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Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s partnership continues to grow

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NBA: Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The relationship of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and their chemistry in all areas has always sparked plenty of discussion when it comes to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Some of it has been understandable. They haven’t necessarily been the closest friends off the court, and the offensive fit has never been ideal with their shooting limitations and differing styles of play. But the Sixers have a long track record of being effective when Simmons and Embiid are together. In the 3,956 regular season minutes they’ve played together through their careers, the Sixers have had a +9.43 net rating (up from +7.04 when Embiid is without Simmons), including a +14.38 net rating to start this season. And in 481 playoff minutes together, Embiid and Simmons have a +12.16 net rating.

Rather than the fit of Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers’ big problem has always been the lack of complementary depth, ball-handlers and shooters assembled around the duo.

Well, the Sixers have a better supporting cast and more shooting to help Simmons and Embiid now. And as they continue to push through the season and the many absences they’ve faced due to various injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the Sixers (12-6) are sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference, while Simmons and Embiid’s partnership grows stronger.

Doc Rivers has made it a point of emphasis for Embiid and Simmons to spend more time together. The three of them have had meetings since Rivers took over as Philly’s head coach, and he wants the two players to do a lot together when they’re off the court to strengthen their relationship in the process. For instance, this includes Rivers encouraging them to do an interview together with ESPN.

“I just think they’re going to win together, they’re going to have to do a lot of things together and get used to it,” Rivers said with a laugh in December. “Get used to playing together, get used to running pick-and-rolls together, get used to celebrating together, you know, get used to doing interviews together. They’re going to be tied at the hip. So I think any time they can do things together is good.”

The budding partnership of Simmons and Embiid really came to light after the Sixers’ 122-110 win against the Boston Celtics on January 22.

“Not that the previous years we haven’t been on the court very close, but this year it’s just been different,” Embiid said after the game. “This year I can’t even explain it. It’s just been different. I mean, I love playing with him and I’m sure he loves playing with me, too, and it’s just, I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just been fun. You know, having someone like that, I can be a playmaker but I don’t need to be a playmaker, because I’ve got him. And my job is to, you know, play defense and score the ball and make plays when they double and triple team me. And then his job is, you know, be huge on defense and also make plays offensively for our guys. It’s been amazing this year.”

Rivers explained after the game that when Simmons started heating up offensively in the fourth quarter, it was Embiid who wanted the team to run more pick-and-rolls to get Simmons going even more.

“We both see different things,” Simmons said. “So for me and Jo, I think the relationship continues to grow. We talk a lot more now in terms of being on the floor and certain things we say. Knowing where he wants the ball, all the sets, and just getting a good flow in the game, and just trying to read it the right way.”

“The other day he texted me and said, ‘I missed you too many times on your duck-ins. I’m going to find you.’ Little things like that, it continues to help the team chemistry grow. And it just shows guys are willing to make plays. Even if guys don’t make the right pass or miss something, guys want to make the right plays and things like that.”

Simmons’ offense came alive in that fourth quarter against the Celtics. He scored 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting and added 3 assists in the final 12 minutes, while making a few key defensive plays down the stretch, too. Besides just helping the Sixers close out the game, it broke him out of a rough offensive stretch to start the season. Whether it was due to questionable health (he’s dealt with some left knee soreness this season), returning from so much time off, not feeling as comfortable in the new offense, simply not being aggressive enough, or a combination of these factors, Simmons wasn’t himself. He wasn’t attacking with the level of assertiveness he needs to put pressure on the rim, exploit mismatches, and score at a high enough rate.

Simmons followed up his impressive fourth quarter against Boston with 20 points on 5-of-7 shooting (10-of-12 from the free throw line), 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals against Detroit. He got off to a decent start in the Sixers’ second game against the Pistons as well, scoring 11 points in 21 minutes, but foul trouble heavily limited his playing time and eventual impact.

Another positive for Simmons is that he’s getting to the free throw line more this season. It’s something he’s always needed to do more to make the most of his size and athleticism as an interior scorer, and he’s starting to trend in the right direction. He’s averaging a career-high 7.7 free throw attempts per 100 possessions and getting free throws on 18.9 percent of his possessions, up from his previous career-high of 16.7 percent in 2018-19.

Moving forward, Simmons will need to continue establishing a better blend of playmaking, scoring, and off-ball impact with his cutting and screening — two areas of his activity which have been encouraging recently. Simmons is always at his best when he’s aggressive as well, and the Sixers and Embiid need him to be if he’s going to help maximize the team’s offense.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Doc Rivers wants Simmons to keep driving downhill more, but he isn’t concerned with Simmons averaging career-lows in points (12.8) and field goal attempts (8.8) per game.

“He’s doing so many things for this team,” Rivers said after the Sixers’ latest win against the Celtics. “His winning formula is amazing. Last game, he got no credit, and he was so important to why we won that game with all the things he’s doing — the little cuts, the little back picks, the rolls and passes. Ben does a lot. And so, you can’t focus on one thing, like focusing him on just scoring. He’s too good for that, to me. It would be a waste if that’s all we focused on for him. You know, what I did like is he went downhill tonight more and finished at the basket. That’s what he has to do, that’s what we’re working on.”

Of course, the Sixers still have work to do. Their once league-best defense has slipped in recent games and has dropped to 4th as a result, their schedule hasn’t presented much of a challenge yet, and they still have concerns when Embiid isn’t playing. They’re 0-4 without him this season (including a loss to Denver when the Sixers only had a seven-man rotation), and fall from a +11.48 net rating with Embiid on the floor to -5.58 without him. On top of that, I still believe this team needs a new high-level perimeter creator to be a real contender in the playoffs.

Some of these issues — specifically the need for more perimeter creation — won’t completely go away unless roster changes are made. But the Sixers are also only 18 games into their season. After having a short offseason, adding a bunch of new players, overhauling the coaching staff, and having the difficulty of minimal practice time and a host of absences due to injuries and COVID health and safety protocols, it’s not been easy for the team to work things out on the fly.

Rivers has always said that polishing the offense and implementing all the plays he wants will take time. He’s right, and it’s still early. Other bright spots are helping the Sixers improve, too, from Shake Milton continuing to break out, to the high upside of rookie Tyrese Maxey and the terrific play of Seth Curry.

And as the Sixers work towards their ceiling, both this season and beyond, Simmons and Embiid’s developing chemistry is important.

“Our relationship is continuing to grow,” Simmons added.

If their partnership keeps getting stronger, both on and off the court, it can only help the team moving forward.