Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are the youngest and most gifted stars Sam Hinkie’s Process has produced. But in the words of their own head coach Brett Brown, and seemingly everyone on television, their games weren’t always (or still aren’t) naturally complimentary. Embiid is a force that likes to play at a slowed pace, get lots of post touches, and would benefit most being surrounded by shooters who can pick and choose when to spot up, cut, or hit him for lob dunks. Ben on the other hand, given his unique blend of strengths and weaknesses often seems to play his best when he’s the one surrounded by shooters who can space the floor and keep up with him in transition.
On paper it seems like a tricky fit and it is. As such, coach Brown has often done his best to stagger their minutes so that they don’t overlap too much in order to maximize the talents of each player. That strategy got them to the three seed a year ago, even with (or partly because of?) Embiid missing extended time with a fractured orbital bone.
Despite it being their first full season together in 2017-2018, and Ben’s first season ever, they averaged a +7 plus-minus over the 21.1 minutes they shared the floor per game in 62 games. (All statistics for this piece courtesy of NBA.com).
It is a true testament to just how talented they are that they continue to figure things out on the fly and still have as much success as they’ve had.
This season, things started similarly. In fact, between the beginning of the regular season this year in October 2018 and March 9th 2019 (the day before Embiid returned to the lineup following an extended absence) the duo of Simmons and Embiid had logged 1182 minutes together over 53 games. That’s an average on the floor together of 22.3 minutes per contest. Not far off from their last season’s minutes shared averages.
Over the entire season this year they’ve averaged 23.4 minutes shared and a plus-minus per game of +4.2 (a total plus-minus of +251 over 60 games). 
But things have recently changed.
Since March 9th, Simmons and Embiid have logged 222 minutes over 7 games and are averaging 31.7 minutes per game. That’s almost 10 more minutes per game together than they’ve ever averaged prior, and it’s almost the entirety of each player’s full allotment of minutes. They’re basically spending the entire game together lately.
Maybe Brown saw something he liked in the defensive rotations. It’s hard to guess. But just prior to the change, he did make an appearance on Zach Lowe of ESPN’s podcast to discuss their relationship and reported signs of improvement and growth:
“...their games are so unique and Ben’s especially, you know a 6’10 point guard... where people really don’t pick up quickly or defend hard you know they’re sagging off they’re in Joel’s lap, how do I space Ben? How do we let Ben, you know show his strengths and gifts?.... He’s arguably the fastest guard in the NBA, a lot of times he out runs the offense.... does it leave Joel in the dust?
....growing those two in a partnership way was the starting point because initially...it’s not like their games entirely complimented each others. And so that is real and that is growing.... I’m just so proud of them with where they were, which was never terrible but not great...to a place now where they completely get it.”
If his words here are any indication, he has more faith now in them as a complimentary pairing than he used to have. He’s seen real growth.
So Brown decided to gamble for upside and put that belief to the test during the home stretch of the season.
He won’t get the chance to keep that going as Embiid will now miss at least 3 games for load-management as he nurses left knee tendinitis. But let’s look back at when he ramped up their minutes in the first place, since it’s probably going to be something the team does during the playoffs.
What was the timeline here? With Jimmy Butler in town, Simmons and Embiid still saw their minutes staggered considerably. In fact, a trio of Butler, Simmons, and Embiid didn’t get much time together. Just 17 minutes per game through early January according to Lowe.
It was the three games when Butler injured his wrist and missed time that Brown bumped up Simmons and Embiid’s minutes to around 26 together per game. Shortly after that experiment, the team acquired Tobias Harris. Now that Harris is here it’s the first time that coach Brown a) has the luxury to combine Simmons and Embiid’s on/offs without fully sinking the team and b) it’s the first time he seems truly willing to test it.
(Imagine what would have happened to the unit if he benched Simmons and Embiid at the same time before Butler and Harris were around? Hint: it might have looked a bit like the 2016 season).
Fans will have noticed that lately JJ Redick is often subbed in and out along with Embiid and Simmons; while that trio rest it has been Butler and Harris who spearhead the charge with a combo of reserves like Boban Marjanović, James Ennis, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell and Shake Milton.
So far, Brown’s gamble appears to have paid off. It’s a bit early to tell anything for sure but the early returns are pretty good. And that being the case over a crucial stretch of games that has included wins over Indiana, Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn is a vital sign for Brown’s dynamic duo.
Some stats, before the apparent change in rotation per NBA.com:
When Simmons and Embiid were still averaging 22.3 minutes per game, between the beginning of the year and March 9th, the team stats in their shared minutes were:
offensive Rating: 109
defensive rating: 101.5
net rating: +7.5 per game,
turnover ratio: 0.2
Since March 9th, in 7 games together averaging over 31 shared minutes the team stats are:
offensive rating: 117.8
defensive rating: 107.5
net rating: +10.3 per game
turnover ratio: 0.1
The team has only averaged 12.4 turnovers per game over this stretch, down from the team’s season average of 15.2.
They’re also 6-1 in this time and the duo has the highest total plus-minus on the team with a +50.
It’s only been seven games but it’s been by far the most important seven of the year. It’s really too soon to conclude anything. But if it’s something, this could well be the most exciting development of the entire season for Sixers fans.
Could it truly be that we have compatible and complimentary superstars who will want to play together for a long time?
I don’t think it suggests that Brown has found his best rotations for the playoffs. He still has lots of tinkering to do. But for those of us keeping a close watch on how Simmons and Embiid develop together, that they’re sharing almost all of their minutes and playing well together and winning is huge. I certainly would not have expected it to have gone so well. I would have guessed that maybe putting Ben with Tobi more, and Joel with Butler more might have been better. And then allowing JJ to play with both groupings. But who knows...
What we do know for sure, the more minutes with all of his best players on the court a coach can pack in come playoff time, the better.
Here is a (probably irrelevant) moment I spotted the other day against Boston. Back in January, Ben and Joel were fighting for boards. Now they’re bopping them to each other.
It’s silly and Klaus makes a cameo, enjoy:
 For context, Embiid has averaged 33.7 minutes a game this year and Simmons has averaged 34.5 minutes. So technically most of their minutes are shared, but perhaps not as many as your typical star duos.