The Case Against Everything is a column that provides both sides of a debate, giving you ammo for your Twitter fights. It’s written by James Beale, who used to write about sports.
Last week, Joel Embiid publicly complained about his role. “The past couple games,” he grumbled, Head Coach / Front Office horror vacui Brett Brown “always has me starting on the perimeter […] and it just really frustrates me.”
The complaint drew headlines because of the timing – the past couple games he referred to coincided nicely with the addition of James Butler the Third – but was more noteworthy for another reason: since when does Embiid not want to shoot 3s? For years, despite putting up Young Shaq numbers from the block and also Young Shaq numbers from deep, Embiid has been happily bombing away.
So, who is wrong? The Embiid who happily looks eFG% in its nerdy little eyes and pulls up from the 4-point line presumably created just for him, or the Embiid who is upset that he might turn the jump shot that rando white people on the internet allegedly built into an actual weapon?
No matter what you believe, here are your talking points:
The Case That Embiid Should Stop Shooting 3s
* They’re Inefficient
In making his plea for more a more post-centric offense, Embiid noted he was shooting 29% from deep. Since then, that number has dropped to 27.6%. Over the course of an NBA season, only two players in NBA history – Mookie Blaylock in 97-98, and Tony Wroten, the Process Starter himself, in 14-15 – have attempted as many threes per game and shot that low of a percentage. Worse, there isn’t a built-in regression to the mean argument to fall back on – Embiid has shot 439 3s in his career, and only shot 31.2% on those attempts.
Meanwhile, Embiid from everywhere else has been a monster. Thanks to a dominant post game and the small campus he’s erected at the line, Embiid is top-10 in the league in points in the paint, points at the line, and second chance points, all while maintaining true shooting percentage – 58.0 – better than Dirk, Malone, and Jordan’s career numbers.
That gets even starker when you separate out the 3s: Embiid’s eFG% is 53.0 from 2 and just 41.3 from 3. That is literally greater than the difference between Anthony Davis (52.8) and Markelle Fultz (43.2).
* It’s All Inefficient
A common argument you hear people who 1. Are in favor of Embiid shooting 3s, and 2. Tend to be big believers in the Eye Test, is that Embiid doesn’t need to shoot fewer threes, he just needs to shoot better ones. It’s wrong.
Last year Embiid shot 31.6% on wide open 3's and 26.5% on 3's with a defender 4-6 feet away. This year he’s shooting 27% when he’s wide open, and an unsustainable 41.2 when a defender is 4-6 feet away. All of his threes are bad, and they been bad since he’s been a pro.
* They Let The Defense Off Easy
Much is made about saving Embiid’s body from the pounding we all think he suffers in the post, but very little is made about the suffering he inflicts from the post. In order to mitigate his elite rim protection, opposing teams often try to draw Embiid to the perimeter with 5-out offenses. If the 76ers want to play stretch-5s off the court, Embiid has to be the one to do it, and it’s a lot harder for the Al Horfords of the world to defend Embiid 3 feet from the rim than it is to defend him from 30.
On the block Embiid can bully, spin, face-up, back-down, or dream shake his way past his defender. Defenders haven’t begun to figure out how to guard him, and as a result Embiid has drawn more fouls than anyone in the NBA. When Embiid posts up, starting centers get in foul trouble and back-up centers get exploited.
The Case That Embiid Should Keep Shooting 3s
* Someone Has To Shoot
None of the arguments cited above are going to be news to the stats-savvy 76ers. So, why does Brett want to turn peak Anthony Davis into a second Markelle Fultz for 6-8 shots a game? Brett haters have one answer, but a more accurate one may be that we’re all asking the wrong question: it’s not whether Embiid shoot 3s in a vacuum, but rather does this team need him to? The answer to the second question, is yes.
Embiid plays on a team with one guard who has yet to take a real three 3 in his pro career, a second guard whose form has literally become a national joke, and a third guard with a release a well-trained tortoise would beat in a footrace. In today’s NBA, spacing matters, and despite Embiid’s low percentage, him just standing on the outside with his defender opens up lanes for non-shooters like Simmons to work though in a way that doesn’t happen when their roles are reserved.
The spacing has an immediate pay-off too: the Embiid-Redick two-man game that makes up what feels like 87% of the 76ers’ set plays requires perimeter screens and hand-offs, and Embiid is top-10 in the NBA in both screen assists and screen assist points. The results are most obvious in J.J.’s scoring: last year, Redick set a career high with 17.1 ppg. This year, he’s averaging a full point more. Could he put up those numbers without directly playing off a floor-spacing Embiid? Maybe, but scorers rarely peak in their age 34 season.
Finally, it’s not just his teammates who benefit from Embiid’s floor-spacing. With the ability to euro-step his way past lumbering big men and finish with a soft touch once he gets there, Embiid’s dominance at the rim is aided by the fact he can get there on the drive and not just with his back to the basket.
Right now, all of those Embiid 3s are like salt – maybe it’s not great on its own, but try eating all of your meals without it mixed in before complaining about the taste.
* The Shot Looks Pretty
Almost always, when someone says something sounds great in theory, it’s an insult. This case may be the exception. In theory, a 3pt-making Embiid is the most ungaurdable man in the NBA. While it is true that in practice those shots are not particularly effective right now, the payoff for this temporary pain could be massive, and there are at least two good reasons it might pay off.
First, the form. Embiid has a stroke you could use as a teaching tool for regular white people, and he is allowed to make jokes about it because it’s so good. If Simmons, or, god forbid, Fultz, joked about learning their form from the internet, the 76ers portion of said internet would not handle it well.
Second, the track record. Embiid shoots nearly 80% from the line. As anyone who follows the NBA draft even a little bit knows, college FT% is a better indicator of a player’s ability to shoot the 3 at the NBA level than college 3P%. Will that hold true for Embiid? It’s possible. Before, I noted, over the course of an NBA season, only two players in NBA history have attempted as many threes per game as Embiid has and shot that low of a percentage over the course of a year. That’s true, but incomplete – this year Hawks’ rookie Trae Young is shooting way worse – 24.1% - on over a three more attempts per game. No one thinks Young won’t be at least league-average shooter. Sometimes it takes time to expand range.
* Threes Help Save His Body
In the first half of games, Joel Embiid averages 15.2 ppg, on 51.9% from the field, and 35.5% from 3. In the second half, those numbers drop to 10.9, 42.1, and 21.3%. Those stats aren’t the result of sitting in blowours, his minutes per half are virtually identical (16.8 to 16.6).
In short, Embiid may have already solved his shooting issues, we just can’t tell because it’s really hard for a 7’2” man to play 35 minutes of NBA basketball a night. If Brett is going to keep playing Embiid 36 minutes a night – let’s put aside the strategic value of playing Embiid those extra 4-8 minutes a night for now and take as a given that his minutes are what they are – then you have to figure out how to make those minutes more effective.
One simple way to save legs, as any rec league player will tell you, is to fire from deep instead of banging from the post. In short, if you want Embiid’s second half to look more like his first, you have to find ways to make first half less taxing. Until you have a backup who can provide the scoring a rim-protection a tired-Embiid can in the second half, it’s worth it to let him shoot.
Spike’s Take - I agree with everyone saying that Joel Embiid shouldn’t be shooting so many threes assuming they’re living in 1986. In 2018, if a center can shoot threes, he should shoot threes. Add on top of that that there’s almost no way to succeed with two guys on the court not shooting threes, and Ben Simmons definitely won’t shoot any threes, that puts Embiid in a spot where it’s not really an option. He’ll get better at it… eye test baby.