Joel Embiid decided that, as the 76ers’ alpha dog, it was time for him to mark his territory, and he did so in the languid manner of a basset hound who had just finished a big meal. Sitting on the floor of the franchise’s practice facility, propped up against a blue padded wall, his phone a few feet in front of him, Embiid joined a Zoom call Tuesday and was asked about his clunky partnership with Al Horford. His head listing to the left, as if he could barely be bothered to answer the question, he reminded the call’s participants that it was more important for him, and for the Sixers, that he develop a more mutually beneficial relationship with another teammate.
“It’s just a matter of everybody buying in and being able to do their role,” he said. “The pairing with Al, I feel like, has been fine. At times, it could be better. But then again, everybody on the court has a job, and with that type of pairing, you need to have shooters around or you need to have guys who want to take that shot, especially when you have two inside presences. You’ve got to have guys who are willing to shoot and are going to shoot the ball. That’s what needs to happen.”
Shooters and guys – a plural way to frame what is, to Embiid, a singular issue. Put it this way: Embiid probably isn’t worried that Tobias Harris or Shake Milton will pass up a clear look at a 20-footer. This is about Ben Simmons, and everyone knows it’s about Ben Simmons, and after four months of waiting for the NBA season to restart, Embiid has resumed his not-so-subtle prodding of Simmons to diversify his already-multifaceted game.
“I want to be able to be put in a situation where I can help the team achieve the ultimate goal, which is win the championship,” Embiid said. “My teammates understand that, I believe. Ben, he’s going to do what he’s best at. I do understand how to play with him. I do understand him. I do understand how we can use him.”
As wondrous as Simmons’ defensive and open-court skills are, for all the great things he does and can do, his unwillingness to take an open jump shot often causes the gears of the Sixers’ half-court offense to grind and creak and sputter like an old machine. Opponents can double Embiid in the post more easily. There’s less space for Harris, even for Horford. Everyone has heard this before and knows it to be true, if you’re looking through honest eyes.
It doesn’t mean that Simmons is a lousy player or ought to be traded. It means neither of those things. It means Simmons, as good as he is now, will never be the player he has the potential to be, and the Sixers will never be the team they have the potential to be, unless he makes a good-faith effort to grow this aspect of his game. Embiid, to his credit, recognizes as much and has pushed Simmons to be braver about shooting the ball. He has done this before, and he’s doing it again now, and the last thing Simmons ought to do is bristle at Embiid’s comments. He asked for this. He gave Embiid the right and the freedom to talk this way.
“My weakness,” Simmons told ESPN in April, “is I need to have someone make me accountable.”
Embiid has happily accepted that responsibility – and the power dynamic that comes with it. It’s clear that he regards himself as the Sixers’ sun and Simmons as one of the planets in orbit around him. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t speak of understanding “how we can use” Simmons, as if Simmons were a supplementary player and not arguably the best wing defender in the NBA and one of the three max-contract players on the roster.
As far as Embiid is concerned, if there’s going to be any deferring within the Sixers’ offense, Simmons will be the one doing it. It will be on Simmons to improve so that he can better fit with Embiid, not the other way around, because Embiid’s role, in his mind, is already established.
“That should not even be a question,” Embiid said. “I know what I’m capable of, and I know what my teammates think of me. I know I’m capable of carrying the team. It’s all about me being assertive. If I feel like I’m not getting the ball, I’ve just got to talk to them and do what I have to do. But at the end of the day, I should never be in a position to complain about getting the ball, just because of who I am. I believe I can carry the team. I believe, being able to do that, I’ve just got to take matters into my own hands. Obviously, I need to be in positions where I feel comfortable.”
But he also needs to be in shape, and here, Embiid bears a vital obligation, too. He has a history of being in less than tip-top physical condition, especially when the games start to matter more. And though coach Brett Brown said last week that he was proud of Embiid’s efforts to prepare himself for the resumption of the season, Embiid’s assertions that he has remained safe and healthy and coronavirus-free because “all I do is play video games” weren’t exactly reassuring to anyone wondering if he was ready to play 48 minutes and still feel fresh.
He can try to hold Simmons accountable all he wants, and he has, and he should. But Joel Embiid has to remember: The Sixers can’t win a championship with an alpha dog who trudges to the sideline in the fourth quarter, rolls over, and begs his coaches and teammates to rub his belly.