Ben Simmons’ injury exacerbates the Sixers’ problems

No playoff team has experienced more turmoil than the Philadelphia 76ers, and Ben Simmons’ back injury begs the question of whether they still belong in the title conversation.

The Philadelphia 76ers, once considered a good bet to win the NBA title, are now fighting for the benefit of the doubt. Things haven’t gone particularly smoothly in Philadelphia this season, which has made the Sixers an enigma for those of us on the outside and for the team itself. Between Joel Embiid’s wavering night-to-night interest level, the team’s struggle to integrate Al Horford effectively, the complicated fit between Embiid and Ben Simmons on offense and a roster ill-suited to assuage that issue, no contender has hit more stumbling blocks than Philadelphia.

Weighing lofty expectations and upside against disappointing results can be difficult; some teams overcome regular-season turmoil in time to coalesce in the playoffs, while others let adversity and internal struggle spiral into the abyss. The upside that justified such great expectations hasn’t changed, but the Sixers’ margin for error has. There is rapidly mounting evidence that this team isn’t all it appeared to be in October, and looking past its flaws, at this point, requires a rather optimistic viewpoint and a willful ignorance of potentially crippling weaknesses.

The fundamental — and often exaggerated — tension between Simmons and Embiid isn’t just that the former tends to push the pace and slash to the rim while the latter favors a more deliberate, half-court approach; it’s that neither is particularly well-equipped to play within the other’s preferred ecosystem. Simmons’ inability to shoot makes it difficult to run an effective offense through anyone else while he’s on the floor, while Embiid’s own shooting and playmaking limitations cause their own degree of stagnation. This isn’t necessarily cause to break up one of the most talented young duos in the NBA, only a challenge that requires more imagination and compromise than usual.

Their last game before the All-Star break was perhaps the closest the Sixers have come to balancing the styles of their two stars. It featured the kind of compromise between its two stars that is necessary for Philly contend and represented just how dynamic it can be at its best. The two made great use of “skinny” pick-and-rolls just outside the lane:

Once the Clippers began to collapse on his drives, he sprayed passes to open shooters:

For his part, Embiid sprinted the floor and sealed his man underneath the rim early in the shot clock, making him a weapon in a faster, more aggressive offense:

The challenge will be replicating that to a point of consistency. While they have defended well enough to maintain a positive point differential, the Sixers score just 107.2 points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Simmons share the court — a problem that could be exacerbated as defenses more consciously target their weaknesses in the postseason. (They have a 112.2 offensive rating when Simmons plays without Embiid and 111.6 in the inverse alignment.)

That isn’t entirely an indictment of the two stars’ ability to play with one another, but of the organization’s failure to construct a roster that optimizes its two best players. Embiid and Simmons’ weaknesses don’t make for an easy fit in any context, but Elton Brand and the front office didn’t do head coach Brett Brown many favors.

This is the price of a team accelerating its process the way Philadelphia has. The team sensed its title window opening, and seized the opportunity by making win-now moves to surround Embiid and Simmons with veteran stars. The front office, in its many iterations since Sam Hinkie resigned, has prioritized top-end talent over fit every step of the way.

That’s a perfectly defensible way to run a franchise, but it runs the risk of creating fit issues and shortening the team’s championship window. Rather than diversifying its roster with players who could have opened up the game for its two best players, Philadelphia doubled down on size, betting on its ability to physically overwhelm teams enough for its defense to take care of the rest. Horford, Embiid, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson would shoot well enough to keep the floor spaced around Simmons, and each would be dynamic enough to mitigate the absence of a pick-and-roll maestro.

Instead, Philadelphia ranks 18th in the NBA in effective field goal percentage and 22nd in both 3-point attempt rate and frequency of shots at the rim. Absent a real secondary ball-handling threat, Richardson functionally serves as a backup point guard and Harris has been pressed into heavier playmaking duty. But the former has regressed significantly on offense since last season while the latter doesn’t provide quite enough punch as an individual creator to overcome a harsh offensive ecosystem.

All their size should theoretically allow the 76ers to generate shots inside, but in reality it crowds driving lanes and prevents easy looks from the most efficient area of the court. Rather than forcing opponents into untenable mismatches, accumulating players with similar skill-sets has created enough redundancy within the starting lineup that Horford — the team’s $109 million offseason acquisition — now comes off the bench and seldom shares the floor with Embiid.

No Sixer has felt the turbulence of the season more than Horford, who is having his least productive season since his rookie year. His signing with Philadelphia this summer represented a full commitment to the team’s supersized, defensive identity. But Horford is a context-dependent player, and the qualities that once made him one of the NBA’s most adaptable centers are muted in a cluttered offense that doesn’t allow his connective traits to shine. His ability to keep possessions flowing doesn’t have the same power in a stagnant offense. There isn’t as much room for him to operate as a fulcrum in the middle of the floor with Embiid eating up so many possessions on the block. Absent a pick-and-roll partner worth chasing over screens and shooters worth sticking to, Horford’s decision-making as a roll man loses some of its impact.

Instead of playing the central, dynamic role he had in Atlanta and Boston, Horford has been relegated to a tertiary role to which he has struggled to adapt. He’s taking significantly fewer shots at the rim and more from beyond the arc than ever before. He spots up more often than he did in Boston but converts those plays far less efficiently. Last season, Horford finished roughly a third of his possessions as a roll man and did so quite effectively; this year, less than a fifth of his shots come in that role and his efficiency has plummeted.

And yet, the 76ers’ title hopes hinge partly on the prospect of a fully optimized Horford. The veteran could be exactly the kind of connector who could bridge the stylistic divide between Simmons and Embiid, but Philadelphia is running out of time to get all three on the same page. A lower back injury to Simmons, who will miss at least the next two weeks, will not only sideline Philly’s most versatile defender and most dynamic offensive initiator, but reduce the available time to figure out exactly how its best players fit together. In light of all else that has troubled the 76ers, this setback begs wondering how many complications this team can endure before it runs out of time to solve its problems.

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