Coming out of the All-Star break, the Philadelphia 76ers stand at 34-21, which is 5th best in the Eastern Conference. The team has two generational talents that have been surrounded by some impressive supporting casts over the past few years.
Their rosters have consisted of quality role players, budding stars, established veterans, and even perennial All-Stars. Both Ben Simmons (23) and Joel Embiid (25) are going to be a force in this league for years to come, but the question with them is if they can win together.
The conundrum with the Sixers is their inability to win key games in the playoffs. The team has been competitive for the last 2½ seasons after going through a doldrum from 2013-2017. This positive turnover was mainly due to the fact that the Sixers had a healthy Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid for the majority of the 2017/18 season.
Simmons, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, missed his entire 1st season after fracturing his right foot in training camp. Embiid, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, missed his first two seasons from an array of injuries and only played in 33 games in his 2016/17 rookie campaign. Both players began their path to stardom in the 2017/18 season with Embiid even earning his first All-Star appearance that season.
In that season, the Sixers improved from being the bottom feeders of the East to a 52-win squad that finished their regular season on a 16-game win streak, which was 3rd best in the conference even ahead of Lebron James’ Cleveland team. However, despite a breakout season from Philadelphia, the team lost to Boston in 5 games in the Conference Semis.
In the following season (2018/19), the Sixers made two major mid-season trades, as they acquired All-Star Jimmy Butler from Minnesota and Los Angeles Clippers star Tobias Harris. These additions gave the Sixers a formidable starting five of Simmons, JJ Redick, Butler, Harris, and Embiid.
Though as often happens, history repeated itself. This seemingly stacked team finished 3rd in the East with 50+ wins and ended up losing to Boston in 5 games in the Conference Semis again. The Sixers roster was just not clicking correctly despite the loaded talent.
This season, the team seems to be going down the same path too. The departure of Jimmy Butler was something the team needed to overcome, but they were able to add Josh Richardson and Al Horford in the off-season to complement their core of Simmons and Embiid in a very weak East. Yet, the Sixers still seem unable to reach that next level that the team believes they are capable of.
The two superstars that are both entering the primes of their careers have very distinct play styles. Simmons has been compared to the likes of Magic Johnson with his ability to be the floor general and run an offense. He is fantastic at pushing the pace and dishing the ball to open teammates. His tall 6’10’’ stature gives him a significant edge over other point guards offensively and defensively.
Simmons only default to his game is his inability to shoot the ball in a shooters league, which can occasionally make him a non-factor on offense, as shown in the postseason last year. Though he still is able to make his mark on the game even when he is not scoring, as he has averaged 8.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.7 steals, and nearly a block a game in 2½ years of playing.
Ben Simmons is a gamechanger on the court, which is why he has been selected to the All-Star team for the last two seasons despite averaging under 17 points per game (ppg).
On the other end of the spectrum is Embiid, who is a completely different type of player than Simmons. While Simmons loves to run the fast break, Embiid often fairs better when he is playing at his own pace in the half court.
He is a much more dominant force on offense too, whether that be posting up down low, driving to the basket or even shooting three pointers. Embiid has averaged 24 ppg over his career while also being one of the premier shot blocking big men with 1.8 blocks per game.
There is no denying Embiid when he is healthy, as his 7’0’’ height and 280lb physique is nearly unguardable to go along with his phenomenal skill sets and footwork. But of course, the answer with him is always IF he is healthy, so it begs the question, can the Sixers run a winning team through someone like Embiid?
Neither Simmons or Embiid plays great with one another as their play styles are just not that compatible with each other. When Simmons is running the show, Embiid cannot just wait in the corner for a shot because that would be underutilizing his skill sets and when Embiid is taking over on offense, Simmons can really only cut to the basket for a potential pass because of his inability to shoot outside shots.
This puts the Sixers in a predicament because these are two phenoms that have shown they can play, but they cannot win together. It is a tough decision to make for Philly because they know that if they trade either one of them away, the haul they get in return will not come close to the value of a Simmons or Embiid.
However, moves do need to be made eventually because Philadelphia looks to be heading down the same road they have in the previous two seasons with another possible early exit from the playoffs.
The Sixers do not want to fall into the same trap as the Portland Trailblazers with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They are one of the best backcourts in the league and has been thriving since the 2015/16 season with both players averaging over 20 ppg during that span.
The Blazers have mixed and matched their rosters, but the steady two that have always remained have been Lillard and McCollum. Though year in and year out, they are unable to become championship caliber. Since the dynamic duo became formidable, the team has had two first round exits, one second round exit, and one conference finals appearance.
Last season, the Blazers seemed determined to take the next jump, as all the pieces were in place for them to make it to the finals. They had just beaten the Denver Nuggets in a grueling and competitive 7 game series and were on to face the injury rattled Golden State Warriors.
However, the duo came up short once again, as the team suffered a crushing sweep with four heart-breaking losses in a row.
In the NBA, a strong duo does not guarantee anything. As shown from recent Finals winners, basketball is a team sport and teams need to have chemistry and the ability to play with one another successfully. The 2019 Toronto Raptors had a superstar in Kawhi Leonard take over the playoffs, but they also had a supporting cast around him that was able to complement his game rather than interfere with it.
The great Warriors team of 2015, 2017, and 2018 had a system of passing the ball to get the best possible shot, rather than a focus on isolation ball. They had great players, but it was Steph Curry’s ability to share the ball with other stars like Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant that made them a dynasty.
Teams have tried countlessly to win by relying just on two stars, even when they do not complement one another. Both Lillard and McCollum are shoot first guards and generally just take turns running the offense. Houston had the failed experiment of Chris Paul and James Harden that came up short of the Finals because Harden is a pure isolation player and Paul is a ball dominant facilitator.
Now Houston is trying to have Russell Westbrook and Harden coexist in the same backcourt despite both being very ball dominant players. Just because a team puts two extremely talented players beside one another, it does not mean the end result will always be successful.
The God-given talent that both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons possess is undeniable, but the Sixers have to open their eyes and come to the realization that these two may never be able to take their team to the promise land. Change must be made if the Sixers want to be competing in the finals anytime soon.
The choice is difficult, but Simmons is the player that the team should keep. He is like no other point guard in the league and finding someone to replace him is much tougher than replacing someone like Embiid. Simmons helps the team in every aspect of the game and aside from his first professional season, he is much less injury prone than Embiid.
Of course, the big-name center will not be easy to replace, but the league is beginning to shy away from players like him. Embiid can shoot jump shots, but he is much more of an inside presence. The Sixers would benefit best by surrounding Simmons with shooters and a center that he can throw alley oops to especially if it is a big man that can stretch the floor.
If the Sixers decide to go the Embiid route, then their offense would consist of lots of isolation ball and the pace of play they would play at would be much more stagnant. Simmons is the fast pace guard that can get to the rim and also kick it out to open shooters.
In today’s NBA, Ben Simmons is the player that will bring the Sixers success. Changing the status quo is a challenge for any organization, especially one that has seen some success from their young guns, but it is necessary for a positive change to happen. Only time will tell what the future holds for the Philadelphia 76ers.