did everything he could to make his life miserable before he even had the ball in his hands — and how Embiid might counter.

“Every day [we work on] Ways to combat everything he does,” Tucker said. “And I’m protecting him now and trying to help him understand what people want to do, that’s what it’s about.

“It’s about knowing that and being ready for anything.”

Tucker is not alone. In recent years, the 76ers have attempted to tweak Embiid’s heyday in hopes of post-season deep runs. But each time, flawed roster constructions have prevented the breakthrough that usually follows a perennial MVP finalist.

There was Embiid’s ultimately doomed partnership with Ben Simmons, a point guard whose lack of a reliable jump shot forced the 76ers to build offenses where pick-and-rolls – the lifeblood of the modern NBA – rarely featured.

There was the disastrous year-long pairing with fellow great Al Horford, the player who gave Embiid seizures for years with the Boston Celtics, giving him nearly as many as a teammate.

And there have been a number of one-wayers over the years, from Matisse Thybulle and Seth Curry to Marco Belinelli and TJ McConnell, who have helped win many regular-season games, but the kind of goals are — at one end of the floor or the other – which Eastern Conference playoff teams routinely exploited.

This summer, the 76ers wanted to change that. They’ve re-signed superstar and elite pick-and-roll partner James Harden at a discount big enough to also bring in free agents Tucker and Danuel House Jr., two sturdy defenders who open 3-pointers can knock down.

Philly traded injured guard Danny Green and a first-round pick for De’Anthony Melton to the Memphis Grizzlies, adding another high-profile fullback to a roster that lacked them last season.

Philadelphia goes into its first full season with one of the league’s best pick-and-roll tandems, quality 3-point shooting to give Embiid ample room to operate and enough versatile defenders to attack opponents.

Put it all together, and the 76s — despite a rocky first impression Tuesday — are deeper, more balanced, and built better around their 7-foot anchor than at any point in The Process era.

“There are no weak links around the horn,” Tucker said. “You want to [pick on] someone? Continue. We all have.”

SIMPLY BREAKTHROUGH to the East Finals — a feat the 76ers haven’t accomplished in more than 20 years — Embiid means nothing.

“The whole idea of ​​going to the first round, second round, conference finals, finals, it doesn’t matter,” Embiid said. “If you don’t win everything, it doesn’t matter why you lost. It probably makes it worse… you feel like you just wasted f***ing time.

“‘Congratulations, you made it to the Conference Finals. Congratulations, you made it to the Finals.’ Did you win anything? No.”

Some of those failures stem from Embiid’s untimely injuries: an orbital bone fracture that collided with a teammate in 2018, and a fractured face and thumb injuries last spring. A playoff loss can be credited to the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard, whose wonderful four-bounce buzzer-beater in Game 7 stunned the 76ers in the 2019 East Semifinals.

But much of the onus falls on poor design — namely, various roster constructions around Embiid: the awkward bouts with Simmons or Horford, the accumulation of too many limited roleplayers, or even the decision to move away from Jimmy Butler after that heartbreaking loss to the Raptors.

No matter what formula Philadelphia tried, the result was the same: an early elimination from the playoffs. Adapting to Embiid, and thereby transforming the 76ers’ playoff fortune, has been basketball operations president Daryl Morey’s mission since he was hired by the franchise two years ago.

After collapsing against the Atlanta Hawks in 2021 and Simmons’ subsequent trade request, Morey bided his time before proceeding with the Simmons-Harden trade in the final hours before the February trade close.

It didn’t take long for the two stars to start finding chemistry.

Embiid and Harden led the second-most pick-and-rolls in the league after the All-Star break, with only Hawks duo Trae Young and Clint Capela accounting for more. Philadelphia’s star tandem averaged 1.15 points per direct pick in those games, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information investigation — the fifth-best mark among the 39 pairings that played at least 150 such games.

Harden’s arrival raised Philadelphia’s cap, but it alone wasn’t enough to change the franchise’s playoff fortunes. Harden, notorious in numerous playoffs, has had his struggles for the 76ers, including a 4-for-9 stinker in Philadelphia’s season-ending Game 6 loss to Miami last season.

Morey identified another problem: 76ers coach Rivers was paralyzed by too many specialists around his stars.

“[What] We saw in the playoffs that we weren’t able to play on either side,” Morey said. “When Doc was benched, he had to choose all offense, no defense, or just defense, no offense.

“It’s going to be quite challenging in the playoffs.”

However, it turns out that both Morey and Embiid had a similar solution in mind. Enter Tucker, a versatile lockdown 3-and-D wing who was part of the Houston Rockets for several seasons with Morey and Harden. After that Game 6 loss, Embiid said he had never played with someone like Tucker before, citing his defensive energy and toughness.

Tucker, Melton and House ousted Thybulle, Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz – three players who had significant minutes in the playoffs last year – in Philadelphia’s rotation.

“I think Joel set the tone very helpfully for my negotiations [with Tucker]’ Morey said, laughing. “Asking about a specific player … I would ask all future 76ers please not to do that.”

EMBIID HAS ECHO a similar retort when referring to the hype surrounding the 76ers’ revamped roster ahead of the season.

“We have a long way to go.”

As Philadelphia opened its season Tuesday with a 126-117 loss at TD Garden to reigning Eastern champions Celtics, Embiid’s words of caution proved prophetic.

The Celtics, playing without injured starter Robert Williams III, beat the 76ers with the rapidity created by their smaller lineups. Boston surpassed Philadelphia with a 24-2 lead in fastbreak points – a disparity so startling that Embiid double-checked it using box scores during his post-game press conference.

“It starts defensively,” Embiid said. “Really, it’s all about defense. We scored 117 goals [points]and we weren’t good offensively today.

“We didn’t get any stops all night. Well, that’s where it starts. I think we have potential. But we have to play hard every time we have the ball and we have to have each other’s backs.”

there was Optimism for Embiid and Philadelphia. Even with the elite defenders Boston can throw at teams — including reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart — Harden and Embiid were successful in the pick-and-roll.

Late in the second quarter, Harden got around an Embiid pick and dropped a pocket pass, which Embiid caught and finished via a fouling Celtics forward Noah Vonleh. On another play midway through the third, Harden came around another screen and expertly faked the defense to give up a wide-open floater.

“We have to find ways to get more into that action,” Harden said after the game.

Embiid complained that the ball was too sticky and the 76ers fell into old habits. He was right about that: According to Second Spectrum, Philadelphia averaged a 3.5-second touch length against Boston, the team’s third-highest tally in a game since the start of last season.

Though things looked ugly for Embiid and the 76ers on Tuesday night, he and Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all had the same message: It was the first of 82 games.

But while it was the first of 82 for a battle-hardened Celtics core to come from an NBA Finals appearance, it was the first regular-season action for Philadelphia’s revamped roster — an experience gap Embiid said only time can tell shrink.

“This is a team that just got to the finals and they’ve been together for so many years,” Embiid said after the game. “We still felt new with a lot of new guys trying to find the right fit and the right way to play.

“We’ll be fine.” Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers and the arduous task of building around a superstar

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