When Philadelphia started this whole “process,” the endgame in mind was bringing in multiple franchise cornerstones with high lottery picks that the franchise hoped would come.
From 2013 to 2017, this yielded mixed results. The Sixers had a few disasters along the way, but time was on their side, and they even made up for some of their missteps. When the Hinkie era was done and over with, Philadelphia came away with two of the league’s elite youngsters – Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Look where it’s gotten them. The Philadelphia 76ers are considered among the cream of the crop. They haven’t had the most playoff success tied to their name in the last two postseasons, but through all the hysteria that they’ve gone through, they’re projected to go potentially the furthest they’ve gone in years.
Yet, despite their roster currently possessing enough talent to be a finals contender, there remains plenty of skepticism surrounding how all the pieces fit. This writer’s already dove into why the Sixers have to be optimistic about their chances, even if whether their roster can put it all together the way it’s currently constructed remains a tossup. Twice in fact.
This isn’t meant to be a rehash of what’s already been said. This is meant to try to make sense of this new roster that Philly has on its hands. Let’s begin by talking about the projected third and fourth cog in Philly’s pecking order: Tobias Harris and Al Horford. In order to do that, we have to… well, rehash what’s already been said, but only in a very small portion.
“Horford’s best position is center, but he’ll be playing at power forward. Harris’ best position is power forward, but he’ll be playing at small forward. If you put those guys in their natural positions, this is a team that fits perfectly around Ben Simmons.”
First things first, why are those guys best used at those specific positions? In Horford’s case, he’s not a bad option at power forward. In fact, he and Aron Baynes at power forward and center respectively had a killer net rating over the past two years when they paired up together in the frontcourt (plus-20.4 in 2018-2019 and plus-12.1 in 2017-2018). If that Horford shows up, he and Embiid could make some magic.
But the likelihood of that happening isn’t high. As Horford continues to age, his versatility as a big decreases. At 33 years old, Al’s odometer will only climb higher and higher. It wouldn’t be as much of a concern if it weren’t for Horford’s injury troubles last year. Throughout the season, Horford had knee tendinitis bothering him for the majority of the season, especially on back-to-backs.
Al’s played the majority of his career at center. The Sixers could play him and Embiid together in short spurts, but with Al’s prime winding down, that just might be an unplayable option. “Unplayable option” doesn’t sound too sexy when you’re paying the man $28 million a year.
Then there’s Harris. By all means, Tobias Harris was a brilliant addition that was worth the price the Sixers paid to get him. He’s always been an efficient scorer, and despite the low percentage he shot in the short sample of games he played as a Sixer last year – 32 percent – his three-point percentage of 40 or higher over the last three years makes him a deadly option from deep.
His offensive firepower also comes with his defensive shortcomings. Harris has never been a plus-defender in the NBA, which is why over the past few years, his teams have preferred the 6-foot-9 wing playing at the power forward position. The last time Harris played the majority of his minutes at small forward was back in 2015 (72 percent) for a bad Orlando team, and that number has dwindled into the single digits since.
Just look at the five-man lineups Harris was involved in with both the Clippers and the Sixers from this past season. All of the best ones featured him at the four. In fact, did you know that for both Philly and LA, Harris played more of his minutes at center than small forward?
And now he’s going back to the three, where he played exactly two percent of his minutes last year. Much like Horford, this could work, but recent history proves otherwise. In summary, Harris and Horford are slated to play in positions that they may not be suited for, which could send Philly scrambling if they’re not able to put them in a role that they can thrive.
Which ties us back to Simmons and Embiid. Despite both possessing extraordinary talents, their fit together isn’t perfect. The primary concern in regards to them is that in a league that rewards floor spacers and punishes lack of floor spacing, neither Simmons or Embiid are reliable in that department.
Now Embiid definitely tries, Bless him, but his three-pointer has yet to be established as a threat. Despite a gradual uptake in three-point shots taken in his first three years, Embiid’s a career 31.5 percent shooter with no signs of improvement. Simmons is a different story to put it lightly.
Because Simmons’ lack of a jumper stands out more – since frankly it’s shown no signs of existing – it’s become a joke that’s been run into the ground about as much as the “LeBron doesn’t have a fourth quarter” zingers we heard on repeat back in 2011. If not, more so.
Both Simmons and Embiid have shown that they have enough talent to make it work, but their demons shooting-wise are a problem that could show itself in a much worse fashion with JJ Redick headed off to New Orleans. Two years in, nobody’s saying it’s time for a change, but the prospect of those two being split up has been brought up.
If the Sixers were to decide who to trade between the two, the consensus choice would be Simmons because the holes in his game stand out a little more evidently than Embiid’s does. Even though he brings so much to the table, Simmons’ jumper will remain a nonfactor until he proves otherwise. No matter what workout videos may get released.
But here’s a crazy thought- why make a leopard change its spots? Does Simmons really have to change his game if he’s surrounded by good shooters, like the likes of Harris, Horford and Josh Richardson? We’ve seen in small doses that Simmons can be a scoring threat with the right guys around him. In these small doses, Embiid was usually either not playing, not having a good game, or the opponent was too easy for those two to not dominate together.
The one Simmons game that really made him stand out as a scorer was Game 3 between the Sixers and the Nets. In that game, Ben usually put up his usual stats. A stat line of nine rebounds and four assists is like every other Tuesday, but the 31 points that he put up was a new wrinkle. Simmons picked his spots and dominated the Nets. He hardly had any jumper to speak of, and yet he ran the Nets off their own floor.
And his starting center that game was none other than Greg Monroe, who will be suiting up for Bayern Munich in the BBL this season. That was the only game Embiid missed because of a knee injury. Joel didn’t miss another game in the postseason, and Simmons never looked nearly as dominant scoring-wise again. Coincidence? You decide.
So maybe. Just maybe, if the Sixers were to split these two up, would the one that might be on the outside looking in be Joel Embiid? Crazy talk, you might think. One good game and suddenly Simmons one-ups the man who finished seventh in MVP voting this season?
Simmons as of right now has not proven himself to be a better talent than Embiid. That excerpt was supposed to show that perhaps Embiid’s presence is what’s holding Simmons back from reaching the superstar status that many believe is within his grasp.
But there’s a more pressing concern for Joel – his durability. He’s shown that he can run out of gas. As promising as the Sixers’ outlook is, he’s coming off of an all-around awful playoff performance against the Raptors. In that series, he averaged 17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and four turnovers on 36/32/79 splits.
Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka deserve credit for the job they did on Embiid, but the most concerning stat of all is that he only played 34 minutes in a tight seven-game series. When you’re the best player, you shouldn’t be playing the fourth-highest number of minutes on the team in that series. When the going got tough, he folded.
Now we’ve heard reports that Embiid’s a changed man physically. That he’s changed his diet and is committed to making sure his body will be ready for the long haul. Much like these workout videos with Simmons’ jumper, that should firmly be in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” file.
Besides, when you factor in that Harris and Horford are meant to play the four and five respectively – and that they are reliable floor spacers for Simmons to use to the best of his abilities – maybe Philly doesn’t want to take that risk with Joel again.
If it weren’t for the signing of Al Horford, Philly would have the time to sort out where to go with their two franchise cornerstones, but with Al onboard, that started the timer for Philly’s window. Doing something as drastic as trading one of them is not something that they have to do ASAP, but they should keep in mind.
The Sixers as a whole may not be better off without Embiid, but Ben Simmons has shown that he just might. If Embiid’s conditioning stays the same, that it may be more obvious who Philly should put its trust in.