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December 06, 2019

The Sixers are the team Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons allow them to be

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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are very, very good at basketball. They have earned the individual accolades they have received up to this point in their careers, and are the primary reason the Sixers emerged from "The Process" with a chance to win big, now and in the future.

They are also the reason the team is what it is today: infuriating, inconsistent, and as capable of flaming out in the second round as they are of winning a title. Multiple Sixers GM's have moved aggressively to address the fundamental problems that arise when building around a 6'10" point guard who can't shoot and a post-up center, and we always arrive back at the same place. 

Bryan Colangelo made a well-publicized trade to bring in Markelle Fultz, the idea being that they needed another playmaker in the starting lineup. Elton Brand saw an opportunity to bring in Jimmy Butler, a multi-talented if disgruntled star, and cashed in two beloved role players (and also Jerryd Bayless) in search of that same perimeter dynamism they thought they lacked. Brand watched his team get punched in the mouth by Toronto last February and soon after paid a king's ransom for extra firepower in the form of Tobias Harris; he watched Kawhi Leonard benefit from load management and brought in Al Horford, the ultimate backup plan for Embiid.

The supporting cast grows gaudier, the numbers and style ebb and flow, but fundamentally the Sixers have been the same the entire time. They have the same elite five-man lineup numbers, they have an improved but flawed bench, they are great on their home floor, and yet they are still prone to the same offensive swoons, the same lapses in concentration, the same bewildering ability to play up or down to their competition.

Last season, Butler's presence gave them cover during times when they mailed it in. His own disinterest in turning it up before the fourth quarter and/or the playoffs was seen as a possible catalyst for lethargy. Surrounded by high-character players who compete regardless of circumstance, like Tobias Harris, like Al Horford, we are still here today wondering why the Sixers need all 48 minutes to beat teams like the Knicks, or why the Sixers explicitly prepare for an up-tempo, offensive team like Washington and then appear half-interested in putting that prep into practice when it matters.

Putzing around and out-talenting teams in the regular season are what teams usually do after they have figured out what it takes to win at the highest level in the playoffs. The problem is that the players and teams these two want to be compared against are lapping them when it comes to the seriousness of their approach.

Pascal Siakam was averaging just over four points and 15 minutes per game the year Simmons was drafted, and now he's ahead of both Philadelphia's stars in the MVP race. Giannis Antetokounmpo won an MVP and advanced to the Conference Finals last season, and he has responded to losing to Toronto last year by leading an ass-kicking parade in Milwaukee. LeBron James has won everything there is to win as an NBA player, but after being humbled last season, he is on a public revenge tour to prove he's still one of the game's greats.

The only time the Sixers have shown that same killer instinct is when they had a point to prove to a returning Butler in late November. That in itself tells the story. They have the capacity to be great without the day-to-day, moment-to-moment fortitude to achieve it. They are still competing as if the bar for their success is against second and third-tier players who have "nice" careers but never amount to much as primary options.

Some will point the fingers at the imperfect team construction, but few stars have the benefit of a perfect roster around them, and few need as specific a fit around them as these two. Embiid and Simmons have returned after a crushing postseason defeat and are no more capable of running a two-man action together than they were when they first stepped on the floor together in 2017. The Sixers went out and got the best possible backup plan for Embiid, who said in May his thoughts on load management would shift based on how good he felt about the plan for playing without him, only for him to call load management "B.S." and play back-to-backs seemingly at will this season. 

All of this adds up to a recipe of a team that will constantly have to play without homecourt advantage in the rounds that matter. The trophy at the end of the year does not get awarded to the guys who arrive to the league with the most talent. 

And the talent, for the record, is blinding. When Simmons is committed to defense, he has few peers around the league. When Embiid runs the floor and seals off his man, he is a walking free-throw machine. Even in terrible losses like that defeat in Washington, there are periodic stretches where they turn it up and score 8-10 quick points and you feel an avalanche start to build. They have looked like a trainwreck at times, and yet they're still on pace to win 50+ games for the third consecutive year.

Some point the finger at the head coach for the failure to hit that level all of the time. Consider how many changes Sixers have made on the philosophy/approach front, and the commitment the team gets from other guys up and down the roster. They are posting up at an insane rate for a team in 2019, trying to max out the value of Embiid's gifts on the block, and they have improved at spacing around him to give him outlets vs. double teams. They are throwing varied coverages at teams on defense, from blitzing to zone to simply fighting over screens more. They are letting Harris, Josh Richardson, and even their backup bench guards run more pick-and-roll, utilizing both Simmons and Embiid as screeners to free up the ballhandlers.

Perhaps a new voice would do them good in any case. But what option exists who brings the combination of tactical nuance and cache they need in order to get a buy-in? An equivalent of Phil Jackson to the Lakers in 1999 is not out there. They would be pilfering through a pile of retreads, college coaches, and unproven assistants, none of whom would walk into the organization with more clout than Embiid and Simmons. It is more comforting for the public to believe a change in voice is the necessary fix than it is to think the two most talented Sixers in two decades could fall victim to hubris.

When the Sixers inevitably pound some bad team into submission in the next week or perhaps score a win over the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, it will be used as proof of their growth and credentials as contenders, only for the cycle to begin anew when they play with fire and get burned against another team with inferior talent. The conversation never really changes, there are just fleeting victories for either side of the debate.

Basketball is not a complicated sport. The responsibility of the franchise is in the hands of their two best and most important players, and the challenge is to be great, not just to be "good enough." Their future will hinge on whether they understand how rare it is for that choice to be available to them at all. 


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