The essence of drama is conflict, and nothing is more entertaining than conflict between Titans. Maybe that’s why Philadelphia seems intent on creating a feud between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Every utterance is dissected for malicious intent. Every gesture is analyzed for subtle dissension. It is exhausting, and it is a mirage. They like and respect each other. They form the most fearsome defensive duo in the NBA. They also understand each must improve facets of his game for the 76ers to make a title run.
So, while there is no conflict today, failure to progress from either will assure conflict in the future, because both want Philly to be their town.
The Sixers drafted Embiid in 2014, when Donald Trump was still just a reality show clown. They drafted Simmons on June 23, 2016, the day Brexit passed. They’ve been through a lot together: a combined seven major injuries, three personnel chiefs, and one long-suffering head coach.
The Sixers owe them a combined $234 million. They have won two playoff series.
Their window might be just opening, but both of them know failure this season means one of them will be shoved out of it before next season begins.
In the meantime, they are a complementary odd couple.
Simmons is a 24-year-old jet-setter who attends all the right parties, intent on being a better-looking version of his mentor, LeBron James. Also, he raises cats.
Embiid, 26 is, in many ways, his opposite: a polylingual video games addict with a newborn child and a steady significant other (OK, she’s a swimsuit model.)
Embiid and Simmons understand that neither can maximize his abilities — and thereby win — unless the other improves specific aspects of his game.
Here’s what needs to happen with each.
Don’t let it die
Embiid must make his decisions more quickly. His average time of possession per touch in his four-year career has ranged from 2.05 seconds in the 2018 playoffs to 2.24 seconds in the 2019-20 regular season and 2.28 seconds in the 2020 playoffs, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats. Those numbers aren’t terrible — they’re middle of the pack of NBA centers, and point-centers like Nikola Jokic stop the ball much longer — and while the slowdown is a reflection of his improved one-on-one repertoire, it also reflects teams’ willingness to double-team him and his problems with those situations.
When Embiid begins to understand how to beat the doubles, the ball will move again. The addition of bombers Seth Curry and Danny Green, as well as the evolutions of Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and Matisse Thybulle, should aid Embiid to that end.
Run, Forrest, run
Embiid’s average speed dropped from 4.15 mph in 2016-17 to 3.99 mph in 2017-18, 3.89 in 2018-19, and 3.77 in 2019-20. It’s not as if Embiid’s speed is a deal-breaker, but he was the third-slowest center in the league, and Jahlil Okafor clocked in at 4.21. This, simply, comes down to Embiid’s fitness. So don’t get fat.
Shoot closer, stay closer
Embiid’s career three-point percentage is about 32%, about 4% lower than the league average. When he shoots three′s he’s usually 24 feet from the basket, where he’s been a top-20 offensive rebounder the past three seasons, but he’s never been inside the top 10. Any defender who closes out Embiid at the line should be fined. And Embiid should own the offensive boards.
Drive for charity
Simmons drove to the basket 11.9 times per game last season. That ranked just behind … wait for it … Markelle Fultz. At 6-foot-10 at 240 pounds, and with no outside shot to speak of, Simmons should attack the hole at every opportunity. He does not because he’s still uncomfortable shooting free throws, which, with all due respect to Joakim Noah, remains the ugliest in the NBA.
Simmons’ 62% free-throw accuracy last year landed more than 15% below the league average, and 62% was a 4% improvement over Simmons’ first two seasons. Still, as new coach Doc Rivers pointed out, 1.24 points per possession is better than 0.0, which is how many the Sixers get when Simmons turns the ball over.
Stay grounded and shoot
Teams seldom play tight defense on Simmons beyond the lane, which means they often clog the lane when he drives, which are logical by-products of Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot. Incredibly, Simmons has developed the bizarre, elementarily poor habit of leaving his feet to pass. Teams now anticipate this fundamental mistake, bait him into it, then fill the passing lanes while he’s airborne.
Simmons averaged 3.4 turnovers last season, 10th most among guards, but he scored just 16.4 points per game and took just 11.4 shots. Simmons was the only of those 10 guards to average fewer than LeBron James’ 25.3 points (he also led the league with 10.2 assists per game) or Devin Booker’s 18.3 shots. In other words, those other guards turned it over so much because they were trying to score — but then, that’s been Ben’s bugaboo all three of his NBA seasons.
Push it real good
The Sixers have steadily dropped in the “pace” category, from fourth in 2017-18 to eighth in 2018-19 to 20th last season. That’s partly because the offense lacked players who could either create their own shot, like Jimmy Butler in 2018-19, or could release a quick shot early in the offense, like J.J. Redick from 2017-19.
That’s also partly because Simmons held the ball slightly longer per touch, mainly because he dribbled about 7% more per touch. Simmons wasn’t a ball-stopper, and he is a generous teammate, and 7% might not sound like much, but when the player in question only shoots 11 times a game, that means a lot of the dribbling is for nothing.
Pace dies in the hands of a non-shooting dribbler.