Disclaimer: some stats may be slightly inaccurate as they were taken before the bubble games
54.5. That was the number of games that the Philadelphia 76ers were projected to win at the beginning of the season by basketball-reference.com as well as having the fifth-highest title odds of +775. Since then, expectations have been far from met as the 76ers capped off the year as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference--tied for the twelfth-best record in the league with 43 wins. While the NBA wasn’t able to complete the usual 82-game regular season, the 76ers record of 43-30 statistically translates to roughly 48 wins--6 games below their preseason projection.
Many names in the sports world pictured Philadelphia among the top of the East and heavy threats for the NBA championship. It's sad to say that none of those predictions culminated into reality. Much of the blame for their shortcomings have been attributed to the uncomfortable addition of Al Horford into the team’s roster, leading Brett Brown to experiment with a vast array of different starting lineups to find a consistent solution to the team’s struggles. Amongst other variables, road play and health hampered the 76ers efforts for title contention as well. With Joel Embiid having missed 22 games in the regular season, Josh Richardson missing 18, and Ben Simmons 16, many of Philly’s games were played with the lack of one of their better players. As far as road play goes, the 76ers finished with the ninth-worst record of 12-26, placing them inferior to teams such as Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, and the Phoenix Suns.
All things considered, if a team with as much talent as Philly truly aims for a championship, troubling weaknesses such as those just mentioned don’t make anything easier. If such issues can’t be addressed, success cannot be found. From a realistic standpoint, one may suggest for the 76ers to strengthen their roster by adding more shooters. One can even go as far as saying Elton Brand's firing is a necessary component to the refinement for this Philadelphia team. Here’s the thing: while it’s probably the most implausible thing that could happen as far as the 76ers’ transactions go, a separation between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid isn’t completely out of the window.
By separation, yes, I am referring to a trade of one of the two all-stars. Here’s the thing: by no means am I suggesting that the 76ers have to trade one of Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. The question here, rather, is in a scenario where they are forced into trading one of the other, who are they choosing to keep?
Before going any further, I feel that it’s significant to highlight how abysmal of an offense this team has had all season. In all honesty, the Al Horford signing was a tragedy of a move as I question the fit alongside Joel Embiid. Simply put, a stretch-four role is not at all how you maximize his skills. All season long, shooting has been a recurring issue for this Sixers team as they rank only 19th in three-pointers made per game while shooting 9th in three-point percentage. Overall they’re at a frightening position of 20th in points per game with an offensive rating in the middle of the pack. Much of this shortage of scoring may as well be attributed to their pace which ranked 20th in the league at the season's conclusion. As far as pace goes, it doesn’t help that their leading scorer--Joel Embiid--is so reliant on his low post game and takes 42.2% of his shots from within 10 feet of the rim. Additionally, their second-leading scorer--Tobias Harris--has been running at an individual pace only slightly higher than 99.
Alas, no legitimate championship contender should have the severity of struggles as the 76ers do. This is not at all to say they’re a bad team; they have one of the most talented rosters in the league if anything. Nonetheless, it does serve as an indication that some kind of roster alteration is necessary. Whether that involves trading Simmons or Embiid, I’m not the one to say. However, as you read ahead, you will read my own thought process as I take the seat of Sixers GM Elton Brand and make the tough decision of choosing between the two all-stars.
I’m going to be quite frank: such a decision is not as simple as picking the better player. If it were as easy as that then I believe many of us would make the same choice. However, when it comes down to the improvement of such an inconsistent roster, Ben Simmons should be the priority over Joel Embiid.
Again, before reading on, do not assume this article is advocating for the separation between two talented players. It’s merely a hypothetical scenario where the Sixers find themselves in the predicament of having to choose between their two best players. With that being said, as I just mentioned, if they must make such a choice, it is in their best interest that they keep Ben Simmons over Joel Embiid.
It’s interesting, really, because while it’s the clear consensus that Embiid is the best Philly player on the roster, there is a strong argument for Ben Simmons being more valuable. There isn’t one simple way to determine value, however, if anything it’s significant to take notice to which player makes the team better. Which player elevates their team? Does Philly play better with one player on the court than they do with the other? In other words, we must have some kind of understanding as to who makes a larger impact. Above all else, if Joel Embiid holds less value, does Philly play better without him than they do with him?
In all honesty, comparing these two players could not be any more challenging; their playstyles could not differ anymore. On one hand, you have the dominant Joel Embiid who finds his skills best equipped for the low post game reminiscent of many past big men. As for the other, we have Ben Simmons--the true definition of positionless basketball--who’s a 6’10 point guard strongly suited for the fast-paced offense of the modern era. As we venture forth let us take deeper dives into how each player has performed throughout this past regular season.
Despite being an all-star and arguably the best center in the NBA, Joel Embiid found a regression in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks from last year. Even though he’s attempting fewer shots, he’s making them at a slightly worse rate compared to that of the previous year. While this is not to say he’s gotten worse as a player, it may be significant to point out that he has also dropped in +/- as well as NETRTG. However, I do commend him for having the best three-point shooting year thus far in his career.
Switching things over to his teammate, Ben Simmons has found himself as one of the best defenders in the league--arguably a top-3 defender and possibly even a snub for the DPOY award. While he shoots the ball at a career-high efficiency, the 2019-20 year has been his worst year in terms of NETRTG as well as one where he dipped in rebounds. Additionally, Simmons has maintained a similar +/- and PIE from last year and has even improved his assists per game.
It remains a close call as to who is necessarily a more valuable player to this Philadelphia team, however, if stats have shown anything, Ben Simmons continues to make increments in his development while several of Embiid’s statistics expressed minor setbacks. To further our investigation into the real value of the two 76ers stars, let's take our attention to the On/Off stats of each player.
Surprisingly, while there is little doubt in my mind that Joel Embiid is the better player, the Sixers actually have a better eFG%, AST%, STL%, BLK%, and OFFRTG when Embiid is off the court as opposed to when he is on. Granted, he does improve their REB% and PACE, however, Ben Simmons is far superior in terms of PACE improvement (Joel Embiid: +0.7, Ben Simmons: +3.6). Even though Ben has a negative On/Off rating for OFFRTG and REB%, he appears positive in the same aspects that were negative for Embiid. These include eFG%, AST%, STL%, and BLK%, all of which improve when Simmons plays (those stats also go up when Embiid is NOT in the game).
If this tells us anything, it’s that Philadelphia seemingly is upgraded by Ben’s presence on the floor more than it is with that of Joel’s. Furthermore, when Embiid is healthy, as far as the eye test and game tape shows, Embiid may even have a negative effect by simply playing his strongest style. With how often he demands the ball inside for his time-consuming post-ups, it takes the ball out of Simmons’s hands--leaving him unable to facilitate for other players. As a result, the Sixers’ ball movement stagnates and allows for opposing defenses to gravitate inward for easier traps. If you pay attention, there are even times where four different defenders all crowd inside because of the clashing games of Embiid and Simmons, thus obscuring any chances for possible slashers.
rs. This halfcourt offense equates to multiple collisions between Simmons and Embiid who, with such large frames, struggle to cooperate in only one paint area.
Moving on, with Joel Embiid commanding the floor on many occasions, it leads them into many half-court sets--Embiid looking to score inside while Simmons looks to make plays. If the Sixers elect to defer to their center over point guard, it renders Ben useless as his best offensive trait--pushing the pace and opening up the floor for cutters and maximized ball movement--grows obsolete. It’s quite ironic when you think about it--you’d expect a duo composed of such a dominant center and a skilled point guard would run the pick-and-roll much more often but Brett Brown doesn’t seem to utilize that as often as he probably should.
It has become increasingly evident that such an all-star pairing has not meshed as well as one would hope--polar opposite play styles that minimize Ben Simmons' value. Adding on to this idea of Ben Simmons being more valuable than Embiid, we may even come to say that his abilities shine brighter when he plays without the starting center. In other words, Ben Simmons, and even Philly as a team, may appear stronger and more formidable when Embiid doesn't play. Is that to say Embiid makes them worse? No, not necessarily, however, it isn’t out of the question to say that the 76ers are a more fluent team when their post-heavy center is off the floor.
As I mentioned earlier, Ben Simmons’ best utilization comes when he has the ball in his hands in a weaponized playmaking role. A lot of games this past year, when Embiid sat, saw the Sixers incorporate Mike Scott into the starting lineup: a solid role player utilized as a stretch four. In making this addition, not only does Ben Simmons receive more spacing, but he also becomes the clear first option on offense. As a result, he now has more opportunities to make plays which, in turn, has led to guys like Al Horford (starting center next to Scott) receiving more touches.
Al Horford, all season long, has been the victim to much criticism as many have condemned the decision that Elton Brand made to sign him for the money he did. While many accuse Horford of being at fault and messing with the team’s fit, once Embiid is out of the lineup, we see Al embracing a larger role much similar to what he had in Boston. Essentially, as one of the better passers at the big man position, when playing without Embiid, Al helps open up the floor and generates easier opportunities for cutters that he can find with his vision. As for Ben Simmons, he has become the beneficiary of these cuts.
Furthermore, Ben Simmons leading this Philadelphia team has equated to faster transition play where he facilitates in the open court. Directly after a rebound, or even an in-bound, Simmons is consistently seen pushing the pace and giving shooters better looks. Especially with Embiid out and surrounding Ben with maximized shooting, it stretches the defense thin and forces a lot of scrambling simply to cover perimeter threats.
This style of play with Ben Simmons as the clear first option and Al Horford the starting center was pivotal to their January 25 win against the LA Lakers--a game in which LA was held to the second-lowest scoring total of the whole regular season. And that was without Joel Embiid dealing with the likes of Anthony Davis. In that game, the Simmons-Horford pick-and-pop was used perfectly to help prevent a late-game comeback from the Lakers.
At the end of the day, it’s undeniable how great of talents both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are. We can’t question the fact that both are all-star level players, however, it’s unfortunate that the 76ers have been so disappointing. Many foresaw the 76ers in the finals this year yet they ended up becoming a first-round exit. Is it time for them to make drastic moves? It’s unclear what direction they direct themselves now that they enter the offseason, however, if I’m sitting in the GM position, I may contemplate a separation between the two stars. Whether or not that should, or even will happen, we cannot say. Nonetheless, it’s fairly evident that Ben Simmons possesses greater value.
The bottom line is: just because a player is better, it does not mean they bear more value.
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