Through the first stretch of the year, the Sixers certainly underwhelmed and disappointed on that end of the floor. At the time, the team was running a switch-heavy scheme, which was taking some time for Philly to get adjusted.
By the time the Sixers started figuring out a little bit about what works and what doesn’t, James Harden went down with a tendon strain, which forced him into a month-long recovery.
Eventually, the Sixers saw a significant improvement on the defensive end. After starting the year off as one of the worst units in the NBA statistically, the Sixers have jumped to the top five in defensive rating through 23 games.
On numerous occasions over the last couple of weeks, Embiid has mentioned that moving away from switching has helped the Sixers find a rhythm on defense. Following a matchup in Cleveland last week, Embiid once again reiterated that moving away from switching has helped the Sixers find success.
“We have a system in place,” said the big man. “I think at the beginning of the year, the mistake we made was we tried to go one through five a lot. We were OK doing it. Like I keep saying, I can do it, but that’s not just what I’m good at. I’m good at being around the rim, protecting the rim. So, we have a formula.”
Embiid’s presence protecting the rim in the paint has given the Sixers a significant boost on defense. Prior to Harden’s injury, Embiid averaged 1.2 blocks per game. Since the Sixers made defensive improvements as a team, Embiid’s averaged 2.1 blocks per game, which has become a notable difference-maker for Philadelphia.
Will Philadelphia begin to revert to switching with Harden re-joining the team on Monday night against the Houston Rockets? Embiid couldn’t say for sure last week, but he’s confident Harden will be able to fit right in with the strategy the Sixers have utilized over the last few weeks.
“Since he’s been here, he’s bought into everything we ask from him,” Embiid continued. “I don’t know what the gameplan is going to be, but what I know for a fact is we’re going to keep doing what brought us to the point where we are top defense in the league. He’s going to be fine. I think this year he’s been good on that end. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem or any adjustments. I don’t know when he’s coming back, but it will be exciting to get him back.”
Harden was upgraded from questionable to available for the Sixers’ Monday night game in Houston. Based on his Sunday afternoon comments following a practice session, all signs were pointing towards Harden returning after a 14-game absence.
Now that it's indeed the case, the Sixers will certainly start the seasoned veteran alongside Embiid, who looks forward to re-connecting with his fellow All-Star.
“It’s going to be fun,” Embiid finished. “I don’t know when he’s coming back, but we need a lot of help. He’s one of our best players, and he’s so freaking good. Anything we can get at this point, we will need it.”
Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for All76ers, a Sports Illustrated channel. You can follow him for live updates on Twitter: @JGrasso_.