Chris Szagola/Associated Press
Perhaps the initial sign of discontent could have been ignored. We’ve all experienced down moments, and so when Joel Embiid told the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Keith Pompey in early December that he was “frustrated” with how the Philadelphia 76ers were utilizing him—”I’m being used as a spacer,” Embiid said—after the Jimmy Butler trade, it was easy to brush it off as a fierce competitor’s reflexive reaction to a tough stretch.
Then the Sixers, despite a monster 33-point, 18-rebound performance from Embiid, fell at home the following week to the mediocre Nets. Late in the game, Landry Shamet drilled three triples to pull the Sixers within striking distance. In the locker room afterward, a reporter asked Ben Simmons what he thought of Shamet’s impressive display.
“That we have multiple guys that can step up and play, and I think tonight we tried to go through one way too much,” Simmons responded. “I think the way we’ve been playing in past games, we’ve been playing together. And I think we need to do more of that.”
It was a strange response to an innocuous question. Simmons may not have identified the specific teammate he was referring to, but you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that it was Embiid.
And so the seeds were planted before the Sixers’ Christmas Day matchup against the Boston Celtics. Embiid bulldozed Boston to the tune of 34 points and 16 rebounds, but Philadelphia blew a late lead and dropped the game in overtime. Embiid scored just four points in the contest’s final 17 minutes and didn’t attempt a single shot during the extra period.
His explanation for his late-game disappearance?
“I didn’t get the ball. The ball didn’t find me in the fourth quarter and overtime,” Embiid told reporters, adding: “I felt like I wasn’t in the right situation.”
Embiid may have laid the blame at the feet of Sixers head coach Brett Brown—”Don’t know, got to ask coach,” he responded when asked why he felt he was in the wrong situations—but the root of these problems is the team’s personnel. It’s possible Butler’s presence triggered Embiid’s original grumbling, but he’s not the reason the big man is often forced to drift outside. That’s more of a symptom, and it’s one that’s been popping up since before Butler’s Nov. 12 arrival.
The disease is that the Sixers, who made it clear via their acquisition of Butler that they’re chasing championships, are trying to construct a modern-day NBA offense around both a point guard who can’t and won’t shoot from the outside and a center who’s most dangerous when operating from the post. It’s not quite the basketball equivalent of a round peg in a square hole, but it’s not far off.
On most nights, the Simmons-Embiid pairing looks dynamic. Both players are almost always bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than everyone else on the court. The Sixers have outscored opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions in the 714 minutes that Embiid and Simmons have shared the floor this season, a sign for believers that talent usually wins out.
But you also can’t ignore how sluggish this duo looks whenever matched against one of the NBA’s top units. The Sixers may be 23-13, but they’ve mostly fattened up on an easy schedule. They’re just 2-6 in eight games against their four primary Eastern Conference competitors—the Celtics, Bucks, Raptors and Pacers—and one of those wins came against a Kawhi Leonard-less Toronto team on the second night of a back to back.
Flip through the lineup data, and you’ll spot a trend. The Sixers have been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Simmons have shared the floor in their two losses to the Celtics, and by 9.8 in the two losses to the Raptors. The Pacers, in two games, have basically played that pairing evenly over 47 minutes.
Sure, some of this is small-sample-size theater. And many of these minutes came before the Butler trade. But take into account how we saw a similar drop during last year’s postseason (the Sixers’ net rating with Simmons and Embiid on the floor fell from 15.6 during the regular season to 1.7 in the playoffs), and the numbers start carrying more weight.
Simmons is brilliant in the open floor. There might not be a player in the league who’s better at transforming regular stops into transition opportunities. But in the half court, opponents now ignore him anytime he steps outside the paint. Against most teams, Simmons can still find ways to thrive thanks to his physicality and guile. But opponents who are disciplined enough to cut off his breakaways, and who also possess the bodies to match up with him on defense, can often neutralize what is typically a breakneck Sixers attack.
This is exactly what happened to Philadelphia on Christmas against Boston.
Take this possession from overtime. It’s a perfect example of how Simmons’ nonexistent jump shot can make it easy for defenses to derail his team.
The set starts with a Simmons and Wilson Chandler pick-and-roll that goes nowhere once the Celtics slip underneath the screen, which forces Simmons to give up the ball, which forces him to drift toward the paint, since that’s the only place he’s a threat, which brings an extra defender toward Embiid and prevents Chandler from feeding the big man—even though Embiid has his man pinned.
Two possessions later, with his team trailing by one, Brown calls for a Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll. Once again, Simmons camps out by the basket, allowing the Celtics to trap Butler while simultaneously cutting off Embiid’s roll to the rim. Even worse: Simmons isn’t ready to take advantage of the leaning defender after Butler hits him with a pass.
It’s not like the Sixers only run into these obstacles when facing elite defenses.
Here, for example, is a fourth-quarter possession from that loss to the Nets earlier this month. Watch Embiid and Simmons dance around and block each other in the paint.
NBA defenses have gotten too good and too smart. There are basically only two ways to break them: You can either dot the perimeter with shooters and stretch out a defense, or you can lean on stars who can trigger help sequences. Ideally, you do both. It’s all about forcing opponents to make tough choices.
This is the problem with lineups that feature both Simmons and Embiid. Individually, each boasts the talent to carry an attack, but pair them, and you reach a point of diminishing returns. If Embiid were surrounded by shooters, opponents would have to think hard before doubling him (the crowding also plays into the big man’s greatest weakness: carelessness with the ball). If Simmons weren’t playing alongside a player whose best work was done in the post, there’d be more room for him to drive and create.
This isn’t to say the pairing can’t work. Simmons has improved as a post player and cutter. Occasionally, he and Embiid flash a nice high-low connection. And Embiid, despite having drilled just 28 percent of his three-point attempts, does possess a smooth stroke, which, in theory, could develop to the point where he can serve as an adequate floor spacer around Simmons.
Embiid, however, has made it clear he has no interest in absorbing that responsibility, which is the thing to remember about all this: Embiid and Simmons seem to be most annoyed. It’s one thing for us to wonder whether a core built around these two stars can, in crunch time, plug all its holes. It’s another when the parties themselves begin to publicly voice those concerns.