Global pandemic aside, this was not the season the Philadelphia 76ers expected in 2019-20. On Monday, Ben Simmons reportedly underwent surgery in Philadelphia to remove a loose body from his left knee, all but ending his season. The Sixers are locked into the No. 6 seed in the East with Joel Embiid already dealing with a sore left ankle.
Before this season, ESPN pegged the new-look Sixers as more likely to win the 2020 NBA Finals than the Los Angeles Lakers. In early October, Vegas placed their over/under at 54.5 wins, the Sixers’ most bullish rating in decades. Instead, they have the win percentage of a 48-win team and no Simmons to rescue their playoff hopes.
Now, the 76ers have some decisions to make. With the title out of reach, should they play Embiid the rest of the way or shut him down? If Embiid plays, should Al Horford replace Simmons’ spot in the lineup or will that push Embiid out of his comfort zone?
But the bigger question looming beyond this season is: Why is the Simmons-Embiid era trending in the wrong direction?
With the playoffs around the corner, let’s dive into one of the great mysteries in the NBA.
Embiid’s dilemma: to play or not to play?
This was supposed to be Embiid’s postseason of redemption. After several bounces on the rim at the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid and the Sixers’ 2018-19 season ended at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors. The Sixers were right there.
And Embiid wasn’t even himself. Laboring through a bothersome left knee injury that limited him throughout the season, Embiid shot just 42.8 percent from the floor last postseason and missed a game in the Brooklyn series dealing with the leg issue. A healthy Embiid in the postseason meant the sky was the limit for the Sixers. It didn't come to fruition in 2019.
As a result, last offseason the Sixers front office shook things up and decided to bolster the backcourt to help keep Embiid fresh and healthy. They signed former Celtics big man Al Horford to a four-year, $109- million contract and traded Butler for Josh Richardson. But after last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Raptors, Embiid’s redemption tour hasn’t gone smoothly. On The Old Man & The Three podcast with his former teammate JJ Redick, which was recorded before Simmons’ injury, Embiid expressed that he hadn’t been in the groove this season.
“I won’t lie, during this season, I was not myself,” Embiid said. “I was not there. Like, I just wasn’t comfortable. The offense wasn’t the same. The basketball wasn’t the same to me. The way things happened last summer, it was just so frustrating. I was just mad at the whole world and I was just like, eh, whatever.”
Despite that discomfort, Embiid still thought the Sixers could take home the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.
“But I still believe,” Embiid added. “We’ve got a big chance to make it happen. We can win the whole thing.”
With Simmons sidelined, the calculus has inevitably changed. Now, the question becomes whether the unlikely reward of a deep playoff run is worth the risk of Embiid getting seriously hurt. The 7-foot center has already missed 22 games this season dealing with various injuries and we’ve already seen major injuries befall Simmons (patella subluxation), Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. (torn meniscus) and Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL).
The good news is that injuries haven’t spiked beyond the norm in the Orlando bubble, according to injury tracking by InStreetClothes.com’s Jeff Stotts. Some of that might be due to the recent aggressive resting strategies by teams as they gear up for the playoffs. Unfortunately, in the opening minutes of the second game of Simmons’ absence, Embiid landed awkwardly on the stanchion and hurt his left ankle, ending his night. Embiid’s sore ankle kept him out of Tuesday’s game ahead of Wednesday’s juicy matchup against the Raptors, a game in which Embiid only played 14 minutes.
It’d be understandable if the Sixers decide to exercise caution with their franchise pillar and keep Embiid sidelined with his sore ankle and various ailments. This wasn’t the Sixers’ year, why risk it? But if the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana’s TJ Warren have taught us anything: crazy things can happen in the bubble. Maybe an Embiid-led Sixers squad can shock the world and take down the Celtics.
If Embiid plays, what’s the best chance of a deep playoff run?
Horford will likely step into the starting lineup and replace Simmons next to Joel Embiid, an alignment that coach Bret Brown loathed to use this season. Before Simmons got hurt last week, Horford and Embiid played without Simmons for only 128 of the team’s 3,327 minutes this season, according to PBPstats.com tracking. (Brown’s intuition may have been onto something: the Sixers’ opponent actually outscored by exactly one point in those Simmons-less minutes with Horford and Embiid on the floor.)
Statistically, Embiid has been better off individually when he doesn’t play with Horford. And that brings us to the short-term dilemma facing the Sixers: the best thing for the Sixers might be bringing Horford off the bench, but the optics of putting a $100-million player in the second unit may not sit well.
The team’s decision to pivot away from the Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick era and sign Horford was met with mixed reviews. But I was bullish on the move simply because Horford would help rescue the hellacious Embiid-less minutes that torpedo’d the Sixers’ East Finals hopes last season.
Horford hasn’t been the Sixers’ savior. Perhaps that’s putting too much on his shoulders. But then again, nine-figure contracts bring high expectations. Ironically, by far the most successful Sixers look this season has been Embiid playing solo without Horford or Simmons on the floor at all. In 439 minutes this season, per PBPstats.com, the Solo Embiid lineups have blasted opponents 981-860, or 13.9 points every 100 possessions.
If the Sixers are going to make a run, that’s how they’re going to do it: maximizing Solo Embiid time and turning Horford into the Sixers’ Montrezl Harrell.
My suggestion would be to replace Simmons with Mike Scott, not Horford. The Sixers need to surround Embiid with as much shooting as possible. Simmons’ willingness to shoot 3s would have been such a game-changer but his injury means we won’t get to see whether the 24-year-old was going to finally add that weapon to his arsenal.
Scott won’t hesitate to let it fly, giving Embiid ample room to dominate in the post. Yes, Charles Barkley sometimes goes over the top with his Embiid criticism, but the notion that Embiid should spend more time on the block is a fair one.
If you want Superstar Embiid, chances are Horford can’t be in the picture. With Horford on the floor, Embiid shoots 5.3 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. There just isn’t as much space for Embiid to operate when he’s flanked by the paint-dwelling Horford. When the former Celtics is on the floor, Embiid’s rates of basket attacks and free throws go south.
But when Horford is on the bench, Embiid’s launch rate from downtown falls to 3.4 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, which is a much healthier number considering Embiid is a below-average marksmen from downtown (33.1 percent). Perhaps most importantly, Embiid playing without Horford has far better results on the scoreboard (plus-147 without Horford versus plus-7 with Horford).
You don’t have to remind this phenomenon to Celtics fans. Back in December, Horford sat out the Sixers’ visit to TD Garden and Embiid destroyed Boston’s frontline, tallying 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and going to the free-throw line 14 times. The Celtics had no answer for Embiid and the Sixers won a road game in the toughest of environments, a rarity for this Sixers squad. When Horford and Embiid played in February in Boston, the Celtics blew out the Sixers while Embiid struggled throughout the night.
The Horford-Embiid partnership is awkward, but it’s easy to see why the Sixers want to make it work. Nine-figure salaries don’t typically go to reserve players. But the evidence is clear. If the Sixers want to raise their playoff ceiling, they should look to maximize Embiid first and the rest will take care of itself.
What about the Simmons-Embiid duo long-term?
No, I don’t think the Sixers need to break up the Simmons-Embiid duo. The team has them under contract for at least three additional seasons. Simmons just turned 24 years old. Embiid is 26. Their primes should be in Philadelphia.
But it’s fair to bring up the possibility, given their trajectory. After a breakout season in 2017-18, the Sixers have seen their win percentage fall in each of the last two seasons. With Simmons sidelineed, the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since the Allen Iverson era remains elusive.
And they may be stuck with what they have. Because the Horford, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris acquisitions haven’t worked out exactly as planned, the team has not only fallen short of expectations this season, but each player’s individual value around the league has also soured. Likewise, any attractive retool strategies will be gummed up by the lukewarm stock of Philadelphia’s supporting cast.
This is the double whammy of having a down season. So, how do they get out of it?
It won’t be easy. They need shooting, shooting and more shooting. Losing Redick’s marksmanship and two-man game with Embiid devastated the Sixers. Last season, the Sixers’ starting lineup with Butler and Redick scored a blistering 121.9 points per 100 possessions. This season with Richardson and Horford? It plummeted to 105.4 points. The defensive upgrade simply hasn’t stopped the bleeding on the offensive end.
The Sixers should focus on Joe Harris this offseason. The Brooklyn sharpshooter is an unrestricted free agent and the Nets retain his Bird rights, allowing them to offer a higher salary than any other team. A sign-and-trade could be doable. The question is whether the Nets would want in return, supposing he’s even on the table.
The Nets have a hole at power forward and they could be interested in bringing home Long Island native Tobias Harris as a high-quality safety net for Kevin Durant, allowing the two-time MVP to ease back into the flow of things after his Achilles injury.
The Nets may have some motivation to find some value in return for Joe Harris. The team already has committed a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension to shooting guard Caris LeVert, which kicks in next season. With Spencer Dinwiddie already looking for minutes behind LeVert and Kyrie Irving, Harris might be the odd one out.
The Nets could orchestrate a complicated Joe Harris sign-and-trade to get him to Philly but it would likely require Philly giving up an asset like Matisse Thybulle in the deal. It’s hard to see the pathway to get a Harris-Harris swap (Tobias makes $34.3 million next season), but the Sixers should at the very least kick the tires on what it’d take to acquire the best free agent shooter on the 2020 market.
Another intriguing option is Sacramento’s Nemanja Bjelica. If Bjelica hadn’t made a last-minute reversal in 2018 free agency, he'd be on the Sixers right now. Bjelica is due $7.2 million next season and the Kings have an interesting offseason ahead with Bogdan Bogdanovic being a restricted free agent. Trading for Philly’s Richardson could be a fallback option if Bogie’s pricetag gets too high for Sacramento’s liking.
The Sixers may just stand pat and try to make it work with this group rather than retool for the third straight year. Trading Simmons or Embiid is not the right answer. The incessant noise about breaking up the Simmons-Embiid duo drowns out the real issue which is finding the right pieces around the star duo. Horford is an expensive battery for Embiid, but bringing Horford off the bench may be the best way the Sixers can salvage a lost season. No matter what happens in the bubble playoffs, another fascinating offseason awaits Philadelphia.