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.

What I’m Looking at When the NBA Season Restarts

The Come Up Show/Harrison Haines
You could talk me into thinking that almost anyone has a chance at winning the NBA Championship this year – from the Raptors repeating, to Kawhi or LeBron winning a ring with their third different teams. With 22 teams heading to Orlando, here’s a few other things I’m looking at as the NBA goes Disney.

As the National Basketball Association becomes the National Bubble Association, and that bubble floats on down to Orlando, I’ve got an eye on plenty of things in the Sunshine State.

The league was suspended at the beginning of March and finally comes back on the 30th of July, when the Utah Jazz play the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angles Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite the obvious excitement surrounding the situation, I want to touch upon a few topics before the opening tip.

Will the season be finished?

The biggest (and most obvious) problem surrounding any sport right now is Coronavirus. What will happen if someone tests positive, and then, a whole team? I’m sure the NBA has plans in place, but it’s still a scary prospect nevertheless.

According to Google, as of the 24th of July, Florida have almost 390,000 confirmed cases. New York and California are the only American states with more. That makes it a strange place to hold the remainder of the NBA season. I’m not sure that when Vesuvius erupted the people of Pompeii wanted to jump straight into the volcano as their city was getting covered in ash and lava (was there lava? I’m not sure but I like the analogy).

Richaun Holmes was quarantined after leaving the bubble to get some food, and you know people are going to come into the bubble, or leave it, for… other things.

But as time has gone on, I’ve become more and more optimistic at the thought of the season being completed, especially after this:

Will there be a high number of injuries?

Obviously, no one has played competitive basketball since March, so it’ll take them a while to get back up to speed – I don’t think anyone would be surprised at that or would criticise anyone for it. Everyone will be well rested but rusty, and it will be interesting to see how many minutes of game time players get to begin with. I know there are preseason scrimmage games (being played right now, actually) but they aren’t the same.

Someone like the Lakers, with the number one seed all but theirs, will probably ease LeBron and Anthony Davis into the remaining regular season games. Then they’d ramp up their minutes so they peak, in terms of conditioning, for the playoffs. Someone like the Pelicans however, need to win as many games as possible. So do they want to try and to claw their way into the playoffs through the play-in tournament (more on that in a moment), but risk injuries to Zion Williamson (who has only played 19 games this season anyway)? Injuries happen, I understand that, but do you really want to risk your young superstar?

There were rumours that Luka Dončić wasn’t in the best shape, but they were quickly refuted, and James Harden and Nikola Jokić have both seemingly lost weight before the restart. Maybe the stars are ready to go after all.

As explained by Tifo, in the Bundesliga the number of injuries per game in post-lockdown matches almost tripled – albiet in a small sample size, and with a very small number of injuries per game anyway. They also point out that after the NFL Lockout in 2011, preseason was cut dramatically. This led to 10 players rupturing their Achilles tendon in the first 12 days of training. The injury rate was twice the normal level for the first month of games also.

It wouldn’t be strange therefore, for something similar to happen in the NBA. This may lead to teams being overly cautious with players, especially with Kawhi Leonard for example, who is known to miss games due to “load management” (basically managing his health by avoiding injury and fatigue to be fresh for the playoffs).

But will fitness and seeding mean (from teams at the top of the standings, all the way down to teams at the bottom) that we’ll see more of the young guys, and possibly some worse basketball? We’ll see. They need to get their legs under them yes, but the playoffs are all that matter.

It’s the classic ‘rest versus rust’ – do you rest and stay fit, healthy and fresh, or do you play, keep playing, and maintain your rhythm?

Will we get a play-in tournament?

The bubble sees a new addition to the playoff system. It allows the possibility of the number eight and nine seeds in each conference having a mini-tournament for the final playoff spot. According to the NBA itself:

“If the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is more than four games ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, no play-in tournament will be necessary. The final playoff berth will simply go to the team with the eighth best record (regular-season games + seeding games).

But if the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is four games or fewer ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, then we’ll have a battle for the final spot between those two teams.

The tournament will basically be a best-of-two series — where the No. 9 seed will have to win two head-to-head matchups to take over the No. 8 spot.”

So if the number eight seed has less than five wins more than the number nine seed, we get an extra two games.

Looking at the standings in the West, the prospect of this is actually pretty tasty:

The Suns are only six games back with the final eight “seeding” (or regular season) games left to play. This means that if any team puts a decent run together, and a team ahead of them stumbles, they could trigger the tournament.

This opens up a whole host of possibilities and storylines. Will the young stars Ja Morant or Zion Williamson get playoff reps in their Rookie years? Will the Spurs keep their 22 year playoff streak alive? Can Damian Lillard drag his Blazers into the playoffs?

Expect fireworks if the Blazers do get in. Lillard has a chip on his shoulder, Jusuf Nurkić is back from injury and some are even picking them for a first round upset if they do get into the playoffs. But the Lakers are still overwhelming favourites, and 99 times out of 100 they will get out of the first round.

The East isn’t so tasty:

Yes, the Wizards are six games behind the Nets, and five and a half behind the Magic. But they’re without their best player in Bradley Beal, and they’re missing David Bertans who had a great season up to the suspension. So even if they do make the play-in tournament (which they won’t) and beat the Magic (which they won’t), they get the dubious honour of being swept by the Bucks in the first round. The Nets might slip down the standings and be caught, considering half their team isn’t going – but the Wizards have been garbage this year and don’t deserve that playoff spot anyway.

It’s a little bit of added fun I guess? Who are we to turn down more basketball at this point?

What will happen in the Eastern Conference?

Honestly, I could talk myself into thinking that any of the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics or 76ers could win the East this year. Allow me to try and talk you into it also.

The Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the NBA, the best Defensive Rating in the NBA (101.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, almost 3 points higher than the Raptors), the best Net Rating in the NBA (meaning on average they’re 10.7 points better off than the other team, per game, per 100 possessions), score the most points per game in the NBA (118.6) and probably have the league’s MVP for the second straight year in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis is clearly the conference’s best player, and has no Kawhi Leonard to slow him down this year. They have to go to The Finals.

The Toronto Raptors have the third best record in the NBA (behind the Bucks and the Lakers) the best defence in the NBA in terms of opponent points per game (106.5), the second best Defensive Rating in the NBA (104.9) and arguably the NBA’s best coach in Nick Nurse.

They’ve done all of this with a heap of injuries this season, with Nurse getting the best out of players no-one has ever heard of, like Chris Boucher (exactly). The only worry is that they may lack that go-to scorer who’s needed at the end of a tight playoff game. Lowry is great but he’s not that player, and never has been, so Pascal Siakam has to step up.

Siakam has been a first time All-Star this year and will get some deserved All-NBA votes (probably third team) – but he’s got to prove he can be the scorer they need. 23 and a half points a game is great (the best of his career by a mile) but his shooting percentages have gone down from last season. However, that’s to be expected if he’s taking more shots as Kawhi isn’t there anymore. The Raptors will win with their defence though, so 23 and a half might be all they need.

If Siakam has a good playoff run, the Raptors will go deep. They have to be the dark horse for the title.

The Boston Celtics are no strangers to making deep playoff runs under Brad Stevens, taking LeBron’s Cavaliers to seven games in the Conference Finals in 2018. Boston have the second best defence in the NBA in terms of opponent points per game, behind the Raptors by .3 points. Similarly to those Raptors, they’re going to win games by defending well. Both teams score 113 points per game, 11th and 12th in the NBA.

The difference between the two is that the Celtics have stars. Kemba is cold blooded, but Jayson Tatum is the big baller in Boston. All-Star, probably All-NBA, and a field goal percentage just under 45% at 21 years old. The sky’s the limit, but this year he could really take over.

He has done before.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the most interesting team in the East. Defensively they’re a top 10 team, but offensively they’re pretty average. The lack of any home playoff games is a huge loss for them too, as their home record of 29-2 is the best in the league. The 76ers’ hopes rest upon the shoulders of their star players.

If Joel Embiid plays to the level he’s capable of, and to the level that had some people pick him for MVP before this season, he’s unplayable – there’s no player in the NBA quite like him. I’m a huge Ben Simmons fan, he’s a brilliant defender (he leads the league in steals) and has the capability to defend players one through four. His issue of not shooting from the outside and it clogging up the paint is well documented. Even though he’s shot threes this season (and to be honest, the form looks pretty good) he’s not doing it enough. If they can solve the Al Horford conundrum, and not have a player earning $28 million this year coming off the bench, he would solve so many of their offensive problems and drastically improve their title chances.

Philadelphia will be worth keeping an eye on. Especially because, in my opinion, anything less than a Conference Finals appearance and coach Brett Brown will more than likely be fired.

I can’t really see the Heat or the Pacers doing any real damage in the playoffs – my money’s on Giannis and the Bucks.

What will happen in the Western Conference?

The West is more Don Broco this year – come out to LA.

The Lakers and Clippers are everyone’s pick to meet in the Conference Finals, and they’re currently first and second in the conference respectively. Both are fantastic defensively, but the Lakers hold a slight edge. Opponent points per game are 106.9 for the Lakers, to the Clippers’ 109.7. The Lakers have a 105.5 defensive rating and the Clippers’ rating is 106.6. Offensively they’re very close, Clippers score the 5th most points per game, and the Lakers the 7th (116.2 to 114.3). The Battle of Los Angeles is pretty evenly matched.

LeBron’s revenge tour, that isn’t really a revenge tour because no-one doubted him, but is a revenge tour because he was injured last year and wasn’t in the playoffs (I don’t get it either, but his Instagram is flooded with revenge tour hashtags), continues in Disney Land. What a tour it’s been. This season he’s averaging the most assists per game of his career (which also leads the league) with 10.6 – all at the tender age of 35. Averages of just over 25 and half points and just under eight rebounds per game mean he’s been an MVP candidate all year. He has his best teammate since Dwyane Wade in Anthony Davis, who is the possibly the Defensive Player of the Year. No Avery Bradley is a huge loss, but his replacement, J.R. Smith, does have Finals experience.

In terms of the playoffs, LeBron’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt and the ring – but so has Kawhi.

Leonard (averaging essentially 27 points and seven rebounds per game this year) has defended LeBron brilliantly in the past. His run to the title with the Raptors last year reminded everyone how good he is. He had averages of 30.5 points and just over nine rebounds per game. The issue with the Clippers is chemistry. Their best lineup (Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams) has played just 56 minutes together all season. But they are +13.8 (meaning they’re 13.8 points better off than the other team, per 100 possessions) when they do play. So they might be fine. If any coach can figure it out, it’s Doc Rivers.

All in all, the Western Conference Finals should be fun.

Who’s going to win it all?

It’s down to three teams – Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. No fans in attendance would mean that no one would see the Clippers’ first ever title, or the Bucks’ first title in almost 50 years.

If I had to pick conference winners, I’d say that the Bucks would beat the Raptors four games to two, and that the Lakers would beat the Clippers four games to three.

In the finals, Bucks vs Lakers, the Lakers win in six games. I can’t bet against LeBron.

Basketball is nearly back!

I got all of my stats and numbers from Basketball Reference and stats.nba.com. I would try and write something witty, funny, or something about what’ll I’ll write next here, but I’m still upset about Forest.