February 15, 2020
All-Star weekend is the perfect time for reporters from all around the world to ask questions of players that they have probably already answered several times before. On Saturday morning, Sixers center Joel Embiid had the opportunity to address the fit concerns presented by playing with Ben Simmons, and he was clear as he always tends to be.
"I think it's B.S. because when you look at the last couple of years, the last two years we were playing together, it was not a problem," Embiid said, via Keith Pompey of The Inquirer. "This year it's only a problem because at times our offense has struggled, I think it's going to be better after the All-Star break. Just look at the last two years what we've been able to do, I think it can work and it's going to work."
This is the conversation that has defined the team from the national view from their very first moment of adversity. The Sixers came into the 2018 playoffs with a reputation as perhaps the scariest young team in the league, owners of an elite five-man lineup and riding a ridiculous hot streak to end the year. But after the Celtics beat them up in Round 2, the questions about Embiid and Simmons' fit on and off the court grew louder, and have never truly gone away.
The speculation makes sense on multiple levels. They thrive in opposite styles, with one best suited for run-and-gun and the other preferring to play at a snail's pace. Both need proper spacing to be at their best, and neither really provides it for the other. Basketball is a rhythm sport, and when a team has to toggle between styles for its two best players, it doesn't just impact Embiid and Simmons, it impacts the touches and timing for the whole team.
Without major development or a change in how they play, questions about whether they can win together were always going to come. And this season, they are no longer producing together at the same level of years past. Last season, Embiid's net efficiency was identical whether they were playing together or apart, the Sixers a healthy 7.6 points better than the competition. Even if you remove Al Horford from the conversation, Embiid & Simmons lineups are only about 3.1 points better than their opponents, a number that doesn't match the raw talent.
When you see how dominant they can be individually, you wonder what each would look like with a roster tailored exclusively to their talents. But Embiid is right in the sense that the tone and speed of the conversation have reached a point of insanity, context considered.
Every year, there has been some hurdle for the Sixers to overcome. They were built around young, inexperienced players in Simmons' first year, and they had three different versions of the team last year, still managing to push the eventual champions to seven games anyway. They followed up their best year together by signing another center that was plopped next to Embiid in the starting lineup, further complicating the on-court fit. You can convince yourself they have been let down by the surrounding context as easily as you can conclude they are fatally flawed.
Young players simply don't win in the NBA, not without a whole lot of help from elite, experienced players. Embiid and Simmons' early success was so abnormal by most standards that they started being judged by standards most young guys avoid until 4-5 years into their careers. There was no fun, young period like the Memphis Grizzlies are having this season, just an expectation for them to dominate.
That leaves the conversation in a place where every bump in the road is spoken of as a permanent issue rather than something they have to learn to overcome.
Sometimes these claims are more reasonable than others. Simmons' lack of progress as a shooter is the best example, as it seems the most obvious thing to fix and has not changed in any meaningful way since his rookie season. But we see signs of progress, too, be they snug pick-and-rolls with Embiid and Simmons, Simmons stepping outside of the point guard box, and the impact of lineup changes around them to open up space for the duo to go to work.
We rarely ever talk about their fit on defense, which I think people often forget is half of the sport. You could not find two better foundational pieces to build an elite defense, which is what the Sixers have. Simmons is an elite defender who can guard basically every great perimeter player in the league, and if he gets beat, he has one of the best rim protectors in the league waiting behind him. Were you to trade either player, you would essentially guarantee a defensive drop-off.
Speaking of, the fake/theoretical trades inspired by their road struggles were downright ridiculous at points this season. A theoretical trade of Joel Embiid to the Clippers for Montrezl Harell and Landry Shamet was floated by The Ringer at one point this year, a trade that would solve nothing and actively make the Sixers much worse in the short and long term. There is an idea out there that simply getting more shooters on the floor would allow the team to build around Simmons, which fails to account for the fact that when Embiid misses time, the offense from a team perspective often gets worse, even as Simmons' individual numbers improve.
It is absolutely true that they are not an ideal fit next to one another, and that can wear you down over time. Simmons and Embiid both have big egos (as they should, frankly) and are smart enough to understand that they could probably post better individual numbers if the other was shipped out for better-fitting pieces. But they have already produced at a level good enough to earn max contracts, to appear in All-Star games, and earn consideration for year-end awards.
The only question is whether they can combine well enough to win a championship together. The answer is certainly up for debate, but the punishment for believing it is "Yes" and being wrong is probably a continued string of 50-ish win seasons. If you believe it is "No" and end up being wrong about their ability to develop and win together, the cost is throwing away the best chance the franchise has had to contend in two decades, and depending on how you feel about the 2001 76ers' actual chances to win, perhaps much longer than that.
Keeping these two together might lead to a lot of offensively-challenge performances, segments on First Take, and fractured groups of the fanbase who support one guy over the other. But until/unless the Sixers can 100 percent conclude they are doomed to fail, anything other than trying to make it work is malpractice.
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