Philadelphia 76ers: Can Ben Simmons co-exist with Joel Embiid?

NBA Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
NBA Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

In a league full of dynamic duos, are Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid a pairing that the Philadelphia 76ers can make work long term for the foreseeable future?

In a league full of dynamic duos, the tandem of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have underachieved throughout the first quarter of the 2019-20 season. Last season, the pairing combined for 44.4 points, 22.4 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game; forming one of the youngest, deadliest pairings in the league.

This year, the Philadelphia 76ers hold on to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 22-10 record. They place behind the Bucks, Heat, Celtics, Pacers, and Raptors.

Coming into the season Philly was widely viewed as the team to come out of the Eastern Conference and, although we’re only 32 games in, they’ve been a huge disappointment thus far. Their success is largely predicated on the production of Simmons and Embiid. So far, this season has been a step backward in terms of their overall play together.

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As it stands, the two currently combine for averages of 37.1 points, 19.3 rebounds, and 11.4 assists. There hasn’t been a monumental drop off in their production, however, for two-star players – at the ages of 23 and 25 – entering their prime, it’s a little concerning.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Embiid and Simmons have plateaued, but at this point in their NBA tenure’s they should be ascending in an upward trajectory, considering this is their third year on the court together.

All that being said, their production as of late has raised the question to me: Can Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid really co-exist?

No. Here’s why.

In 2017-18, the Philadelphia 76ers went on an incredible 17-game win streak heading into the postseason. Ben Simmons led the charge and was, subsequently, named Rookie of The Year. The 6-foot-10 guard nearly averaged a triple-double during their run, posting averages of 14.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 10.6 assists per game.

Philly’s playstyle was reminiscent of how Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are currently playing (more on that later).

Within the win streak, Joel Embiid only managed to play eight games. He averaged 19.1 points and collected 10.9 rebounds while shooting 45.5 percent from the field.

With Embiid in and out of the lineup, the 76ers were able to surround Simmons with a multitude of 3-point shooters and play at a more uptempo pace. Prior to the winning streak, Philly averaged 107.8 points per game and shot 36.5 percent from beyond the arc. Be that as it may, during the run – when Simmons was surrounded by personnel that complimented his skillset – the 76ers averaged 118.9 points per game and shot 39.6 percent from 3.

The city of brotherly love possessed a myriad of 3-point threats that opened up the floor and allowed Ben Simmons to flourish. Those 3-point shooters being, J.J. Redick (44.4%), Robert Covington (40.7%), Marco Belinelli (42.6%), and Ersan Ilyasova (38.2%).

Philly went on to the playoffs to defeat the Miami Heat in the first round 4-1 before being eliminated by the Boston Celtics.

Nevertheless, that 17-game stretch made it readily apparent that Simmons is a much better ball player when Embiid is off the court. Similarly, a season ago, in the 17 games Embiid missed, Simmons averaged 20.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 7.5 assists. As expected, the Australian guard played phenomenally; showcasing his inner Magic Johnson.

His game appears to evolve without Embiid on the court. I completely understand that Philadelphia 76ers general manager, Elton Brand, values these two generational talents immensely, but I think it has been proven that both players thrive in a system with floor spacing; without each other.

The 23-year-old’s best two lineups, 90 minutes, are 65 percent more effective with Joel Embiid off the court. The lineup of Ennis, Harris, Horford, Simmons, and Thybulle post a net rating of +27.0 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the lineup of Horford, Harris, Richardson, Thybulle, and Simmons post a rating of +18.1.

Simmons is at his best when he’s in transition. But Brett Brown and the coaching staff, understandably, like to slow down the game in order to post up Joel Embiid – stymieing Simmons’ best trait as a player. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging a career-low in points and rebounds at 14.3 and 7.0, along with 8.5 assists per game.

The 76ers roster is currently comprised of players such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, Al Horford, Mike Scott, James Ennis, Trey Burke, and Furkan Korkmaz.

Does anything stand out to you?

It’s probably the fact that this team lacks adequate shooting in a league where the 3-ball is a necessity.

As a team, the 76ers shoot 36.2 percent from 3, which is slightly above the league average (35.5%).

For Ben Simmons to thrive the roster must be completely constructed to fit his strengths. In other words, having a ball-dominant center and below-average 3-point shooters will only hinder his abilities.

I’m not implying that Joel Embiid, averaging 23.0 points and 12.6 rebounds, is the reason for Philly’s struggles, only that these stars will never be able to maximize their talent and reach their full potential if they remain on the same team throughout their respective careers.

Ben Simmons needs a team resembling how John Horst built the Bucks around the 2019 NBA MVP. Simmons and Antetokounmpo have a similar build. They’re both lengthy, athletic, playmakers. However, the Philadelphia point guard has far superior innate playmaking abilities and elite-level handles; as a result, he should be nearly mirroring Giannis’ production.

With Antetokounmpo as the focal point, Horst acquired numerous deadly shooters that, subsequently, spread the floor and opened up driving lanes for the Greek Freak to operate in.

The 6-foot-11 forward is surrounded by the likes of Khris Middleton (40.4%), Wesley Matthews (38.4%), George Hill(51.2%), Kyle Korver (38.4%), Sterling Brown (38.9%), and Eric Bledsoe (34.4%). The Bucks’ roster consists of multiple players well above the 3-point average. As a team, Milwaukee shoots 39.4 percent from 3.

As a result, Milwaukee leads the NBA with a 27-4 record and posses the frontrunner for MVP (again), Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This Bucks club gets out and runs. They rank first in the league in pace with a rating of 105.3, whereas Philly ranks 18th with a 100.3 rating. A system, similar to Milwaukee, that focuses on transition buckets and outside shooting is exactly what Ben Simmons needs.

Although Simmons and Embiid form a formidable duo that has been exceedingly successful in recent years, their fit together is noticeably unnatural. Both are extremely talented, rare players that are stalling out due to their play styles coinciding with one another.

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Trading one of the two is a definite no. But, Brett Brown needs to find a way to devise lineups that optimize their strengths. If he is able to accomplish this task, then Philly can reach another level. As for now, the two stars cannot exist with one another without compromising their abilities.