For years, the Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid debate has centered on their differences. The two 7-footers dominated in their own ways: Jokic as the towering epicenter of the Denver Nuggets’ ball-movement offense; and Embiid as the dominating meteor around which the Philadelphia 76ers galaxy orbited. 

But now, after a new coaching hire, a James Harden trade, a leap by Tyrese Maxey and Denver’s proof-of-concept championship, Embiid and Jokic have more in common than ever.

Under Nick Nurse, the 76ers have revamped their offense. Former coach Doc Rivers ran a pick-and-roll and isolation-based system that was undeniably effective but ultimately had its limits.

"It’s just a lot more selfless basketball," reserve forward Danuel House told reporters during training camp. "It’s not so much of two guys having a ball. Doc is two guys, ball dominant. Nick Nurse is everybody play together. Everybody works with each other. Help, cuts, get your brother open shots. You can see the difference night and day."

Nurse has pulled pages out of the Nuggets' playbook, remaking Philadelphia’s offense in the image of last postseason’s juggernaut. Like any sport, the NBA is a copycat league. Teams will try to mimic what works, whether it’s Heatles-inspired super teams, Warriors-era small-ball, or Harden-like heliocentric offenses. The Nuggets, the league’s defending champions, provide the latest blueprint. 

The problem is that most teams don’t have anyone like Jokic, who can act as the central hub while also posting dominating stats. Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis and Houston’s Alperen Sengun are often cited as the closest Jokic imitators. From a play-making perspective, that may be true. Jokic, Sabonis and Sengun are the only centers averaging more than six assists per game. The problem is that neither Sabonis nor Sengun provides the scoring. 

Jokic is averaging 30 points per game this season, nearly 11 more points than Sabonis (19.1) and Sengun (19.4). Lost in the flashy passing and advanced stats mumbo jumbo is that Jokic is a flat-out dominant scorer. 

Embiid is the only center that comes close in terms of sheer production. Over the last five seasons, no center has scored nearly as many points as Jokic and Embiid.

Top scoring centers over last five years


Total Points








Nikola Vucevic



Karl-Anthony Towns



Jonas Valanciunas



Over their careers, Jokic averages nearly twice as many assists (6.7) as Embiid (3.5). Jokic is untouchable as a big-man passer, but the gap might have been closer if Embiid played in a more Denver-like system. (It’s fair to wonder if Embiid was capable of playing anything like Jokic earlier in his career. But he appears capable now.)

Embiid is averaging a career-high 5.8 assists per game. Pick-and-roll and isolation possessions are down in Philadelphia while shots off handoffs and cuts are up. The 76ers are running 7.2 dribble handoffs per game, up from 2.9 last season, which ranked second-fewest in the league. 

Isolation possessions are down, from 12.6 to 8.5. The 76ers are scoring off cuts on 7.2 possessions per game compared to 5.6 last season, the second-lowest mark in the league.

Philadelphia's Denver-ized offense


This season

Last season










A big reason for the change in Philadelphia is Maxey, who has taken a nearly-unprecendented leap and is playing like a bona fide All-Star. Maxey has replaced Harden as the team’s lead guard and is averaging 27.6 points on 48.6% shooting and 6.7 assists. 

With Maxey, the offense keeps it moving. His average time per touch is 5.02 seconds, more than a half second shorter than Harden last season. He’s a more willing shooter off the catch, averaging 2.8 catch-and-shoot attempts per game compared to Harden’s 1.8. 

The pecking order is cleaner. Embiid is the No. 1 option, Maxey is the No. 2, and everybody else plays off of them. One of Philadelphia’s best actions is to have Maxey screen for a supporting player while Embiid handles the ball high up on the floor. 

Embiid is revealing that he can do more than roll to the basket, pop for mid-range jumpers and post up. He’s a good passer, who drops dimes with timing and accuracy. The 76ers are comfortable giving him the ball at the elbow and letting him make decisions.

The Sixers are owners of the East’s second-best record and look every bit a conference title contender. The Boston Celtics are the favorites and the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat cannot be counted out, but this might be Embiid’s best chance yet.

There are reports out of Chicago that the Bulls are open to trading Zach LaVine. After trading Harden to the L.A. Clippers for expiring contracts and picks, the 76ers have the assets to make a legitimate offer and are a rumored destination

The 76ers should not trade for LaVine. He’s a talented scorer, but the 76ers already have a talented scorer at home in Maxey. Pairing LaVine and Maxey together would handcuff a defense that already ranks just outside the top 10 in defensive rating, not to mention it could upend the established pecking order. 

If the 76ers were to trade for any Bulls guard, it should be Alex Caruso. Caruso is a cleaner fit who could play alongside Maxey and defend the East’s top guards like Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday and Tyrese Haliburton in the playoffs. He’s an All-NBA defender, reliable shooter and a smart player who knows how to play off stars – whether it was LeBron in Los Angeles during the 2019 championship run or DeMar DeRozan and Lavine in Chicago.

With two stars in place and a system that works, the 76ers don’t need to go star hunting. The Nuggets built a champion by establishing a style of play built around their top two players and acquiring guys who complement them. The 76ers should focus on doing the same. 

And with any luck, Embiid could have one more thing in common with Jokic. 

A ring.