What happens if Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can’t lead Philadelphia to a championship this season?
Statistically-speaking, the Philadelphia 76ers have one of the best superstar duos in the NBA with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
But in the modern NBA, greatness is most defined by rings – and after a tough start to the 2019-20 season, many are doubting this tandem has a championship in its future.
Whether or not that’s a fair assessment is up for debate.
Over the past two seasons, both Embiid and Simmons were named Eastern Conference All-Stars and have helped lead the 76ers franchise from the bottom of the standings into the conversation with the NBA’s elite, with consecutive 50-win seasons and Eastern Conference Semifinals appearances.
And while other dominant duos – such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook with the Houston Rockets – have championship or bust aspirations this season, so does the young 1-2 punch of Embiid and Simmons, in only their third full season together.
However, the question that’s been posited as of late is what would happen in Philadelphia if the Sixers failed to at least make an NBA Finals appearance this season?
The talent of Simmons and Embiid is undeniable, so much so that pundits and analysts alike have them pegged as a team that can win the NBA Finals this fall.
Last season, Philadelphia was eliminated by the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and now, with Simmons and Embiid a year older and more experienced, Nick Wright thinks it’s time for them to take the next step.
“They were one ‘bounced around the rim’ shot in Game 7 at the buzzer by Kawhi from maybe going to the Finals last year. Now I think Milwaukee would have beaten them, but Milwaukee looked like they were going to beat everyone and then something happened in that double overtime of Game 3, when they were up 2-0 on Toronto and they fell apart after … So let’s just create a scenario where Philly comes out of the East … If they come out of the East and the other side of the bracket is anyone but the Lakers. If they come out fo the East against the Clippers, the Clippers do not have the size to deal with Embiid. If they come out of the East and the Rockets are there … they definitely don’t have the size to deal with Embiid, an Embiid who would have had to have been playing the best basketball of his career to get them there … Their ceiling is they win the championship.”
"The 76ers' ceiling is they win the championship. If somebody bounces the Lakers, the 76ers can beat whomever comes out of the West if they can get it together this postseason." — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/3ODB332SsT
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) June 11, 2020
Despite the Sixers looking great on paper, things haven’t always come easy on the court for their dynamic duo.
Questions have surfaced for years about Embiid and Simmons’ fit on the court, considering they both predominantly operate in the paint, with Simmons being a non-factor from long range.
Embiid addressed the questions about their playing style in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols during All-Star Weekend in Chicago earlier this year, saying that the media is attempting to drive a wedge between him and Simmons, a guy he loves playing with.
“I was actually right. A few years ago I predicted it. I predicted that the media were the ones that they were going to try and drive us apart, so I DM’d him today and we know what we have to do. I love him. I love playing with him. He’s a special talent. He helps us a lot. I think we can accomplish something special.”
However, their love for playing together hasn’t always translated to the success that most anticipate.
Before the 2019-20 season was suspended due to COVID-19, the Sixers were sixth in the Eastern Conference standings and had a 10-24 road record, the worst road record of all current playoff teams.
The Sixers also have a paltry 12-18 record against teams .500 or better this season, and though Philadelphia does own victories over the Clippers, Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics this season, all of those victories came at home.
The advanced metrics also show the duo isn’t quite as dominant as many would think when they share the court together. The Sixers are a +0.6 when both players share the floor. With Embiid on the court and Simmons off, the Sixers are a +3.0 in point differential, and when Simmons is on the court while Embiid sits, the Sixers have a +1.5 point differential.
Philadelphia general manager Elton Brand addressed the concerns with USA Today, saying that the squad still has some kinks to work out, but he’s willing to be patient considering they have two All-Stars within the organization.
“It’s a problem that a lot of GMs would like to have, if it is a problem. They’re two All-Stars. We just need to figure out how these pieces fit. I think you can play very fast. Playoffs are going to slow down, and you have a dominant post player you can play through also. It’s a good problem to have if it’s a problem.”
This season, Simmons is averaging 16.7 points, 8.2 assists, 7.8 rebounds and a league-leading 2.1 steals. Embiid is putting up 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
One of the two lead the Sixers in every major statistical category.
76ers head coach Brett Brown stands firm in his belief of his young franchise cornerstones, and back in March, Brown was emphatic in saying that Simmons and Embiid can lead the franchise to a championship.
“I personally am convinced those two are going to win a championship at some point in their career and that they, for sure, can coexist. The myth is that they can’t. I think that is so abused and not articulated the way I see it.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: "I personally am convinced those two are going to win a championship at some point in their career and that they, for sure, can coexist." https://t.co/psZXpSqRfr
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 3, 2020
However, a third straight disappointing postseason flameout might lead to the separation of Simmons and Embiid in Philadelphia, and in February, on The Full 48 podcast, NBA insider Howard Beck hinted that this is actually the expectation around the league and in certain circles.
“There are plenty of people around the league who believe this is it. These are the final days of Embiid and Simmons together.”
If the Sixers did decide to move off of one of their superstars, deciding who to move could prove difficult, considering Embiid is viewed as a top talent in the league but has long battled durability issues, whereas Simmons might not be regarded as the player that Embiid is, but he is almost always available.
After missing the 2016-17 season in its entirety due to a foot injury, Simmons has missed 15 games over the last three seasons. Embiid, on the other hand, missed the entire 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons due to foot injuries, before missing 51 games in 2016-17, 19 games in 2017-18, 18 games in 2018-19 and 21 games this season – a grand total of 109 games since 2016, the first year he stepped on the court.
"I nearly threw up when I saw that.” – Ben Simmons on Joel Embiid’s dislocated finger.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) January 7, 2020
In the 52 games that Embiid has missed over the last three seasons in which Simmons has played, the Sixers are 27-25. And without Simmons on the floor, and Embiid on it, the Sixers are 5-4 over the last three seasons.
It seems the two don’t find much success without the other on the floor in terms of winning either, and former Sixers coach Larry Brown thinks it would be silly to part with either one.
“Both of those kids simply make everybody better … I have a hard time when I read that they can’t play together, that maybe we split them up.”
Larry Brown says Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid fitting together is not the issue: "They're two of the best 10 players in the NBA, in my mind."https://t.co/Lc6Q7nkCH1
— SPORTSRADIO 94WIP (@SportsRadioWIP) June 9, 2020
So, why would anyone considering splitting up these two young stars in only their third full season together? Embiid just turned 26 in March and Simmons will turn 24 on July 20.
Maybe there is a third option outside of trading Embiid or Simmons if Philadelphia falls short this season, an option that Chris Broussard outlined last week.
“Bring in a new coach and give them a chance to maximize those two players together … Having Embiid gives you something virtually no other team in the league has, which is a dominant low-post scorer … You don’t just throw that out without giving it a chance to work.”
"If the 76ers go out early, I fire Brett Brown as head coach; bring in coach that can maximize Joel Embiid & Ben Simmons together. I'd do that before I gave up on completely. … If it doesn't work w/ the new coach I'd trade one of my stars, & I'd lean Embiid." — @Chris_Broussard pic.twitter.com/aetO6Urn93
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) June 11, 2020
When analyzing Simmons and Embiid’s production this season, they are actually on par with some of the great guard and big man tandems in NBA history during their third season together.
This season, the Philly duo is averaging a combined 40.1 points, 19.6 rebounds and 11.3 assists. In comparison, the duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone averaged 42.4 points, 14.9 rebounds and 16.2 assists in their third year.
In campaign No. 3 for Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the tandem averaged 46.2 points, 16.0 rebounds and 6.1 assists, and Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put up 42.5 points, 18.3 rebounds and 12.5 assists in Year 3.
Magic and Kareem won their first title together in Magic’s rookie year and in their third year together. Kobe and Shaq won a title in their fourth season together. Stockton and Malone made it to two NBA Finals, but never won a title.
Ben Simmons is shooting in LA, ramping up his workouts getting ready for Sixers camp part deux in
Joel Embiid says he has been working out 6 days a week
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) June 11, 2020
We’re weeks away from Simmons and Embiid having a chance to update their dual-resume when the season resumes in Orlando at the end of July.
Maybe, we should all continue to trust the process.