Joel Embiid is making a defensive player of the year push
Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid blocks Anthony Davis – Derick E. Hingle/USAToday Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers go where Joel Embiid, hopeful Sixers lifer, goes. They currently sit at 19-19, ninth in the Eastern Conference. Given where the franchise has been for the last half-decade, a .500 record can be seen as a clear success. However, when Joel Embiid plays, the team is 17-13; a 46.5 win pace. When he sits, they are just 2-6, with two of those losses coming against the Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls. Clearly, the Sixers need him on the court to succeed, and that is largely in part to his elite defense.

Embiid has a defensive presence that is hard to match. The 76ers are a solid defensive team, sporting a defensive rating of 103.3. Much of this number is thanks to Embiid. He is rocking a 99.3 defensive rating, an elite figure that exhibits how much “The Process” helps the Sixers on that end of the court.

When Embiid hangs out under the rim, opponents are scared to go anywhere around the basket. The choice is simple: go at the big man and have a nearly impossible finish or pull up and take an inefficient shot. Raymond Felton picks the latter here, and it does not go well for him:

Picking the other option doesn’t work well either. Driving to the basket may be an even worse plan than taking a pull-up jumper. If you try to shoot, you run into the brick wall that is Embiid. If you pass it out, the Sixers’ spry youngsters on the perimeter will recover. It all funnels though Embiid, who anchors all the action.

Even on switches, he can often stay with the quickest of guards. That lets him deter shots at the basket with ridiculous prowess and ferocity. His lateral agility and speed permit him to stay on James Harden during the MVP candidate’s entire drive. Then Embiid erases everything like a fried hard drive, leaving nothing to chance:

Blocks, like that one you just saw, are part of the reason Embiid looks so dominant on the defensive stat sheet. His 58 blocks rank ninth in the league. What makes this number even more impressive is every other player in the top ten has appeared in at least 33 games. Embiid, on the other hand, has only played in 29; which is better reflected in his sixth best in the league two blocks per game.

The fear he creates in his enemies, thanks to his rejections, has a butterfly effect on the game. Players approach the rim with decent looks at the hoop, but panic at the sight of an oncoming Embiid. This leads to offenses passing up shots for often worse looks on the perimeter, which is exactly what happens to the Los Angeles Lakers, and more specifically Kyle Kuzma, here:

That clip shows the gap between defensive impact and the box score stats. This particular possession, nothing shows up in the box score for Embiid. No steals, no blocks, no rebounds, nothing. However, his presence and length forced a Lakers miss. His impact stats will increase because of this, but not his box score stats. That is why advanced metrics do a better job of showcasing Embiid’s dominance.

NBA Math has their own metric called “Defensive Points Saved,” which calculates a player’s total impact on the defensive end of the floor during the course of a season. Embiid ranks 18th in DPS and only four players ahead of him have played fewer minutes than the Kansas product. It hasn’t taken him much playing time to be as impactful as other defensive maestros.

Combine that impact with his speed, timing and ability to read an offense, and it becomes clear how Embiid is able to stop the opposition from scoring. Even when guys shoot around him on just a normal possession, he still makes things damn near impossible. His defensive field goal percentage is 39.5 percent, meaning when he is the closest defender to a shooter, that player has only scored 39.5 percent of the time. The combined field goal percentage of the player he is most closely contesting is 48.6 percent, meaning “The Process” is forcing guys to miss shots 9.1 percent more frequently than they normally would, a huge boon to the Sixers back line.

Amongst players with 20 or more games under their belt this campaign, that 9.1 percent difference ranks second to only Lance Thomas. Simply put, nobody forces misses quite like Joel Embiid.

You can try to challenge him at the rim, but if he doesn’t block you like Harden, you’re still going to miss:

That’s impressive defense against anyone, nonetheless LeBron friggin’ James. Embiid is great at sliding his feet and staying in front of his matchup, no matter who it is.

He’s great at defending the rim and in space, the latter of which periodically manifests itself in steals. He grabs one of those every 100 possessions, and some of them are just plain rude. He gets switched onto Victor Oladipo far away from the basket here, and Oladipo thinks he can get to the rim if he spins around Embiid. As soon as he begins the move, Joel snatches the ball away and kicks off the fast break:

That’s not the only way Embiid ends possessions — he’s also an excellent rebounder. His 28.8 percent defensive rebound rate ranks 12th in the league for players with over 100 minutes. His size and athleticism allow him to grab some rebounds, but he’s excellent at boxing out his opponent and clearing out space to make the board easier to grab. Watch him do that in this clip. The second Austin Rivers puts up his shot, Embiid looks around and finds DeAndre Jordan and puts his butt into him, making it easy for him to grab the rebound:

Joel Embiid has become unstoppable on the defensive end. He can move around the court with guards, he can block shots and rebound at an elite level, and he alters the way opposing players play. To me, that is the makeup of a defensive player of the year. The Sixers’ defense is elite with him on the court and struggles in his absence; Embiid is making a strong case that he should be the winner of the award once the season ends.

All stats accurate as of Jan. 10.


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