The Philadelphia 76ers are always at their best when Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are together. Last season, they were the fourth-best two-man lineup in the NBA, posting a 16.1 net rating in 1,305 dominant minutes together. Despite their limitations as shooters and differing tempos, they thrive side by side. And there’s one simple way for them to get even better.
The Sixers ranked dead last in pick-and-roll frequency in the NBA last season. As a result, Simmons only operated as a pick-and-roll ball handler in 29.9 percent of his possessions — a low number compared to many point guards, like Goran Dragic (39.7 percent), Damian Lillard (47.4) and Kemba Walker (50.3). Embiid doesn’t dive too much, serving as the roll man in only 8.4 percent of his possessions.
Rewatching film from last season is a reminder of not just how rarely the Sixers ran Simmons-Embiid pick-and-roll, but how deadly it can be at times.
They didn’t wait long to show flashes. Philly’s October 23 game against the Detroit Pistons provided some good examples, showing how effortlessly Simmons can hoist passes over a defense with his height and precision. Once Emiid screens (or slips screens, as he often did last season) in the first two plays in the clip below, Andre Drummond is lured away from the paint, ready to switch onto Simmons. With Embiid’s man left out of position and no defenders close to Embiid’s size available to help, catching and finishing in traffic is easy:
Even if defenders go over screens against Simmons, holding him outside, he and Embiid have shown they have the pull to bring rim protectors away from the basket and connect right over them.
When Simmons opts to penetrate rather than distributing from the arc, he has the speed and IQ to manipulate defenders left in front of him. Here, the use of a hesitation freezes Ian Mahinmi, and a leap to the rim gets him off his feet to free up Embiid for an open dunk:
Fast forward to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semi finals against the Boston Celtics, and we saw another flash of the damage Embiid can do by slipping screens. He can nip behind defenses and finish over them if he finds a lane:
Simmons’ accuracy to place the lob just above Al Horford’s reach made this basket possible. Even though Simmons isn’t a threat to pull up off the dribble right now, his passing is good enough, with the help of Embiid, to make up for it somewhat.
Running pick-and-rolls together also supports Simmons’ half-court scoring with wider driving lanes off Embiid’s screens. Embiid can wipe out opponents when he wants to. Plus, despite only hitting 30.8 percent of his 3s last season, he still demands attention outside due to his range, confidence to shoot, and solid volume (one make per game). If that makes rim protectors take an extra step or two away from the rim, Simmons has more space to play with.
In this play (also from the second round against Boston), Aron Baynes is drawn right up the lane by Embiid’s high screen and the threat of a 3-pointer. With more room to attack a backtracking Baynes, Simmons accelerates for a quick layup:
Outcomes like these are simple. Embiid can play with force above the rim and Simmons is a major threat to pass around defenders or fly past screens. But there are other options available that make them even more effective.
They can toy with opponents using simple pick-and-pops, too. If opponents switch on time, Simmons is left with the chance to attack centers off the dribble. If switches don’t come or they’re executed late, Embiid has the agility to flare out to the arc and find space.
Going after Dirk Nowitzki’s 40-year-old legs or beating trailing bigs with behind-the-back dimes is just unfair:
Of course, not everything is perfect. Until we see otherwise, Simmons isn’t a shooter of any kind. It’s an essential element of elite pick-and-roll play that limits him moving forward. While he won’t face league-best, playoff-Celtics defense every night, the postseason still showed us what can happen if defenders go under screens and sit back to clog the paint. And he already only ranked in the 51st percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season. Embiid wasn’t an efficient roll man either, ranking in the 30th percentile. There are reasons why it’s unfair to expect them to ramp up their pick-and-roll usage without growing pains, at least in terms of Simmons’ scoring.
However, they’re still so young, playing in a system that didn’t give them nearly enough pick-and-roll reps to hone their partnership. At this stage, more experience is key and they don’t have to run it all the time. Simmons also has traits to deal with an absent jumper that other point guards don’t have. He’s super athletic, one of the best passers in the NBA with a 6’10” frame to facilitate over defenders, accompanied by a top center in Embiid with gravity to rattle defenses inside.
The Sixers can also throw in more wrinkles to help them along the way. Brett Brown is so smart with his use of guards as screeners. JJ Redick, with his crafty positioning and the pull of his jump shot, is a real weapon.
This play is a perfect example. Rather than a standard pick-and-roll between Simmons and Embiid, Redick screens Simmons’ man instead. In doing so, Redick also brings his own defender, Victor Oladipo, further from the paint, clears space for Simmons to drive, and Embiid flies down the lane for a dunk as the defense collapses:
More Simmons-Embiid-Redick Spain pick-and-roll is another recipe for beautiful offense (a shooter screens for the roll man, then pops out to the arc for 3). The Sixers’ execution of that action is on the money here, with Simmons operating from the wing. Redick snags Davis Bertans on a screen to give Embiid more room to dive, opening up a window for Simmons to drop in the alley-oop for a monstrous Embiid finish:
Neither of these young stars are close to their prime. They have a world of talent and athleticism at their disposal, making the Sixers' roster the envy of most teams in the league. Even with Simmons as a non-shooting threat, we’ve seen how he can create for Embiid on rolls, burn switches on drives, or set up Embiid on pops to the arc. As these young stars grow together, their pick-and-roll connection is waiting to be unlocked and developed.
If Simmons can just add a mid-range game — whether it’s an elbow pull-up, an increased use of floaters, or a combination of the two — then corralling his creativity and Embiid barrelling to the rim will be a nightmare for opponents to stop.
And if Markelle Fultz has rediscovered his jumper in a summer with Drew Hanlen, the pick-and-roll potential of this team is sky high.