If the Sixers knew when they arrived in Disney World that they’d have a healthy Joel Embiid playing well in the first round of the playoffs, they probably would’ve felt great about their chances.
Instead, the Sixers head into Game 4 Sunday on the brink of elimination. Despite two costly mistakes at the end of Game 3, the Sixers’ struggles have little to do with their All-Star center, who’s averaging 30 points and 13 rebounds a game. Though having their other All-Star would be a huge boost, Ben Simmons’ presence likely wouldn’t have been enough either.
The Sixers shot 29.5 percent in their Game 3 loss. 29.5 percent. Embiid kept them in the game by living at the free throw line, but there wasn't a single player that had even a decent shooting night from the field.
That just proves what anybody who’s paid close attention to this team already knows. Embiid and Simmons aren’t the problem and any thought of trading either player is preposterous.
The fact that this is still a conversation that people are having is insane. And it’s not just your uncle from South Philly bringing it up at a family party or Joe Schmo calling up WIP or the Fanatic ranting and raving. There are legitimate basketball analysts calling for the separation of All-Stars that are 26 and 24 years old, respectively.
In 2017-18, it’s fair to say the Sixers overachieved. Simmons was a rookie and playing point guard for the first time in his life. Think about that: Simmons was playing a position he’d never played before for the first time and was doing so at the NBA level. The season prior, Embiid had played just 31 games. That was after missing two full seasons and not picking up the game of basketball until he was 15.
Their talent level was enough to overcome all that as they won 50 games for the first time since Allen Iverson’s MVP season in 2000-01 and captured the East’s third seed. They also beat the Heat in five games in the first round of the playoffs, advancing to the second round for the first time since 2012. Not bad for a team many had projected as a fringe playoff team.
As expectations rose, new GM Elton Brand’s desire to acquire a third star did as well. He traded for the disgruntled Jimmy Butler from the Timberwolves. Butler was excellent for the Sixers and got them a few bounces from possibly reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. The long-term ramifications of that trade have likely hurt the Sixers, but in the short term, they came close to doing something special. Who knows what happens if Embiid is healthier in that Raptors series.
This season, Simmons’ knee injury derailed a playoff run before it could even begin. Simmons was playing the four, a position change that may have benefited both him and the Sixers. He’s likely never going to be prolific from three, but he did show more of a willingness to take open looks. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see if it would’ve made a difference come playoff time against a team that’s presented him problems in the past.
Does Simmons playing change the outcome of this series? Not likely. With Embiid being mostly dominant, Boston still appears to be the better team. Not even necessarily from an overall talent perspective, but because the Celtics are built for 2020. Before Gordon Hayward’s injury, they had four players in their starting lineup that could create and shoot off the bounce. The Sixers have one on their entire roster in Alec Burks.
It’s been said and written what feels like a thousand times, but here it goes again: The Sixers need shot creators and shotmakers. Especially when you have Simmons, who finished second to LeBron James in the NBA in assists on threes, and Embiid, who sees a double team every time he touches the basketball. Though there are talented players on this roster, they don’t possess the proper skill set to complement Simmons and Embiid.
The other issue is the value you get for an All-Star. Rarely does the team trading the star talent get star talent or anything resembling equal value in return. Think back to the Charles Barkley trade or the Moses Malone trade or even all the way back to the Wilt Chamberlain trade. The Sixers moved on from star players and had little to show for it. Meanwhile, Barkley, Malone and Chamberlain all went on to have success at their next destinations.
The Sixers need to make serious changes this offseason, likely from the front office to the coaching staff to the roster. Trading either of their All-Stars should not be on the to-do list.