NBA

If the 76ers can’t maximise Embiid and Simmons in the same lineup, they have a decision to make

January 29, 2020January 6th, 2022

ORDINARILY, having two players with the potential to be among the top 10, regardless of position, in the entire NBA is a sought-after privilege for any team. But the presence of both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is looking increasingly like a conundrum destined for an uncomfortable resolution for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Australian point guard Simmons is an unusual cocktail of attributes. At 6ft 10ins, he is huge for his position, which allows head coach Brett Brown to switch him into different roles in-game, playing him as a forward or even a centre for periods to give opponents puzzling looks. He is a breath-taking athlete, irresistible as he barrels through the lane and a dynamic, unstoppable finisher at the rim. Adding in the fact that he is a creative open-floor playmaker and one of the best defensive players in the league, there’s a lot to like about the 23-year-old from Melbourne.

But as the modern game shifts increasingly to an analytics-driven dependency on three-point shooting, Simmons’ aversion to taking aim from beyond the arc – he has made just two three-pointers from a meagre 22 attempts in his entire career to date – makes him an uneasy tactical fit. With the right adjustments and in the right team, Simmons is an MVP-calibre talent. But there is something disconcerting about his apparent unwillingness to work a decent jump shot into his arsenal. In December, Brown challenged Simmons to attempt at least one three in each game; he has taken precisely zero since then.

“We just got to look at ourselves and see what we can do individually. We’ve got to help each other even if it means being outside of your comfort zone for the greater [good] to help the team win. Meaning that, if you’ve got to space and shoot it, you’ve got to do it,” Embiid said recently in what has been perceived as a thinly veiled dig at Simmons.

Simmons’ refusing to shoot has mattered little, though, because in recent weeks he has produced his best form of the season, and indeed of his career thus far. And his uptick in performance has, alarmingly for the decision-makers in Philadelphia, come while co-star Embiid has been out injured.

Before a hand injury took Embiid's out of the rotation, Simmons averaged 14.9 points, 8.6 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game; solid numbers, roughly in line with – and in some cases slight improvements on – his production in the previous two seasons. Since Embiid has been out, though, Simmons has produced a staggering 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game, leading Philly, prior to Tuesday night’s visit of the Golden State Warriors, on a 6-3 run, with five wins from their last six games – including a 17-point demolition of the Western Conference-leading LA Lakers – to take their record to 30-17.

This isn’t to suggest that the Sixers are therefore simply better without Embiid, though. The 7ft Cameroonian is arguably the best centre in the NBA – you can debate whether Nikola Jokic’s creativity or Rudy Gobert’s defence edge them ahead, but Embiid is in the conversation and the more a fearsome all-round prospect of the trio.

Embiid has drawn criticism from Charles Barclay and Shaquille O'Neal this season for, essentially, staying in his comfort zone, rather than pushing himself into the echelon of the game’s great big men, something he certainly has the potential to accomplish. But even playing within his limitations, his 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds per game represents laudable production.

His durability a bigger issue, having already missed 16 games this season, through injury and suspension, and having only played around 40 per cent of the Sixers’ fixtures since he was drafted in 2014. By way of contrast, a foot injury kept Simmons sidelined for his entire rookie season, but the Australian has played in 97 per cent of Philly’s games since.

If Philadelphia want to win a championship any time soon, their best bet of doing so is with a healthy Embiid leading their front court. Getting out of the East requires getting past the Milwaukee Bucks, which means getting past reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Although they have lacked Milwaukee’s consistency, the Sixers have already proved they have got what it takes to beat the Bucks, having dealt the league’s best team at present a resounding 121-109 humbling on Christmas Day. And Embiid was the star of the show, shackling Antetokounmpo as well as anyone else has managed in the last two years, limiting the “Greek Freak” to just 18 points (he averages 30 per game) while putting up 31 points and 11 rebounds.

Embiid’s current injury has allowed for a kind of thought experiment in which the Sixers can imagine what a future without their star centre would look like. The awkward fit of Embiid and Simmons essentially boils down to the fact they both do their best work in similar areas; both men are at their best when surrounded by shooters to stretch the floor, creating space for them to work closer to the basket.

If it comes down to it, either man will be a huge trade piece, carrying enough cache to allow the Sixers to build adequately around whichever superstar they put their faith in. Philly will persevere for now, though, and give Brown, Simmons and Embiid every chance to strike upon a degree of chemistry as yet elusive.

Simmons’ unique and vast skillset makes him the rarer talent; Embiid is the best big in the East and likely an essential cog in any immediate success. But if they can’t work it out together, a difficult decision will have to be made.