The conventional wisdom about LeBron James is that he automatically makes any team he’s on much better. His eight straight NBA Finals appearances suggest that’s an accurate perception.
However, with free agency officially getting underway Sunday at midnight, it’s worth analyzing how exactly he’d fit with the Sixers.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, who has covered James throughout his career, doesn’t think James would be the best match with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and company.
“I would have to hear from Joel Embiid if I were LeBron James,” Windhorst said Friday on First Take. “I don’t see the basketball match for LeBron in Philadelphia. You would need Joel Embiid to be sitting at the table with LeBron and say, ‘I’m ready to go stand in the corner like you heeded Chris Bosh and Kevin Love to do over the last eight years’ to make this work.”
That would be a pretty radical change from Embiid. It also doesn’t seem like it would be necessary for him to totally shift his game to accommodate James the way Windhorst suggests.
James has never played with a dominant offensive post player like Embiid before. He’s played with guys like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O’Neal at the tail end of his career, Anderson Varejao and Joel Anthony, none of whom are in Embiid’s league as far as the ability to score in the post.
Embiid was second in the NBA last season with 9.1 post-up points per game. And his 0.97 points per possession on post-ups were in the 75th percentile for the league. The Sixers’ offense often revolved around him for a reason. While James is a player who needs a lot of the ball, he should be more than capable of adjusting to having a go-to scorer in the low post. In fact, given how gifted a passer he is, you’d think playing with Embiid would enhance his game, not be a reason to eliminate the Sixers as a possible destination.
Embiid did attempt 3.1 three-point shots per game last season, and though he said outside shooting is a part of his arsenal, his focus is on being “a beast inside." He wouldn’t have to drastically alter the way he plays if James came to Philadelphia.
“And then you have the reality that the two young perimeter players that the Sixers have, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, are guys that need the ball and cannot shoot,” Windhorst continued. “LeBron plays his best with guys who can play off the ball and can shoot. To me, while it’s very attractive as a concept, I don’t think basketball-wise it makes sense.”
This point is absolutely valid. James has historically thrived when surrounded by three-point shooters like Love and Kyle Korver. That’s one reason why a three-and-D guy like Mikal Bridges was an attractive player in the draft. Simmons’ usage rate of 23.5 percent last season would likely fall if he played with James, and the development of both his and Fultz’s jumpers would be crucial.
Still, if it’s best for the team, you’d think James might be willing to play off the ball more. He wouldn’t let offensive weapons like Simmons and Embiid go to waste.
“I think LeBron’s already kind of decided what his choices are here,” Windhorst said, “because I’ve talked to several teams who have requested meetings for LeBron, including some teams who I think have some pretty creative ideas, and they have been told, ‘No.’ So I think LeBron is probably pretty focused on Los Angeles or Cleveland, but I do think Philadelphia, if Joel Embiid was willing to sit down, I think LeBron would be willing to listen.”
The Sixers are definitely not the perfect fit for James. There are kinks they’d have to work out — remember the struggles of the 2010-11 Miami Heat, when James first teamed up with Bosh and Dwyane Wade? But a player as talented as James should have no problem thriving with Simmons and Embiid. To suggest Embiid would need to stand in the corner to make things work is absurd.