What’s next for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons?: The Philadelphia 76ers’ attempt at a breakthrough album

All-Pro Reels / Robert Banez
76ers fans trusted The Process for years, but it seems as if the franchise has stalled – so when will the real breakthrough come?

If ‘The Process‘ was this generation of 76ers players’ debut album, it was a triumph of sorts, like many artists often find with their initial work.

The debut lets audiences and fans know how the artist could sound throughout their career, encapsulating all their work up until that point. The second release is always heavily anticipated, and people are excited due to the potential the debut offered.

The Process had two stand out tracks for Philadelphia – All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Embiid, on his day, is the best big man in the NBA. He can do it all, shoot well for a big, rebound, get in the low-post and score and protect the rim. Simmons is a constant triple-double threat and a fantastic defender capable of forcing turnovers and guarding every position.

Embiid embraced The Process more than anyone. It became his nickname, and he the embodiment of the rewards that losing in the NBA can bring. Perhaps it was fitting that in Game 3 of this years’ first round playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics, after being doubled, Embiid’s cross-court pass to Tobias Harris was intercepted by Marcus Smart with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter.

It led to Jaylen Brown converting an and-one at the other end to put the Celtics up 95-94. The 76ers eventually lost the game 102-94, and went down 3-0 in the series – all but sealing their first round exit. The exit, and sweep, was confirmed with a 110-106 loss in Game 4.

Despite the pass, the loss wasn’t entirely on Embiid’s shoulders. The Philadelphia 76ers are finishing up their difficult second album.

It could be argued the 2018-19 was the follow up, but NBA teams don’t seem to be seasonal. You think of them when multiple seasons are grouped together. The Big Three in Miami that spanned 2011 to 2014. Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers from 1999 to 2004. These are successful iterations yes, but they are never remembered in terms of a single season.

The beginnings of this 76ers debut album came in the 2017/18 season.

Ben Simmons won Rookie of the Year, helping Philadelphia to a 52-30 record – improving their win total by 24 from the previous year. Embiid was an All-Star and selected for both All-NBA and All-Defensive Second Teams. The young side won their first round playoff series against the Miami Heat in five games. They lost in the second round to the Celtics, but the future looked bright.

The following season appeared to the be the end of the first album.

The acquisitions of J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler and then Tobias Harris signalled intent. For the 2018/19 season, the 76ers were no longer trying to lose. They were trying to win. And they went all in, trading assets gained from the lean years, including Robert Covington and Dario Šarić, to get Butler from Minnesota.

Simmons made his first All-Star appearance this season alongside Embiid, who again made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Second Teams. They again won their first round playoff series in five games, this time against the Brooklyn Nets.

Now think of Only in Dreams by Weezer from their first album.

The emotional, bittersweet crescendo to an influential project. Some things aren’t meant to be, and are only meant for dreams. The 76ers took the Toronto Raptors to seven games in the second round, only to lose in possibly the most heartbreaking of fashions. A buzzer beating game winner in Game 7.

A shot that bounced and hung upon the rim for an eternity. A shot that was made over Joel Embiid’s outstretched arm. The emotion of the situation was encapsulated in his tears when he knew he was going home.

You have your whole life to write your debut, but only a year to make the follow up.

The start of this current 2019/20 season was the start of the difficult second album.

People were excited, many picking Embiid to win MVP. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat, but had signed Al Horford and re-signed Tobias Harris. They were on big contracts, but the 76ers seemed to be righting the wrongs of The Process days.

But as often happens, the second album fails to live up to expectations. Think The Klaxons’ Surfing the Void, or MGMT’s Congratulations. Maybe a better case is that of The Stone Roses. An iconic self-titled debut came out in 1989, but The Second Coming was seen as a disappointment from a band that offered so much.

Philadelphia seemed poised to be a defensive monster, they had length on the wings, size in the middle (in the form of Horford and Embiid) and the disruptive force of Simmons who would guard any team’s best player. The Philadelphia 76ers were a popular choice to make it to the NBA Finals.

The Stone Roses soon broke up after their second release, and maybe the same will happen with the 76ers.

An underwhelming season this year was aptly rewarded with the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The team’s lack of spacing has been well documented, with only eight teams in the NBA attempting less three-pointers per-game. They were the 6th best defensive team in terms of points allowed per-game, but the 10th worst team in terms of points scored per-game. Simmons famously doesn’t shoot three-pointers, and he kills the team’s spacing further when he simply stands in the ‘dunker’s spot’ when he’s not handling the ball.

Horford and Harris are the 76ers’ highest paid players, making $31 million and $28 million this year respectively, and unfortunately, helped dig the hole that got the team swept. Through the first three playoff games, Horford had averages of 5.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 40 FG% and 0 3PT%. He was also a -11 when on the court. Harris had averages of 14.3 PPG, 33.3 FG% and 0 3PT%. He was a -12.3.

The front office has to take some blame. Coach Brett Brown has to as well, and he’ll more than likely pay with his job. Yes, Simmons is out with an injury, but they should be putting up more of a fight.

As such, the second album ends – not with a bang, but with a whimper.

But where do they start with their third record? The issue that remains is the one that has always plagued the 76ers – can Embiid and Simmons play together?

Embiid has career averages of 23.9 PPG, 11.5 RPG and a 48% Field Goal Percentage. Good numbers. However, whilst in the NBA, he has had issues with injuries and his conditioning.

Embiid’s strengths offensively are in the post. He can shoot from the outside, and shoots 31.9% from three for his career, but he should get down low. He has an array of post moves unlike anyone else in the league, but how the 76ers are currently set up doesn’t help Embiid.

It was summed perfectly up at the beginning of Game 3 against Boston this year (below).

Firstly, because of how much of a threat he is, the Celtics were quadruple teaming Embiid when he was trying to post up. The defenders helped off of the 76ers’ poor shooters and crowded the Philadelphia big man, attempting to force a turnover and weren’t letting him establish post position.

Horford’s position at the opposite block wasn’t helping either, with Tatum situated to try and cut off a pass to him, or Richardson just behind him. Even a pass to Milton at the top could let a defender recover in time, and the same can be said for a pass to Harris in Embiid’s near corner. There’s no movement off the ball, and it left Embiid to either try and draw a foul, shoot a contested shot or force a risky pass.

Would Simmons solve this problem? With his lack of shooting probably not, but at least he can run an offence, properly pass to Embiid to help him establish post position and is a threat to move or cut off the ball. Simmons’s absence in this series obviously hurt Philadelphia – especially defensively, with Boston’s strength being their wing players, the same players that Simmons would guard.

If Embiid excels in the half court, Simmons does in the full court.

Ben Simmons has career averages of 16.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 8 APG and a 56% Field Goal Percentage. He’s an excellent ball handler with terrific vision who can drive towards the basket and finish (shown by his high FG%).

In a career performance against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this year, you can see where he’s at his best (below).

Simmons ran the floor and collapsed the Brooklyn defenders around him with his drive to the hoop. This opened up the shooters spaced around the three-point line, who he kicked out to for a shot. However, his lack of shooting is why he was able to drive – teams allow him to build up a head of steam because he’s not a threat from the outside.

Curiously enough there was no Embiid in this game. Embiid’s presence clogs up the lane for Simmons, but Simmons’s presence also clogs up the paint for Embiid. Defenders can help off Simmons when he’s not in the paint because of his reluctance to shoot.

Out of Simmons’s 648 shot attempts this season, 624 were either in the paint or in the restricted area – 96.3% of his total shots. He doesn’t shoot from outside.

Out of Embiid’s 806 shot attempts this year, 390 were either in the paint or in the restricted area – 48.4% of his total shots. Embiid actually attempted 239 mid-range shots compared to 238 in the restricted area. He should be closer to the basket, but it seems he’s settling for outside jumpers, possibly due to the spacing. He can shoot those shots, but that doesn’t always mean he should.

The Guard/Forward should be the one shooting from further out when compared to their Center, but this isn’t the case for Embiid and Simmons.

The two can play together, but it appears it doesn’t optimise either’s skillset. Do the 76ers carry on as they are, and remain a team that never makes it out of the second round? Or do they move on from one of Simmons or Embiid in a bid to maximise the other’s potential and make a breakthrough?

If Philadelphia want to move on, who do they trade? A Guard/Forward that won’t shoot outside of the painted area, or a big man that’s hardly ever in shape? The team also has to deal with the heavy contracts they gave to the underperforming Horford and Harris, who would be incredibly hard to move. More than likely they move on from Brett Brown, and try this team with a new Head Coach. The duo has at least one more year together.

But they may be hesitant to move anyone. Trades haven’t turned out well for the 76ers recently. It must hurt their fans to see players they traded away such as Landry Shamet, Jimmy Butler, Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz all play (and play well) for other teams this post-season.

But if they trade Simmons or Embiid, they need knock down shooters. Embiid needs movement when he’s in the post. He also needs someone to run the pick and roll with who has a jump shot – so defenders cannot simply go under screens and wall off the paint.

Simmons needs shooters and movement also, but possibly in a system more like Giannis Antetokounmpo has in Milwaukee. One transition based, where he can make plays with his vision or even be the roll man in pick and roll situations – again, surrounded by shooting.

They could create a system that involves all of these aspects for the two players, but it would almost always leave one stuck in an ineffective offensive position.

The Philadelphia 76ers are in the sessions for their third album. How do they break into the Conference Finals? How do they break into the mainstream?

The third album can catapult an artist to global superstardom, perfecting a formula that appeases fans and critics alike. Radiohead’s third was OK Computer. Blur had Parklife. The Clash released London Calling. Springsteen’s third album was Born to Run.

It’s a delicate situation to be in, but if the right decisions are made, a third album will be universally celebrated and all those involved hailed as geniuses. Or it can cement a band’s position as a flash in the pan whose early success simply wasn’t sustainable.

Which will the Philadelphia 76ers be?

All my information is from Basketball-Reference and stats.nba.com. Harris and Horford played a lot better in Game 4, but it was their sub-par play that added to Philly’s mess anyway. I also hope Harris is OK after taking that nasty fall. I’ve been gone a while with dissertation and other stuff, but I’m hopefully going to be writing more for my blog soon. If people read what I post it would very much be appreciated.

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