It’s not a secret that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are an imperfect fit.
Though both players are supremely gifted, their skillsets can clash offensively. They play at a different pace as Simmons wants to run and Embiid wants to be methodical in the post.
While Brett Brown continues to look for ways to play to both players’ strengths, Embiid and Simmons have had to sacrifice parts of their game.
With Embiid out after having successful surgery Friday, it’s now Simmons’ time to shine.
One of the biggest factors will be pace. The Sixers currently sit at 18th in the NBA. That number should go up with Simmons pushing the ball at the pace he wants. Simmons is tied for fifth in the NBA in transition possessions per game. Brown has said that Simmons is the fastest guard in the league — and there are numbers to back that up. With his size, speed and skill, Simmons is a nightmare in the open floor.
Though he doesn’t always look to score out of it, Simmons does like to operate in the post. Embiid is far and away the NBA leader in post ups (10.3), but Simmons’ 3.8 per game puts him in the top 25. As we saw during the win over the Celtics, Simmons can score effectively out of the post over smaller players, often going to his right-handed hook shot. On most nights, Simmons will have a massive size advantage over his opponent.
Of course, with Embiid out and not occupying the post, it puts less pressure on Simmons to have to shoot from outside the paint — though it's fair to point out that Simmons' last make from three came with Embiid out. The Sixers’ offense can flow more freely with Simmons in the post or in the dunker spot while Al Horford contines to try and space the floor at the five.
The other thing that should help Simmons without Embiid is the lineup surrounding him. Some of the best basketball we saw Simmons play was in the Sixers’ first-round playoff series against the Heat in 2018. When Brown would use Ersan Ilyasova as a five, there would be times when the lineup was Simmons and four shooters. While he won’t quite have Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick, Brown will have the opportunity to surround him with those types of lineups.
He could probably pick better spots than he did against Enes Kanter Thursday, but Brown will likely use Simmons as a small-ball five at times, too.
None of this is to say the Sixers are a better team without Embiid or better without Simmons. What both players bring, especially defensively, makes the Sixers dangerous. They’re a better team when both players are healthy and playing at a high level.
This is just an opportunity for Simmons to be the focal point of the team over the next couple weeks or so. Who knows, it could even help his All-Star campaign. Simmons is just eighth among Eastern Conference guards in All-Star voting. It’s a shame there’s no accounting for defense. The players Simmons has guarded most by minutes this season are Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal, Pascal Siakam and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They’ve shot a combined 15 of 59 when guarded by Simmons. They may not all make the All-Star game, but that's five damn good players.
It’s fair to expect Simmons to keep up his elite defensive play. There will certainly be a little more pressure with Embiid not protecting the rim, but Simmons’ defensive versatility is as special as any player’s in the league. He’s also been more disruptive than ever this year, leading the league with 2.1 steals and ranking among the top-five in deflections.
For this upcoming stretch, this is truly Ben Simmons’ team. Let’s see what he does with it.
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