When the Philadelphia 76ers dominated reigning MVP Giannis Anteotkounmpo and the Bucks on Christmas Day, it felt like they had turned their season around. The 121-109 win seemingly was the culmination of a year of roster juggling, trades and free-agent signings that turned Philly into a team capable of crushing defense and offensive explosions. Six players scored in double figures as the 76ers exploited Milwaukee’s pack-the-paint defense with 21 three-pointers and Ben Simmons dished out 14 assists.
Then the 76ers collapsed.
Philadelphia (24-14) lost four in a row and fell to fifth in the East. Joel Embiid said losing was “taking a toll” on him, and “it doesn’t feel like we’re getting better.” He has cause for concern, as the Sixers are ordinary away from home, where they’re 17-2 after Monday’s win over the Thunder. On the road, they play like the Eagles minus Carson Wentz (7-12). Against teams currently with a winning record, they’re 9-9.
The problem is squarely on offense. If the Sixers were playing in the 1990s, when three-point shooting was a novelty reserved for guards with names like Mookie and Voshon, they would be an absolute force. But it’s a challenge nowadays to have a championship-level offense without the ability to hit three-pointers. Lots and lots of three-pointers. The 76ers are fourth in field goal percentage but 22nd in three-point makes, and despite Embiid getting more than eight free throws per game, the team is 19th in free throw attempts overall, a result of him clogging the paint.
Simmons and Embiid are both great, but they like to occupy the same spots on the court. Simmons takes 59% of his shots within three feet from the basket and 93% of his attempts come 10 feet or less. A month ago, coach Brett Brown publicly urged Simmons to expand his range, saying he wanted him to attempt at least one three-pointer per game. Simmons has taken exactly zero three-pointers since then that weren’t end-of-quarter heaves.
Meanwhile, Embiid dominates on post-ups, where he posts up far more than any player in the league — 35% of his possessions! Embiid gets 1.12 points per post-up, and he turns it over 12% of the time. He gets fouled nearly a quarter of the time he posts up. However, that’s just barely better than the NBA average of 1.08 points per possession, and last season Embiid was at 1.05. There’s definitely value to getting opposing bigs into foul trouble and his own team into the bonus, but when that’s the main offensive play, the Sixers’ offense has a low ceiling. He’d be more effective if he could pass to shooters out of a double team, but those shooters aren’t on his team anymore, now that Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick are long gone.
Despite having a dominant and nimble center, the Sixers run pick-and-roll less often than any team except the isolation kings in Houston. There’s no reason to do so, because a defense will just stick to Embiid, having no fear of a Simmons or an Al Horford jumper, and as such, the league’s most dominant center is less effective than Bismack Biyombo or Alex Len as a roll man (0.78 points per possession versus 0.99 and 0.96).
Simmons and Embiid are elite defenders, though Embiid tends to get tired and hates chasing opposing bigs out to three-point line. Embiid is the most dominant center since Shaq, and he pays tribute to his predecessor by playing himself into shape every season, one other reason he spends offensive possessions camped out five feet behind the three-point line. The Sixers confronted this issue during the summer by signing Horford from the rival Celtics, taking away a player who had tormented Embiid in exactly this way during the playoffs, and giving the team an insurance policy for Embiid’s injuries or fatigue.
Unfortunately, Horford is also at his best operating, you guessed it, close to the basket. He’s an excellent shooter for a center, but only average for a power forward, his new primary position. Horford likes to be on the low block or at the elbow, where he can use his passing or create for himself, but the Sixers primarily use him to space the floor for Simmons and Embiid. Who has Big Al paired well with in his career? Shooters such as Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Korver. What shooters do they Sixers have? Erratic Turkish sharp-ish-shooter Furkan Korkmaz and vagabond point guard Trey Burke. Josh Richardson was supposed to be Jimmy Butler lite, but he has struggled so far to hit shots, and isn’t an elite shooter even at his best.
Who else did Philadelphia sign? Tobias Harris, who shoots threes and plays both forward positions but is much better as a power forward. That’s the position that Big Al plays, though he’s actually a center, and that Simmons should be playing, though he’s nominally a point guard. The result is roughly $600 million committed to four players (Harris, Embiid, Horford and Simmons) who are best at two front-court positions.
And no one seems to be happy.
Embiid has called out Simmons for not taking open shots. Horford complained that he can’t find his rhythm because his offensive role is so limited. Simmons sought advice last summer from the Lakers’ Magic Johnson. Last season Butler was unhappy, though that could have been due to his role in the offense or that his teammates were sleeping in, playing video games, and unwilling to see “Mile 22” with him on opening night. The common denominator is Embiid, who last season complained about his touches when Butler arrived and takes all his grievances to social media.
The sheer talent on this roster, however mismatched, means that the 76ers could still make the Eastern Conference Finals, though they better get a high seed to avoid their road disadvantage. Fundamentally, Simmons and Embiid are never going to mesh. If Simmons isn’t going to shoot now, he never will. And while Simmons is unstoppable on the break, Embiid doesn’t like to run, ever. Horford and Simmons play better together than Embiid and Simmons, and the Embiid-Horford combo barely outscores opponents.
There are a few options. No internal solution exists for the offensive problems. Philly could trade Horford or Harris, which is complicated for salary reasons and doesn’t really solve the problem. They could find a replacement for Brown, but it’s not clear that Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr or James Naismith could get Simmons to shoot. Or they could simply break up Embiid and Simmons, which the 76ers must do eventually.
Embiid, who dislocated his left ring finger Monday and may miss Thursday’s game against Boston, is a great defender with tremendous stats (23.4 ppg., 12.3 rpg.). But he’s also a man out of time, a center from the age of dinosaurs when David Robinson and Patrick Ewing walked the Earth. He’s also always going to miss 20 games a season and even a few playoff games due to his body breaking down. Despite Charles Barkley’s insistence to the contrary, in 2020, it simply doesn’t work to build a basketball team around even the best post-up player. If an aging Marc Gasol can shut down Embiid, what’s going to happen against elite playoff defenses?
It may be heresy, and I don’t expect the Sixers to do it anytime soon, but if they’re truly serious about being title contenders, they should cash in on Embiid. He would bring in the biggest return via trade, and he’s older (25) and more injury prone than his Australian teammate Simmons, who fits better with Harris and Horford. Philly would essentially gain an extra offensive player by no longer marginalizing Horford, they could start playing fast with Simmons running the show, and there would actually be a path to the rim without every opposing center hanging back on Embiid duty. It’s also easier to fill in players alongside Simmons, an elite passer who likes to shoot near the basket but doesn’t need to hang out there.
It’ll probably take another playoff humiliation to force their hands, but the Sixers must ship out their center before the frustrations of playing on an Embiid-centric team make their other stars try to force their way out. It’s time to pour out a pitcher of Shirley Temples for the Embiid era in Philly.