Embiid will be ultimate test for Wizards’ three-center rotation originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The Wizards have made it this far, from 15 games under .500 to the first round of the NBA Playoffs, employing an unorthodox strategy at the center position. While most teams use two and some are fortunate to have one key star, they have three who essentially carry equal roles.
Head coach Scott Brooks will often give Alex Len, Robin Lopez and Daniel Gafford about six minutes apiece to open games. From there, he doles out minutes based on matchups and who is playing well. It is a system that has worked masterfully, as all three can protect the rim yet provide different elements in terms of their size and skills.
Now they will face the ultimate test in Joel Embiid, one of the very best centers in the game and a guy who presents a challenge unique not only to the league but maybe NBA history. You can look throughout the entirety of the league’s past and you probably won’t find someone who is 7-feet tall, 280 pounds who can shoot threes, dribble and defend as well as Embiid can.
“It’s a great challenge for me and any other big on this team. We’ve just gotta come out and match his physicality,” Gafford said.
“He’s going to come out and talk a lot of trash, I’m sure. Joel Embiid is one of the best bigs in this league. We can’t just come out and think he’s going to take it easy on us. He wants to win, too. So, we’ve gotta come out and match his physicality and play at the same level he’s playing.”
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Embiid has always shown promise, but this year he has put it all together to have what could end up being recognized as an MVP season. His numbers are awe-inspiring: 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. He shoots 51.3 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from three.
A closer look won’t reveal an obvious weakness. His effective field goal percentage is sustained when he shoots off zero dribbles (55.5), one dribble (57.7) or two dribbles (54.3). He shoots a solid 47.4 percent even when tightly defended, with an opponent within two feet of him, per Second Spectrum.
Embiid is dangerous within five feet of the rim (67.2 FG%), in the midrange (49.7% from 10-to-14 feet) and from the perimeter. The only area he rarely does damage is with corner threes.
“He’s a great player. I don’t know if anybody has slowed him down this year. It’s going to take a team effort,” Lopez said.
Where Embiid is also especially dangerous is at the free throw line. He leads the NBA in free throw attempts (10.7/g) and shoots 85.9 percent when he gets there. While some other big men could be neutralized by fouling them, that is not the case for Embiid.
He made 27 of 28 free throws in three games against the Wizards this season. Embiid, though, hasn’t seen the Wizards since they added Gafford.
The three-center rotation could also give the Wizards some advantages in that regard. If they do rack up some fouls, it won’t hurt them as much as it would another team. They technically have 18 fouls to work with, as Brooks pointed out on Friday.
“When I say 18 fouls, I just mean more like we don’t have to worry about a guy getting into foul trouble because we have three really good centers that can handle that. Fouling Embiid is a mistake. You don’t want to defend him and foul,” Brooks said.
“Certain guys in the league, fouling is not a mistake. But fouling Embiid is a mistake. It not only puts him on the line, it prevents us from getting out in transition and it allows them to set their defense up. We don’t want to foul. We want to play physical without fouling.”
Embiid, as good as he’s been this season, has not exactly dominated everybody. Per the Second Spectrum’s tracking data, a few players have been able to limit him this season. Clint Capela of the Hawks held Embiid to 9-for-26 shooting (34.6%). Pascal Siakam (7-18 FG, 38.9%) and Aron Baynes of the Raptors (3-11 FG, 27.3%), plus Enes Kanter of the Blazers (5-14 FG, 35.7%) all had success. Thomas Bryant of the Wizards actually held Embiid to 2-for-9 (22.2%) shooting this year and played him well in the bubble last summer.
Those are some matchups the Wizards could study on film to figure out how to contain Embiid, if not stop him. It won’t be easy, but with three capable centers they will have an unconventional way of going about it. Maybe three can be better than one.