The Problem with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in One Play

Philly is still outscoring opponents when the two are on the floor together, but they've still proved to be an awkward fit.
January 11, 2019, 2:36pm
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Photo by CJ Gunther/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Fair or not, the on and off-court chemistry between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is one of those relentlessly fascinating storylines that won’t disappear until A) the Philadelphia 76ers make the Finals, or B) one of them—most likely Simmons—gets traded.


The good news for Philly is they outscore opponents by nearly six points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Simmons share the floor. The bad news is that number was almost three times as high last year, and the Sixers have been better this season when Embiid is on the court without Simmons, which wasn’t the case during the 2017-18 season.

What’s most glaring when you watch them co-exist is how unusual it feels whenever one directly complements the other. Sure, Simmons will push in transition, cause panic, and create advantageous mismatches that everyone enjoys. And Embiid can consistently draw two defenders on the block then find Simmons on a duck in, or launch him towards the rim by screening his man around half-court. But they also get in each other’s way with a higher frequency than any two franchise players should, and that’s before Jimmy Butler even enters the equation. Simmons can’t space the floor and Embiid sort of can but asking him to do so on a regular basis is like buying a new iPad because you need a nightlight in your bathroom.

What’s most concerning, though, is how the evolution of their two-man game has truly become an escalator to nowhere, particularly when they run a snug pick-and-roll. This action is a disaster almost every time they run it. It’s predictable (opponents switch every single time) and unnecessarily congests the floor.

It’s not like the Sixers run this action a ton (by my count it didn’t occur once in their recent back-to-back against the Wizards), but it’s a micro issue that speaks to their macro dilemma. The best way to mitigate Simmons’s greatest flaw (one that matters a lot more in the playoffs than the regular season) is to play him as a point center, which is difficult on a team that also employs Embiid. Let Simmons push the ball in transition and post up, but also utilize his size, physicality, and speed by making him an unstoppable roll man, someone who can live above the rim and pick you apart as a playmaker on the move. Again, that’s hard to do with Embiid on the floor:

One radical solution may be to make Embiid the ball-handler. It won’t work against every team, but with the floor spaced it could be an opportunity to attack switches in an unorthodox way. I’m not sure if Embiid can/should assume this type of responsibility, but it’s better to try every option than concede too soon and do something rash (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Sixers sold high on Simmons before his next contract kicks in).

Philadelphia is very good as is, but “very good” isn’t what you punt four years away for. Most teams would be thrilled to have talents like Embiid and Simmons on their roster. Fit be damned, the rest will figure itself out, yada yada yada. But we’ve yet to see these two lift each other in a way that should make anyone think they can claw through two playoff rounds, let alone win a championship. Simmons doesn’t need a jumper to be an All-Star-caliber force, but to compete at the highest level, in a half-court setting, on the same team as a high-usage, low-post big? Of course he does. Brett Brown has the hardest job in the business.