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Joel Embiid's downtime could be showtime for Ben Simmons
It’s make or break right now for the 76ers – and it’s on Ben Simmons’ shoulders.
Joel Embiid suffered a gruesome injury to his ring finger against the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 6, and has since had a successful surgery – he will be reevaluated in 1-2 weeks. For the foreseeable future though, Philadelphia will have to go without their superstar centre – enter Ben Simmons.
With the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson in the off season, Philadelphia was always going to be some chemistry issues and growing pains, evidenced by the Sixers record of 25-15 - underwhelming in regard to their lofty expectations.
Simmons has still been proficient, even if he hasn’t taken as many outside shots as his coach or co-star may wish. According to Basketball Reference, the All-Star is averaging 14.9 points per game, slightly below his two previous seasons of 16.9 in 2019 and 15.8 in 2018, while attempting one fewer shots a game. Additionally, he is scoring efficiently, with a field goal percentage of 56%, while dishing out 8.4 dimes a game (fifth in the league).
It doesn’t stop there – Simmons’ impact has arguably been the most profound on the defensive end. According to NBA.com, he is leading the league in steals at 2.2 per contest, tied fifth in deflections at 3.8 and tied first in loose balls recovered with 1.9 a game. He is also seventh in opponent field goal percentage out of the players who have played more than 30 games and defend a minimum of ten shots a game, with a percentage of 40.6%, only about three percent behind league leader Anthony Davis.
With Embiid now out, these numbers can and should accelerate, especially offensively. While the Sixers have been somewhat successful in the Embiid-Simmons era (two straight post season second round visits), there are some question marks that surround their partnership.
Simmons’ reluctance to shoot means the spacing in the half court is sometimes cramped – a troubling issue for a post player like Embiid, as the seven footer is more prone to receiving double teams and ultimately committing turnovers. Embiid also isn't very complementary to Simmons - the Australian prefers to push the ball and find shooters on the break, but Embiid is an average shooter (32% from three) and not as fast as you’d ideally want in a fast-paced offence. Also, Embiid’s presence in the paint means Simmons can’t be as successful when driving, as the paint is more clogged.
Philly has a chance to fully empower Simmons as the leader of the offence, potentially in the same way the Bucks do - four shooters surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo. Whether it’s in the half court or on the break, Simmons can get to the cup easily with his incredible size, speed, length and ability to use both hands. If Simmons is double-teamed or receives extra attention, he can then kick it out and find shooters with his excellent court vision. The team averages 35.9% from beyond the arc (13th in the league), meaning the potential is there for this strategy to be successful. For example, according to NBA.com, out of lineups with more than 50 minutes together, Philly's best five man unit is Simmons with four adequate shooters - Tobias Harris, James Ennis III, Al Horford and Furkan Korkmaz, based on net rating (+22.5). To put that into perspective, that is the sixth best lineup in the league, based on the same filters. Simmons might not be as physically gifted as the “Greek Freak”, but he is certainly a better distributor, so this theoretically works on a lesser degree.
We got a chance to see it on display against the Dallas Mavericks, and the Boston Celtics before that. Against Dallas, Simmons showed flashes of aggression, finishing with 11 points, 11 assists, five rebounds and four steals. The 76ers ended up losing, 109-91, as the team's shooting woes (9/37 from three) ultimately let them down in the second half.
Simmons played a crucial role in the 108-99 win against Boston. The 6’10 Aussie finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, three assists and one steal, but the eye test suggested his impact was more than the stats infer. He finished strong at the rim on multiple occasions, pushed the ball with a purpose, and finished timely buckets in the paint. On defence, he guarded multiple positions extremely well, whether it was Enes Kanter for a few possessions or Jayson Tatum for the majority of the game (who finished 4/13 from the field).
“Just imposing his will,” Horford proclaimed after the win when asked about his star point guard. “He’s very gifted physically and made some good moves in the post, pushing the pace. It’s tough to guard him in the open floor. I think his energy with that, it’s contagious, and it gets us all going. And, obviously, that was the difference.”
The Sixers have traditionally struggled without Embiid in the past, but the stakes are higher now. They currently sit at fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, and with Embiid sidelined for potentially up to two months (according to hand surgeon Dr Eric Strauss), they risk going into the playoffs without home court advantage. It’s up to Simmons to assert his dominance and be aggressive offensively, because another early exit amidst championship expectations might mean extreme personnel changes in the off season.