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Exploring the push-and-pull relationship between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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How can the Sixers best merge the transition game favored by Simmons with the low-post dominance of Embiid?

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers’ two best players belong to different congregations. Joel Embiid is a parishioner of the methodical low post, while Ben Simmons is a devotee to transition and up-tempo offense.

Despite the dichotomy, Embiid and Simmons were the fourth-best two-man pairing in the entire league last season (min. 1,000 minutes), trailing just three Houston Rockets lineups — a team that led the Association in net rating.

Furthermore, among the 21 Sixers duos to play at least 500 minutes together, Simmons and Embiid posted the best offensive rating of the bunch at 114.9. Together, they were a high-octane machine; individually, they were languid. Without Embiid, Simmons’ offensive rating tumbled to 104.5 (plus-0.9 net rating), and without Simmons, Embiid’s offensive rating fell to 103.8 (plus-2.1).

There’s no denying the synergy between Embiid and Simmons — highlighted by the contrasting profits when they operate in conjunction versus solo. However, once Embiid went down late in the year, the Sixers cooked up a recipe for success to stay afloat without their star big man: shift the Simmons Ferrari into hyperdrive.

In the final eight games of the season, Simmons posted an offensive rating of 114.5 sans Embiid (plus-16.7 net rating), beaming up and down the floor at a pace of 107.41 — perhaps suggesting a slight alteration to the offensive cadence might be collectively beneficial. On the other hand, the revolving door of tanking franchises — five of their eight opponents won 36 games or less — undoubtedly helped spark those shiny marks, and Philadelphia won’t play over 60 percent of its games against lottery-bound teams next season.

Embracing a run-and-gun assault without Embiid was nothing new for Simmons, though. Prior to Embiid’s injury, he played at a pace of 100.67 next to the second-year center and ditched the training wheels without him, playing at a pace of 103.82. The former would rank eighth league-wide, while the latter would sit in first by more than a possession.

While the numbers point to a slower pace producing better results for the Sixers, the breakneck tempo is Simmons’ comfort zone, as he ranked 20th in individual pace last season (min. 50 games and 20 minutes/night). Without a reliable jumpshot or bevvy of scoring moves, Simmons punctures scattershot defenses before they’re set, wielding his size, quickness, and passing vision.

The unsaturated version of Simmons zipped around the court, serving as the team’s offensive focal point and no longer playing second fiddle to Embiid. With four shooters often whirling around him, the 6-foot-10 point guard had the real estate to roam uninhibited and seek out scoring chances early in the clock.

For much of the year, Simmons conformed to the playing style of Embiid, allowing the Cameroonian big man to systematically dissect defenses with his low-post acumen. But Simmons — and the Sixers’ offense — hit his/their stride by bringing a track meet to the hardwood.

With Simmons unquestionably dictating scheme the final eight games, the Sixers’ offensive rating leapt from 106.9 the first 74 bouts (101.78 pace) to 112.6 (106.07 pace). Establishing a happy medium between the pedestrian pace Embiid prefers, and the one an unleashed Simmons thrived at, could breed an even more devastating offense when those two share the floor.

During his time without Embiid in late March and early April, Simmons optimized his primary and secondary transition opportunities, darting down the court or probing the lane to initiate early offense for himself:

By no means am I suggesting the Sixers abandon funnelling the offense through Embiid and become the new-age Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns. He’s a dominant interior-oriented big who commands defensive attention, opening up driving and passing lanes while stretching the floor from inside-out. Among the 17 players who accrued at least 150 post-up possessions last season, Embiid ranked fourth in points per possession with 0.97 — a mark slightly better than the 0.95 PPP Philadelphia produced in its composite half-court sets. Despite the inherently inefficient nature of post-ups, investing a significant portion of the offense into them works for the Sixers because of Embiid’s talents.

Yet, his injury opened the door for the birth of a new offensive identity — one that leaned into the pace-and-space era rather than the anachronistic religion of post-ups. For the first time in Embiid’s tenure, the franchise found life without him. During his rookie season, the team was 11.1 points better with him out there, and last year, before his eight-game absence, it was 11.8 points better, often left soul-searching in non-Embiid minutes.

In the stretch that followed his orbital fracture, the Sixers rattled off eight consecutive wins and a plus-15.5 net rating — albeit primarily against bottom-feeders — forging a clear-cut style behind their Rookie of the Year floor general.

Finally in the midst of his first fully healthy offseason, Embiid’s conditioning should be improved next year. As a result, he should be better equipped to periodically march to the rhythm of Simmons’ offensive drum. If he’s able to rekindle the outside shot from his rookie campaign (36.7 percent on 98 3-point attempts), he’ll become a cog in Philadelphia’s four-out engine around Simmons as he hunts for quick-hitting buckets on the break.

Occupying defenses with Simmons’ multifaceted game and Embiid’s potential as a spot-up shooter would inspire nightmares for NBA coaches and heighten the tandem’s offensive artistry.

Embiid has already exhibited a knack for manipulating undisciplined defenders off the bounce. Dovetailing that penchant with the chaos of warp-speed possessions might lead to more plays like this for him:

Beyond tinkering with the starting lineup’s offensive tendencies, last season’s success should lend credence to the Simmons-plus-four-shooters mantra during non-Embiid minutes. Amir Johnson was a steady presence as the reserve center and deserves consistent minutes, but a Simmons-J.J. Redick-Wilson Chandler-Dario Saric-Mike Muscala unit (insert any plus shooter into the quintet) is one that has the potential to produce offensive fireworks while spacing the floor for Simmons.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to sacrifice for the collective good. Last year, Simmons often toned down his blazing speed to complement Embiid’s low-post game. But the final eight contests of the regular season revealed a successful formula that maximizes Simmons’ strengths. Now, it might be time for Embiid to meet his co-star halfway and take a trip to Simmons’ church, one where things just seem to move a little faster.