Everyone loves Superman.
He’s iconic. He’s a hero. He’s lawful good (if you care at all about superheroes and their DnD alignment).
He’s what every little boy of that era wanted to be. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ equivalent of Superman. He’s super strong, can move larger men with the greatest of ease. He can fly on occasion. He doesn’t have the laser eyes, or anything, but two out of three isn’t bad.
Now, when Superman joined the Justice League with Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, et al, he had to learn that there’s more than one way to complete an objective. Sometimes, you need brute strength. Other times you need tactics and – to quote Jack Nicholson in the best Batman movie – “wonderful toys”.
Ben Simmons is the Philadelphia 76ers’ parallel of Batman.
He’s not as fast as Superman or fellow JL member The Flash, but he’s definitely more agile than most. (In this analogy, however, Batman IS faster than Superman.) Simmons, like Batman, is incredibly intelligent. Both are keen to their surroundings. Both have numerous toys and tools to get the job done. Our version of Batman doesn’t have a pretty important tool (shooting), but he’s loaded with other ones.
As the Sixers re-evaluate their off-the-court shenanigans, it’s fair to wonder if something needs to be done ON the court. From the title of this column, you may be thinking, “Oh my God. Is he going to advocate for trading Joel Embiid?”
No. No, I am not.
In his recent press conference (summarized by Dave Early yesterday), General Manager Elton Brand said that he won’t be looking to trade Embiid (or Simmons). Nor should he. Embiid is 26 years old. He’s one of the top players in the NBA and one of the best at his position. Our Superman has his flaws, though. They can’t be ignored.
Embiid’s conditioning has always come into question. He gets gassed quickly and has nothing left for crunch time. He can get up for those games on TNT when Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal call for him to “dominate”, but he doesn’t always do the same for Marc Zumoff and Alaa Abdelnaby during an NBC Sports Philadelphia game against, for example, the Charlotte Hornets on a Saturday afternoon. That’s fine. Sometimes, Superman needs a break.
Has this kryptonite been coming to the forefront more and more often? Possibly. It’s part of the reason why Brand dished out $100 million to Al Horford this past offseason: keep Embiid as fresh as possible.
Maybe it’s time for the citizens of Gotham and Metropolis (pick which Philly neighborhoods parallel those two cities however you want) to see what happens when the crew leader for a “Justice League task” happens to be Batman. In short, why not see what happens if Simmons is the offensive focus, not Embiid?
Earlier this year, Tom West did a piece on unlocking Simmons as a screener and roll man. He highlighted several instances in a game against the Houston Rockets. Is it the preferred method that Simmons likes to get involved? No. Should it be, considering the Sixers tried so many different ways to do things with Embiid/Superman as the focus? Why the hell not? You tried just about everything else.
Ben Simmons’s tools as a screener and roll man are leaps and bounds (see what I did there) more than what Embiid is capable of. Simmons is a better passer if teams collapse on him as he comes into the lane – or if he chooses to kick out to a shooter.
With a full training camp of Simmons/Shake Milton working together, imagine this: Simmons/Shake pick-and-roll, Simmons darts into the lane for a pocket pass or a lob, receives the pass and either lays it up, kicks it to the open shooter, or passes to a plunging Embiid.
That’s just magical to even fathom. Ben Simmons has the tools to do that. Embiid (who has never averaged less than three turnovers per game) can’t do it as well. In 2020 and beyond, that’s what NBA offenses are: dynamic, multi-dimensional. The Sixers can be that if this is “Simmons’ Team”. There’s an issue or two: the first being personnel.
I love Shake Milton. I love Josh Richardson. Are they the kind of on-ball creators that Simmons would need to make this work? Tom, in his piece, highlighted Trey Burke when he was a member of the Sixers. When the change was made at the bubble restart, Simmons and Milton had a decent rapport with each other. No one really knows what would have become of it since an injury cut Simmons’ bubble trip short.
Then, there’s the larger elephant in the room. (No, that is not a Joel Embiid weight joke. Stop it, you guys. Fat shaming is for lazy people. That’s low-hanging fruit, and we’re all better than that.)
Can Joel Embiid keep his ego in check? He’s been the face of this franchise for four seasons. His nickname is literally the name of the event that kickstarted this new era in Sixers basketball. He’s a 25+ point/10+ rebound game kind of guy on any given night. I feel like this is the bigger ask. It’s not easy for anyone to take a demotion, and that’s essentially what it would be to Embiid if the leader of this next Sixers/Justice League task is Simmons.
They say “winning cures everything”. If the Sixers start hot next year under my proposal, maybe winning games is enough for Embiid to say, “You know what. This isn’t too bad.” I mean. You already got your money, Joel. That’s not an issue until you hit free agency again, but I submit to you this.
Take the hypothetical demotion. Get your 20/10 (I know, I know, insert 20/10 joke here) while Ben is getting lines like 26/9/9 with half of his points coming in transition or nasty lobs from whomever. Commit to it by getting your conditioning under control (finally). With Simmons having the keys, you have to do a little more running, big man. You can get spelled by Horford (provided he’s still on the team), but come crunch time, you have to be ready to roll.
Think of the added color to that paint job. “Wow. Embiid committed to being a team guy and letting the Sixers try something different running the offense primarily through Ben Simmons. That’s a good guy.”
There are times and places for Embiid’s brand of offense, which, too often, is Embiid pounding the ball outside of the paint and putting up that low efficiency mid-range jump shot. (God, that’s infuriating.) Teams neutralize that by playing zone like cowards. If the Sixers NEED a bucket in crunch time, sure that’s “Get the ball to Joel and let him go to work” time. During the natural flow of a game, make every offensive possession different.
The Sixers are going to have a new man on the bench. It could be any of Ime Udoka (sure), Ty Lue (god no), Stan Van Gundy (I can stomach it), Mark Jackson (HELL NO). Whoever it is should maybe think about this:
Let Batman lead this super team into combat one time and see how it goes. We’ve tried brute strength. Let’s try a little finesse.