As the two main prizes that the Sixers were able to secure in “The Process Era,” expectations have been heavy for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons since they came into the league. The duo has developed during their time together and climbed the ranks of the NBA’s best partnerships throughout their four years in the league.
Since both players have been able to take the court, the Sixers have never had a losing season. They have made the Eastern Conference Semifinals twice in this time and have legitimate title hopes this year. Despite their on-court success, there have been whispers surrounding the off-court relationship of the pair since they began playing together.
How was the narrative started?
The sky-high expectations for the 27 and 24-year-old stars have been a heavy burden for each guy to carry. Whether it be the criticism over Embiid’s injury history, Simmons’ lack of shooting progression or other issues surrounding the two- the duo were thrown right into the passion-fueled fire that is Philly Sports.
There have never been any concrete examples of this “beef” between the two, however, the narrative has continued to follow. These rumors picked up following Jimmy Butler’s departure and the crazed mentality that followed him. The Athletic’s Zach Harper reported that Butler, “didn’t view (Simmons) on par with someone like himself or Embiid when it came to mental makeup.” Butler himself has never openly put this on the record and seemingly alluded to it being more of an issue with the front office of the Sixers on the JJ Redick podcast.
The Sixers have ascended to new heights this season and are 23 games above .500 for the first time since 2001. Maintaining their position as first-place in the Eastern Conference, the conversation has even shifted to where Simmons and Embiid rank amongst the top duo’s across the NBA.
Joel Embiid & Ben Simmons listen to Doc’s Orders
Prior to the matchup with the Bulls, Doc Rivers was asked what he has seen regarding the relationship between Ben and Joel compared to how it was portrayed prior to him coming to Philadelphia:
“Whatever the portrayal was- I didn’t put a lot of weight into it because I wanted to see what the relationship was. I would say the biggest, more pleasant surprise when I first got here- I realized there was no problem at all… I guess it was a bit of a pleasant surprise, there’s no personal issues or anything like that and that’s an awful nice thing to have.”
The On-Court Effects
While the success of this season has surely been impacted by other factors outside of their relationship, the growth in chemistry has been seen on the court as well. The Sixers currently hold a record of 44-21 on the season. In games without Joel Embiid the team’s record is 9-10. In games without Ben Simmons, the Sixers are 5-7. When both are in the lineup, the Sixers have impressively advanced to 32-6 on the season.
Joel Embiid has truly ascended to his superstar status this season and rightfully climbed into the MVP conversation. Embiid is averaging a career-high (and 3rd in NBA) 29 points per game along with 10.3 rebounds. Embiid ranks first in the league in usage rate this season at 35.3% and second in the league in player efficiency rating at 30.3%. Embiid has added an array of post-moves to his game while becoming one of the best mid-range shooters across the league.
Purely looking at the numbers, it may seem as if the opposite is occurring with Ben Simmons. He is averaging career-lows across the board with 14.5 points, 6.9 assists, and 7.4 rebounds. It is worth noting that these would be impressive numbers for a player with lower expectations than Simmons, and his impact continues to be felt despite the statistical regression.
While he is one of the best transition players across the league, Simmons has struggled in the half-court offense so far in his career. As a way to combat this, Simmons has been used much more frequently as a screener and often sets up under the basket at the “dunker” spot on offense. Rather than forcing a drive to the basket, which created a great deal of the spacing problems that were previously seen, Simmons has swallowed his pride and dropped down a few pegs on the offensive pecking order. Doc Rivers deserves a ton of credit for making these tweaks, but Simmons himself has shown growth by respecting Embiid’s spaces on the floor. This willingness to take a backseat is not an easy task and has ultimately has made the Sixers a better team.
While it is not in the traditional way of filling up the box score, Simmons is still extremely valuable to the Sixers. The Fresh Prince has become a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year for his ability to lock up the number one scoring option on opposing teams on a nightly basis. Simmons ranks fifth in the league in defensive win shares and sixth in defensive rating. He shows a rare ability to guard all five positions on the court and, along with Matisse Thybulle, helps make the Sixers one of the most intimidating defensive teams in the league.
There certainly has been a lane established for each of these stars to put their fingerprints on the Sixers’ successful season. Even if it is not as visibly clean of a fit as some other duos around the league, it is clear Embiid and Simmons can work together as the pair have outscored opposing teams by 16.5 points per 100 possessions this year. The ultimate ceiling of the Sixers team relies on these two and the advancements they have made together this season are extremely encouraging.
Joel Embiid gives his Thoughts
Following the Bulls matchup, Joel Embiid was also asked to take about his relationship with Simmons. Embiid began by talking about what Simmons brings to the team on the defensive end and how important this is.
He then continued:
“As far as our relationship, I mean you can see it on the court. Not that there was anything before but I think we’ve gotten way closer than before. We were close before but this year has just been, you know, amazing. Like I always say, you know, I love playing with him and I think we got a chance.”
It is also important to note that Embiid and Simmons’ relationship was stretched further than ever this season. This season was the first time in their careers it seemed likely that the duo would be split up. Ben Simmons was minutes away from being shipped off in the James Harden trade saga, and if it weren’t for some bad blood between Daryl Morey and his former coworkers he likely would be in Houston right now. Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid both reportedly vouched for Simmons and were not in favor of making the deal and ultimately were given their wish.
The young duo is now faced with one of the most important stretches of their career. Surrounding the two with the best group of veterans and role players they have seen in their careers has produced massive results this season. With Embiid firmly in the prime of his career and Simmons finding his true role on the team, hopes could not be higher for the Sixers. It is a fairytale that has dragged on for far too long but the belief that Simmons and Embiid cannot play together is one that can finally be put to bed.
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