Game recognizes game. Real recognizes real. I don’t know who said it first, but I do know that evidence of its underlying wisdom can be found inside the Sixers’ locker room, which as of Monday night still felt like a place where you’d be comfortable bunkering down in the midst of a global pandemic.
There are no fist prints in the drywall, or dents in the lockers, or chalk outlines on the floor. It won’t be hosting any charity galas in the near future — it sometimes smells like your grandmother’s basement, and when fully occupied, the limb-to-floor-space ratio is distressingly small -- but it is nevertheless a room that remains structurally sound.
This is an important observation to consider whenever the conversation turns toward Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Given the speculation that has long swirled around the relationship between the Wells Fargo Center’s two most famous inhabitants, one could be forgiven for envisioning a scene akin to Vimy Ridge circa 1917.
Whether that is an accurate gauge of what lies beneath is something that only the players and their confidants know. What we can say for sure is that things have gone about as well as could have been hoped for the coaches and executives responsible for building an elite NBA team out of Embiid’s and Simmons’ physical gifts. The Sixers are on track for their third consecutive 50-win season, both players are happy enough with their individual lots that they’ve signed contract extensions, and the arena has been filled to capacity for 122 consecutive games.
Things are good. Not perfect. But good. In a league in which dysfunction can feel like the norm, you’re treading into Faustian territory to complain of the lack of anything more.
Yet physical function matters, and what we’ve seen thus far suggests the Sixers will be far from their optimal form as long as Embiid and Simmons are playing together in their current states. This season, they have often been a better team when one of the two is on the sideline than when both are on the court. When Embiid plays without Simmons, the Sixers are outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions. When Simmons plays without Embiid, they are outscoring teams by 2.4 points. Yet when they play together, that point differential is just 1.2 points.
There is lots of potential noise in such numbers, but the signal is strong. When Simmons is off the court, Embiid scores 20% more points with 42% more assists. When Embiid is off the court, Simmons sees an improvement that, while less severe, is nevertheless pronounced.
Table: Sixers performance as a team per 100 possessions
Lest you think this bodes well for the Sixers’ future now that Simmons will miss an indefinite amount of time with a nerve impingement in his back, keep in mind that the numbers hardly suggest the Sixers are better off without him. They might not even suggest that Embiid is his best self with Simmons off the court. The fact that the big guy averages more than six personal fouls per 100 possessions without his buddy is surely a testament to the impact of Simmons’ stellar perimeter defense and ability to help around the rim. The Sixers have lost half of the games that Simmons has not played over the last couple of seasons, and while he has missed only six of them, that’s also part of the point.
With all due respect to Embiid — and he is due plenty — Simmons’ indefatigable physical condition is just as valuable an asset for the Sixers as anything the big guy brings. One of the most important abilities is availability, let alone all of the things that Simmons does when he is on the court to both make Embiid’s life easier and make his frequent unavailability — within games, included — easier to take.
Besides, with Simmons gone for at least two weeks and likely longer, the thing to consider is the Sixers’ performance when neither he nor Embiid has been on the court. In 363 such minutes this season, they have been outscored by an average of 106-100 every 100 possessions. Assuming Embiid averages 32 minutes per game, that would leave nearly 100 such minutes to kill between now and Simmons’ next medical evaluation.
Within that short(ish)-term dilemma lies the crux of a long-term one that the Sixers must prepare themselves to confront. If the team that we’ve seen during the regular season is the one that shows up in the playoffs, the front office is going to have a slew of tough decisions to make this summer.
Can the Sixers find a landing spot for Al Horford in a deal that leaves them better off? Should they attempt to trade Josh Richardson for a ballhandler or shooter who better fits with their two young stars? Is there a free-agent coach available who can make the pieces fit better than Brett Brown?
But before the Sixers answer any of these questions, they must first consider the biggest one of all. Does it make sense to continue to look for the three players and one coach who might have the specialized skill sets to make the Embiid-Simmons pairing work? Or does the best path to a championship involve trading one of the two young stars for another who brings more compatibility?
Watching the way Simmons took charge of the Sixers while Embiid recovered from his latest injury, it was easier than ever to talk yourself into seeing an obvious solution to their problems. If the opportunity arose to trade Embiid for a top-shelf guard (Bradley Beal? Damian Lillard?) and add a natural stretch four (Davis Bertans? Danilo Gallinari?), wouldn’t that make some sense? The Horford problem would go away (presumably), Simmons would have three shooters to kick out to, and the Sixers would no longer face the calamitous risk of Embiid’s body breaking down on their watch.
It was only ever a thought experiment, but it at least seemed one worthy of engagement. That would not be the case if you could guarantee five more years of health and continued development out of Embiid. Even a guaranteed three more years of the player we’ve seen would require a significant leap of faith that the resulting team would be equivalent or better.
The point is that, with Simmons now dealing with a back issue, the thought isn’t even worthy of engagement. Thus far, there’s no evidence that suggests his injury is worthy of long-term concern. And if he is healthy and back to his old self, the future of his partnership with Embiid could be worth revisiting.
But if there was ever an optimal time to consider trading an immensely popular homegrown star who has the physical ability to become one of the best there ever was, it isn’t when your preferred basket of eggs has a nerve impingement in his back.
That’s the frustrating thing about the Sixers over the last three years. Every step they take toward the future ends up leading back to square one. Hello and goodbye, Markelle Fultz. Hello and goodbye, Jimmy Butler. Hello and goodbye, bully ball, and, oh, hey there again. If the season ends before it was supposed to, and Simmons’ injury is a contributing factor, what will we have really learned about this team?