It’s Awkward in Embiid Land

In Philly, they are talking the “C” word. Chemistry has suddenly reared its head like a bad dream the Sixers can’t escape.

Chemistry to a basketball team is like love to a marriage. When you have it, there’s nothing to obsess over. But when you don’t, everything is sideways.

NBA chemistry is that one thing sports analytics cannot solve. It’s more than spacing and roles, bigs and switching. It’s more than schemes and actions and playing hard. It’s not about who likes who or the friendship test. You don’t need chemistry to win a game here and there. But chemistry matters for consistency and success, for those four games in five nights and excelling in hostile road environments. Chemistry matters in order for everyone to feel ownership, a part of the team. Chemistry though is challenged by change. It doesn’t happen on paper.

Hall of Famer Gary Payton joined the Lakers towards the end of his career and the chemistry was horrible on a Shaq-Kobe team. He didn’t fit in with the Phil Jackson Triangle system. Then he joined the Heat and the chemistry fit perfectly. It is an alpha or omega thing.

Players have no control over who their teammates are. In winning cultures, players integrate what they do best with what their teammates do best to create a sum that is better than the parts. The coach’s responsibility is to extract the best from his players while teaching sacrifice and unselfishness. It’s harder than it looks. Often, it is awkward.

It has become awkward in Philly despite their 10-3 record since the Jimmy Butler trade was finalized. The face of the franchise, Joel Embiid, is not quite sure where he fits. The chemistry is off because Embiid is not being Embiid which is a huge problem going forward and yet, in the same breath,it’s not Jimmy Butler’s fault.

 Since joining Philly a month ago, Jimmy Butler is doing what he is being paid to do. He’s hitting game winners, playing like a dog on defense, bringing his brand of 24-7 toughness night in and night out. He is scrappy, gritty and maniacal. The Sixers W-L record with Butler justifies the trade from the Butler perspective. He’s ballin’ out.

With Butler, the Sixers played the soft part of the schedule until they went to Toronto and were soundly and squarely and emphatically beaten by the East’s best team. Is there shame in losing to a team who has the leader in assists (Kyle Lowry), the best player in the East (Kawhi Leonard), and the 2nd best offensive efficiency in the conference? No. But, it is how they lost.

Joel Embiid was overwhelmed and more than once he was manhandled by Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Afterwards, the excuses for Embiid ran the gamut from Embiid’s fatigue to he misses the size of Dario Saric in the paint next to him, another seven footer.  Embiid is frustrated and figuring out through trial and error what is NBA 101.

Fit matters. Just because you add an All-Star defender and shot maker, it doesn’t mean things are going to be smooth. Someone has to sacrifice and Embiid looks like unsure of how to play his game with Butler on the court, a high usage player and a ball stopper who needs open lanes.

It’s great adding a 20 point scorer to the Sixers and they are better with Butler, particularly during the playoffs. He’s a veteran and he defends and he never takes games or possessions off.  Butler is valuable because he has zero fear. But a 20 point scorer wing gets that way because he has the ball a lot and actions drawn up highlight him.

Butler is alpha dog all the way and in Minnesota it worked because the young players were willing to defer to Butler. Butler is the kind of player where you give him a little bit of something, he’s going to take it all the way without remorse. But Embiid is the face of the Sixers. His game should determine the actions on the floor.

Specifically, this.

Embiid isn’t happy with the spacing that has him on the perimeter which opens things up for Butler’s drives.  But there is a much bigger issue. Butler is taking away Embiid’s shots and some of his efficiency.

Butler has been in this position before when Derrick Rose returned from injury. Rose was used to being the star but when he was injured Butler filled in and then some. When he returned, it was no longer about him as the face of the franchise but Butler, who kept the ship steady. Embiid is feeling like Rose felt. The game is no longer about him but about Butler and what he needs to thrive.

Both things can be true like with Gary Payton in L.A. Butler needs a certain scheme and Embiid needs a certain scheme and the two don’t match. The most important man in this intricate song and dance isn’t Butler or Embiid. They are both great players who can work it out, one would think. But Brett Brown has to figure out a way to keep Embiid comfortable on the court while legitimizing Jimmy Butler.

Last season, LaMarcus Aldridge told Gregg Popovich he wanted to be traded. He didn’t fit the offense. He wasn’t comfortable. Uncomfortable players lack the confidence they need to win games. Popovich wasn’t trading Aldridge so he changed the offense.

Brett Brown needs to change the offense so Embiid is at his strength. In no one’s universe should Jonas Valanciunas dominate Joel Embiid. Embiid may have been tired. He may need to recharge. But he also needs to go back to his game on the block where he is a menace.

Jimmy Butler needs to learn how to play with Joel Embiid and not the opposite.