On Tuesday, September 28th, while fans of the Philadelphia Eagles were still reeling with the losses of Isaac Seumalo and Week 3, Sam Amick of The Athletic submitted a report with the following excerpt salaciously included in the body of its promotional tweet, “While it’s not personal, Simmons believes that playing around (Joel) Embiid’s style isn’t conducive to the way he needs to play.”
This reminds me of another quote, a one-line from the movie Friday; you know the one.
Is there some truth to his assertion? Yes. Because Simmons can really only score in the paint, having the most dominant post presence in the NBA taking up that space leaves him a bit like a man without a country, even if that has more to do with the player’s lack of offensive development than the finite amount of space available under the basket.
But make no mistake about it, the incompatibility of Ben Simmons’ game with Joel Embiid isn’t a one-way street. If anything, shedding the former may actually unlock the game of the latter, in addition to the Philadelphia 76ers as a whole.
The Philadelphia 76ers should shine with a 3-and-D point guard.
How many times did you hear something to the effect of”the Philadelphia 76ers are playing five on four out there” during the 2020-21 NBA playoffs? Once? Ten times? One hundred?
Well, there’s good reason for that: It was sort of true.
Once Ben Simmons dribbled the ball up the court, he would pass it off to Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, or maybe even Seth Curry, and then slink off into the corner where every single person on earth knew he wouldn’t attempt a shot even if he had the widest open 3 in NBA history.
This, obviously, was a problem, as it allowed opposing teams to effectively run a free defender as a roaming double-teamer; one oftentimes deployed on Embiid the second he touched the ball in order to exploit his handle.
Despite being the team’s point guard, Simmons ranked ninth on the Sixers lineup in usage rate at 16.5, the fourth-worst mark in the starting five in front of only Danny Green. Simmons had fewer plays called his way on average than Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, and even Dwight Howard, which feels borderline crazy.
But wait, it gets worse; despite averaging roughly a minute more time on court during the playoffs versus the regular season and an additional .8 touches per game, Simmons actually held onto the ball for 35 seconds less on each touch during the Sixers playoff run.
And in the second round versus the whole? My goodness, it gets even worse. Embiid’s average touches jump from 70.5 for the playoffs as a whole to 81.6, a mere 1.5 fewer than the team’s point guard. He had the most plays called for him by a near 2:1 clip and was effectively tasked with getting points one way or another largely on his own.
Now imagine, if you will, what it would be like if Embiid had a point guard who could just shoot 3s on the wings. Imagine this hypothetical point guard getting Embiid the ball in the paint early in the clock – something Simmons would often do – but instead of sulking back unguarded while waiting for a chance to play defense, he actually remained engaged on the wings waiting for an outside shot? Just think about how much that could impact the team moving forward.
Well, for one, opposing teams couldn’t double-team Embiid with a clear conscience without know that it would leave a shooter available on the wings. They’d still surely do so, as Embiid is so good he demands double-teams, but when “The Process” sees two guys in his general area, he’d know that someone is open and to get the ball out to his closest wing.
Even if that doesn’t directly result in an assist on Embiid’s stat line, it could still put a few more points on the scoreboard.
And then there’s the concept of driving to the basket for points in the paint.
While Simmons did score 8.8 of his 14.3 points per game during the regular season within five feet of the basket – averaging more shots per game in that area than Embiid 7.0 to 5.3 – he averaged 5.8 fewer free throw attempts per game and made them at a 61.3 percent clip versus Embiid’s 85.9.
Had Simmons retained these averages in the playoffs, maybe the Sixers’ fate would have been different, but instead, his free throw averaged dropped down to a horrid 34.2 percent, which generated a veritable pause within the three-time All-Star about going to the line out of fear of getting laughed at by Anthony Mackie and the like. This is why Simmons stopped driving to the basket, why he avoided contact whenever possible, and why Doc Rivers started giving the ball to Tyrese Maxey or Shake Milton in the final few minutes of any quarter before the clock hit the two-minute mark.
If the Sixers instead had a fearless driver who embraced contract and enjoyed picking up easy points from the line, maybe teams would have been forced to play the team differently. Maybe Rivers wouldn’t have had to sub out their best defender for a 20-year-old rookie and would have instead been able to fight the Hawks at both ends of the court with his starting lineup, which ranked first overall in the league in both regular season +/- and postseason +/-.
Because the Sixers would often have to sub Simmons out of games for portions of the fourth quarter, they’d have to suffer through valuable minutes without their best defender in the hopes of getting something going on offense, which then, in turn, would evaporate when a player like Maxey or Milton was subbed out of the game.
With Simmons off the court in Game 6, the Sixers watched their lead evaporate from six to one from 6:04 to 1:59. The team suffered through a similar miscue in Game 5, where Simmons’ break only lasted a minute after Milton stifled the offensive momentum in abbreviated action and Trae Young put up a quick two in 59 seconds of action.
At its core, the NBA is a star-driven league. If the Philadelphia 76ers have to sub out one of their stars in an elimination playoff game for a bench player, they are at a clear disadvantage.
In an ideal world, the Philadelphia 76ers would go out and find themselves a point guard who can get the rock to Joel Embiid in the paint, run pick-and-rolls with “The Process” blocking up front, and, most importantly of all, serve as a viable 3 point shooter on the wings when the ball is out of his hands. Ben Simmons checks none of those boxes. Are there players who do? Sure. Damian Lillard is probably the ultimate example in the NBA today, but players like Darius Garland fit that bill at an acceptable enough level to maximize Embiid’s prime and hopefully unlock his true offensive potential. If Daryl Morey is serious about maximizing his best player’s prime, he’ll swap out Simmons for someone whose style is conducive to his best player’s success.