Who Ya Got: NBA Experts Debate Joel Embiid vs. Ben Simmons as Better Cornerstone

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 1: Joel Embiid #21 and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers walk to the bench against the Atlanta Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center on November 1, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Finding a superstar is the most pivotal and difficult part of any NBA rebuild. But the Philadelphia 76ers needn't worry about it anymore. The fruits of their Process have yielded two: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Peer into the future, without accounting for any sinister setbacks, and you can see both ranking among the league's top-five players as they headline an Eastern Conference superpower and jockey for position on the MVP ballot. Together, Embiid and Simmons are get-Philly-a-meeting-with-LeBron-James-in-free-agency good.

Most fortunately for the Sixers, they don't have to choose between the two. But Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal and I have chosen to. After all, what would Thanksgiving week be without a building-block debate among intra-office frenemies?

Roped to our desks, in a dimly lit room, with only bi-hourly water and gummy bear breaks to distract us, we spent the past few days holed up in front of our computers, answering the question that pulls at the heartstrings of Processors everywhere: Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons. Who ya got as the better cornerstone? 

Dan Favale: Joel. Hans. Embiid.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 15:  Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers defends against Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of the basketball game at Staples Center November 15, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. Embed sco
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People will be quick to note that Embiid played in just 31 games through his first three seasons. More nuanced folks will swiftly point out the NBA is fast becoming an interchangeable wing's league. Markelle Fultz will feebly cough and sheepishly remind us he still exists.

I don't care.

Cornerstone status is not a crown someone can wear lightly. Nor we can we dole it out with unequivocal caution. The dare-to-be-great pick is often the right pick, and Embiid amounts to just that.

He checks all the boxes a center must satisfy to secure the building-block honor. He swallows shots at the rim. He has nifty post moves. He is deadly when operating off the bounce—a pseudo wing with the ball in his hands. He has three-point range. He's a sneaky-good switcher. Both his hands are for tweeting.

Embiid commits a crap ton of turnovers, particularly when working with his back to the basket, but he's averaging 5.5 assists per 100 possessions—fourth among centers, trailing only DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford and Nikola Jokic. And even when he's at his sloppiest, he remains a difference-maker.

About 28 percent of opponent field-goal attempts come inside the restricted area when he's on the court. That number shoots up to roughly 31 percent when he takes a seat. He is an actual deterrent—someone who alters entire offensive approaches by merely existing. And where Simmons' ceiling is still tied to potential, Embiid is already having a superstar impact.

Philly outscores rival teams by 8.7 points per 100 possessions when Embiid plays, a net rating that would place third overall, just behind the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Simmons is no doubt a part of that success, but he's more dependent on Embiid, not the other way around. The Sixers are significantly worse when he plays on his own than when Embiid runs solo.

Give me the guy who has Philly looking like a fringe juggernaut during his court time for the second consecutive season.

Adam Fromal: Benjamin. David. Simmons. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 18: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers passes the ball against the Golden State Warriors at Wells Fargo Center on November 18, 2017 in Philadelphia,Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
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I'm not sure following your format works to my advantage, because Hans is objectively a far cooler middle name for a basketball player than David. But I can dig my way out of this hole just fine. 

At this stage of the 2017-18 campaign, Embiid may be the more impactful player. He's a world-beating terror with and without the ball, adept at piling up points and then preventing the opposition from doing exactly that. As I broke down in more detail while placing him among the early-season favorites for Defensive Player of the Year, he's actually preventing opponents from attacking the hoop through sheer intimidation, doing his best to play Medusa to their anyone-but-Perseus. 

But we're talking about cornerstones. And even without the persistent injury concerns surrounding Embiid's 7-foot frame and checkered history—have you been able to exhale comfortably when he hits the hardwood after even the slightest contact?—Simmons is a better building block.

He can play literally every position for short spurts, and it's only a matter of time before the Sixers begin experimenting with small-ball death lineups that feature him as the de facto center. Already, he's the leading point guard and can switch over to function as the 4 when Philadelphia brings on more backcourt members. That type of versatility is treasured, especially because he presents such matchup nightmares at every position. 

Play him against traditional 1s and he'll back them down into oblivion before using his phenomenal touch around the hoop. Ask a bigger man to guard him, and his foot speed takes over. Andre Iguodala, even in his older age, isn't an easy man to jet by, and Simmons did so with ease against the Golden State Warriors:

This LSU product is already one of only six men to post 100 field-goal attempts within three feet and a conversion rate of at least 70 percent, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, Clint Capela, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and LeBron James. His unparalleled physical tools have done more than make him the prohibitive favorite for Rookie of the Year; they've allowed him to overcome the one weakness NBA players aren't supposed to be able to overcome in 2017-18. 

Simmons can't shoot, and it just doesn't matter. That's what differentiates him from Embiid. 

Embiid can be thrown off his game by smart double-teams. He forces the action against swarming defenders and doesn't have the passing acumen to escape troublesome situations. Those cough-ups are legitimately detrimental plays, both hampering what Philadelphia can do and allowing transition opportunities that are difficult to quell.

And most troublesome of all? He's averaging more turnovers per game and per 36 minutes with a turnover percentage trending in the wrong direction.  

Simmons, meanwhile, trails only Dennis Schroder in drives per game and is shooting an even 50 percent from the field on those plays. Defenses can't sag too far off him, or he'll jet around them and use his size advantageously for creative finishes near the tin. He's also coughing the ball up on just 4.0 percent of his drives—the second-lowest mark among the 28 players driving at least 10 times per game and suiting up in no fewer than 10 games. 

Even if he doesn't develop a jumper (and he might!), he's a player without an exploitable weakness.


DF: Did you actually just praise Simmons for getting past and finishing over Iguodala, who is four inches shorter and 12 years older? Is that really where we're at? 

Simmons is shooting 38.2 percent outside eight feet of the basket. That's an actual thing. (And this doesn't even include his 0-for-7 clip on backcourt heaves.) We can't just assume his jumper will come, and we most definitely cannot assume that the absence of said jumper won't matter.

He isn't Antetokounmpo. Finishing over defenders who come past his chin and aren't capitalizing on early-bird dinner specials isn't something he'll be able to do on command.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Embiid is the guy the Sixers should be turning to when they need a from-scratch bucket. He's shooting better than 60 percent when defenders are within two feet of his person—the mark of someone who's 7'1" and knows how to use every inch. His accuracy on drives and from three is, currently, in the toilet, but he's shooting nearly 56 percent on post-ups.

Though you're quick to criticize Embiid's passing, he defers on almost 26 percent of his low-block sets—more than Kevin Love and Karl-Anthony Towns, and about the same as Paul Millsap. And his assist rate on these plays is higher than those from DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin and Nikola Jokic.

Again: The turnovers are an issue, but they're not a viable means of detraction. Embiid has the highest usage rate (among rotation players) for a team that doesn't know offensive success without him. Simmons is ridiculously easier to defend when his behemoth isn't on the floor, and the relative lack of a jumper and post game means he'll seldom have to cope with the defensive pressure his running mate routinely sees:

And, finally, I find it hard to penalize Embiid for his health issues in this exact conversation. Pit him against someone who didn't miss his own rookie campaign with a foot injury, and that approach works. It shouldn't have meaningful bearing here—not when he's still working himself back into game shape yet regularly clearing 30 minutes a night.

AF: Iguodala is four inches shorter and 12 years older. He's also ceding a minuscule 0.5 points per possession in isolation, which, even after that Simmons play, leaves him in the 97th percentile. But point taken.

We don't have to single out any one defender, because he's roasted just about everyone with his quickness, length and ball control. Players standing 6'10" aren't supposed to be nimble enough to pull this off: 

Simmons isn't Antetokounmpo. You're right. But he's still finishing 71.4 percent of his looks from within three feet and 47.6 percent of his shots from outside three and within 10 feet, even while every defender with a beating heart and functional brain knows he's looking to eschew longer jumpers and get into the paint. And it's not like he's feasting on alley-oop feeds and uncontested cuts to the hoop, since just 32.7 percent of his made twos have come off assists. 

Actually, let's explore that further. Here are the only players in the last three seasons to take at least 75 attempts within three feet, shoot at least 70 percent on them and require assists on no more than 40 percent of those looks: 

  • DeMar DeRozan, 2016-17
  • LeBron James, 2017-18
  • Kyle Lowry, 2016-17
  • Ben Simmons, 2017-18

That's it. And this might be a baseline for Simmons, since so many other areas of his game are still developing.

Already, this ex-LSU Tiger is a tremendously underrated defender impacting games with his long arms, steal-seeking hands and quick-twitch instincts, to the point that he's actually the top point guard in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus by a substantial margin. He's unstoppable attacking the basket. His Magic Johnson-esque passing has helped him record the fifth-most potential assists per game, and the Sixers are shooting 51 percent off his feeds. 

Ultimately, you can't go wrong in this debate. You're winding up with either a game-breaking, oversized point guard or an all-around stud who's quite possibly the NBA's best center at just 23 years old.  

But choosing Simmons is just a smidgen more correct. 


Unless otherwise cited, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and current leading into games on Nov. 20.

Dan Favale and Adam Fromal cover the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow them on Twitter, @danfavale and @fromal09.

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