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January 20, 2023

Mailbag: Is Ben Simmons closer to a ring than Joel Embiid?

From Ben Simmons' championship chances to HBO's "The Last of Us" and more, Kyle Neubeck answers Sixers fans' questions.

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Joel_Embiid_Ben_Simmons_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and former teammate Ben Simmons.

The Sixers are one of the hottest teams in basketball, tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, and it feels like hardly anybody has noticed. A home playoff game for the Eagles will certainly overshadow Sixers-Kings on Saturday night, but even with that in mind, I'm surprised more people haven't picked up on how good the Sixers are right now.

Their loss (or perhaps your loss) if that's the case. Let's dive into the mailbag for the week.

Buddy, have you seen Ben Simmons play this year? This question was asked two days ago, prior to Simmons' ejection stinkbomb against the Phoenix Suns, but his issues stretch far beyond a one-off performance.

Here are the only ways this premise would hold up:

  1. You believe Kevin Durant is better equipped to lead a team to a title than Joel Embiid. This isn't crazy, and KD was out of sight before his recent injury, but he's 34 years old and injured fairly often now.
  2. You believe Simmons is viewed more as a role player now, and think that will allow him to ride somebody else's coattails to a title. Sort of in line with point No. 1, but could theoretically happen elsewhere down the road.

There's no other way to spin it otherwise. Simmons is averaging 7.5 points per game, has completely fallen off a cliff as a free-throw shooter/attempter, and has no claim to being a useful offensive player anymore. Forget about being on the same team as him, if he is not on the floor with Durant, you are losing those minutes. With Simmons on the floor and Durant on the bench, the Nets have an offense in the 1st percentile leaguewide, losing those minutes by 4.8 points per 100 possessions. And though lineups with Simmons and Nic Claxton have worked okay so far with Durant, it has required Durant to play at an almost impossibly high level for that spacing disaster to work.

I think it's fair to wonder if Joel Embiid has what it takes to be a title-winning No. 1 option. The league is not exactly structured in a way that benefits talented bigs anymore, and Embiid still has problems of his own to overcome to get out of the second round, let alone win a title. But there's not a chance in hell I would gamble on Simmons, whose issues are well-documented, over Embiid in any sort of basketball debate. For anyone who would, you're basically making the basketball version of the, "My brother could beat up your brother!" claim a little kid makes when they're hopeless on their own. Best wishes.

A lot of my close friends played the game, so I admit I don't have a ton of people I've talked to about the show who are going into the show blind. But I have to say, as someone who holds the first game in high regard, HBO's pilot for "The Last of Us" absolutely nailed it. If you are not watching this show, bump it up the priority list.

I think what I appreciated so much about the debut episode, with the caveat that I have no idea what's to come, is that they left standout moments from the opening of the game alone and ultimately brought more life to them with background work. Instead of trying to tell their own version of a story people love, which has a lot of pitfalls, HBO (with assistance from Neil Druckmann, etc.) used the major points of the game as building blocks and worked backward from there, fleshing out the stories of the main characters up to this point. People fell in love with the story in this game for good reason, and I think the first episode did a fantastic job of setting up the world, diving deeper into the characters, and adding some wonderful details that don't exist in the game.

As a matter of personal taste, I'm quite alright with people spinning a beloved property in their own unique way, because we get to see what it looks like in the hands of different creators. The Batman movies are a great example of this — the mid-90s movies were basically a disaster, but I am fond of the Tim Burton movies that blended camp with darker elements, the grittier Christopher Nolan movies, and Matt Reeves' latest movie might be my favorite of all thanks to all the time spent on detective work (and the Nirvana song that got stuck in my head for weeks). If "TLOU" stays on the tried and true path laid out by the game, I'm sure I'll be happy with it, but I'm intrigued to see where they go with the rest of the story.

Speaking of songs stuck in my head," TLOU" ensured that Depeche Mode has been in my brain all week, so thanks for that, HBO.

The million-dollar question is this — if you want to keep Embiid and James Harden on the floor together at all times, can you win (or at least hang close to neutral) in the 10-ish minutes they're likely to sit in a playoff game? If you think you can, then sure, you basically have to get Harris out there on the floor with Maxey for a bit of scoring support.

It feels to me like one of those lineup combinations you can only get away with in the regular season, though. Maxey has looked great as a sixth man the last couple of games, but you're asking him to clear a pretty high bar if we assume lineups anchored by Montrezl Harrell on the back end are going to bleed points. I tend to think they'll have to play Harden in those minutes when it really counts, or risk drowning against a team with a star on the floor to punish bench-heavy groups for Philly.

The beauty of doing a podcast with Eliot is that I don't have to change anything about myself or how I think about basketball, because we can both come in with our own perspectives and pull each other out of our comfort zones. He's also a more aggressive take guy than I am, which makes it so I can be more of a "voice of reason" while he is bold and wild and I can shout at him for it.

It's part of why I was interested in doing the pod with him to begin with, and I think it has been really easy to find the back-and-forth without having to force anything.

I have been trying to stress this to people for what feels like forever now, but yes, I absolutely think the Sixers should be taken seriously as a playoff threat. Their star combo has grown into an absolutely devastating partnership in the middle of the floor, Tobias Harris has evolved into his role, De'Anthony Melton has given them a lift, Tyrese Maxey looks to be rounding into get the picture.

The Boston Celtics have earned the right to be considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, based on their form this season and their playoff success relative to their peers over the last half-decade. But the Sixers have as good of a case as any team behind them right now, as I tried to lay out in a story earlier this week. Philadelphia will have to prove themselves against a tough schedule to close the year, but they have all the signs of an elite team — top-10 on both sides of the ball, an MVP candidate star, a capable sidekick, and so on. Don't sleep on them.

Golf is boring enough to watch as is, now add on the moral complexities of supporting a startup sports organization backed by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund. In the words of Randy Jackson, it's a no for me, dawg.

(Semi-related: I am currently grappling with the possibility of my beloved Liverpool Football Club being purchased by a similar outfit from one of the oil-rich countries overseas. I'm not under the impression that their current owners are saints, but the land of sports washing and nation-state ownership is a bridge too far for me.)

Feels like Jonathan Gannon, if anybody, based on how national broadcasts talk about him during Eagles games.

Personally, I'm out on the idea of hiring defensive coaches as your head coach except for in special circumstances, though that might be a silly view.

I would really have to know your taste to be at all useful here, as what I like might not translate to the average person. That said, a few favorites of mine: Suraya, Bing Bing Dim Sum, Ralph's, Fiorella, Double Knot, Hiroki if you want grade-A sushi (in quality and price), Dinic's at Reading Terminal for elite sandwiches, and now I am just getting hungry thinking about all of this food.

As much faith as I can have in a team that has a quarterback with at least a slightly worrisome shoulder. The Eagles could just be playing coy with Jalen Hurts, trying to catch the Giants off guard by unleashing him at full force on Saturday night. But I can't escape the feeling that he's worse off than they're letting on, and that would drastically change my outlook of this weekend and the path forward.

Otherwise, they've earned the trust and respect their record commands and I'm not going to spend a lot of time fretting over a sluggish end to the year. They've been an elite team for all (or at least most) of the season, they have weapons, they have defensive playmakers, and they are mostly healthy, a few notable exceptions aside. The conference is there for them to win.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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