Joel Embiid sees what we all see. He wants what we all want. On Saturday night, he got it.
It was a shot so simple, so routine, so elementary that it only served to underscore the absurdity of the circumstances. With 7 1/2 minutes remaining in the second quarter of a game the Sixers already seemed destined to win with ease, Ben Simmons found himself alone at the elbow with the ball in his hands and four Thunder players between him and the basket. As his defender slid underneath a screen and left him with a 6-foot radius of open space, Simmons picked up his dribble, pump-faked and rose up for an open 15-foot jumper that snapped through the net.
“He’s got to be aggressive,” Embiid said later. “He’s got to make guys on the other team guard him -- like tonight. We saw it.”
He’s got to. He just does.
The Sixers need a lot of things to go right if they expect to win four out of seven against the Heat or Bucks or Nets. They need Embiid healthy, the bench producing, and George Hill in the lineup. But, most of all, they need Simmons to rediscover the swagger he was playing with in the middle part of the season.
Maybe Embiid is right, and Saturday night was a start. Simmons attempted nine shots in 28 minutes. He sank two jumpers. He did not turn the ball over. But he also failed to reach double digits in shot attempts for the fifth straight game. He scored fewer than 15 points in his seventh straight game. In the nine games since Simmons scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting in a win over the Warriors on March 23, he is averaging just 10.7 points an eight shot attempts per game while shooting 44.4% from the floor.
That the Sixers are 5-4 during that stretch is hardly a coincidence. You can make all of the excuses you want. It’s true that the Sixers played three of those losses without Joel Embiid. It’s true that two of them came on the road against Western Conference contenders. It’s true that the one loss that included Embiid was the front end of a back-to-back. But it’s also true that no set of circumstances can excuse losing by a combined 23 points to the Grizzlies and the Pelicans.
At least, not if Simmons really is the kind of player who can help the Sixers win four out of seven against the sort of playoff competition they are going to face in the East. In that 116-100 loss to Memphis on April 4, Simmons attempted just six shots, made only two, and finished with a mere seven points. The story was the same on Friday, except with six turnovers. Zion Williamson scored 37 while attempting 28 shots. Simmons scored 10 while attempting six.
Think about that for a second. Williamson is 20 years old. He is in his second year in the league. Like Simmons, he is a physical anomaly. Like Simmons, he is most comfortable in the paint. The differences are strictly those of a psychological nature: attitude, mindset, confidence, a desire for dominance.
“I want him to be aggressive, but I think you think of aggressiveness as him aggressively scoring,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “I think him aggressive with him getting into the paint, creating plays. He can have an aggressive game for me where he doesn’t shoot a lot, but he was aggressive and he used his speed. That’s what we want.”
It really is that simple. Between now and the start of the playoffs, the Sixers need Simmons to become a player who can dictate to a defense. They are a very good team, but they can only be a great team if Simmons is the best version of himself. It’s the version that we saw for most of February and March. During an 18-game stretch in which the Sixers went 12-6, Simmons averaged 19.3 points on 13.2 shot attempts per game while shooting 59.5% from the field and 64.3% from the free throw line. He was aggressive and decisive. He played with swagger. He looked like he was becoming the sort of scorer who could make a fundamental difference. Both he and Rivers acknowledged the difference. This really seemed like the other side of a corner.
Now, here we are, seemingly back where we started. Simmons is 284 games into his NBA career. He has played nearly 20% of those games with Embiid on the sidelines. Yet here we are, four seasons in, and Simmons is averaging career lows in points, and field goal attempts, and even assists. The point isn’t that he has declined in a substantive way -- all of his metrics this season are in line with where they’ve been throughout his career. Rather, the point is that he has not made a substantive improvement. This isn’t about the offensive skills you wish he had -- it’s about making the most of the ones that are already there.
The Sixers don’t need Simmons to be Williamson. They don’t need him taking 20 shots a game. But they need him taking more than the 12 he totaled against the Grizzlies and the Pelicans. That didn’t get the job done in March or April, and it won’t get it done in June.