Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.
The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?
Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.
Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.
Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.
A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.
But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.
All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.
That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.
The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.
Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.
Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.
It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.
Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.
If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.
While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.
The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.
In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.
If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.
Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.
Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.
The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.
And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.