Few topics coming into the season were riper for the gossip machine than the relationship between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The subject checked all the necessary boxes. Big names. Big personalities (yes, Simmons, too). Big egos. Big-market team. And big questions that could affect the NBA landscape for years to come.
Do their games fit? Do they give the Philadelphia 76ers a title chance? Do they like each other?
That last question was the real spark. That Embiid and Simmons weren't best of friends was an open secret around the team and the league. But this seemed to be more schism (maybe KD-Westbrook-like) than feud (Kobe-Shaq). Still, it was fair to wonder whether the two could co-exist in the same locker room and on the same court.
The good news for the Sixers is whatever tension did once exist seems to have mostly, if not completely, dissipated. Talk to people around the team and Simmons, and they'll go one step further and insist the relationship was never as strained as portrayed. There were never any screaming matches. The locker room was never split into rival factions.
Whatever tension did once exist—in the words of people close to both—was nothing more than the result of two incredibly young and incredibly talented men attempting to navigate their way through NBA fame. The so-called rift never rose above occasional passive-aggressive behavior (or, occasionally, a fight for a rebound). Remember what Embiid said about Simmons last season after the Sixers were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics?
"We have a bright future," he told reporters. "[Simmons] came up to me, showed me his hands and said, 'There's going to be a lot of rings.' I was like, 'For sure.' We have a bright future."
Doesn't exactly sound like one rival describing another. Neither did it Sunday night in Toronto prior to the Sixers' Game 7 matchup against the Raptors. "You ready, Jo?" Simmons yelled across the quiet visitors locker room about 50 minutes before tipoff. Embiid looked back at him, met Simmons' gaze, and nodded confidently.
The moment was telling—and perfectly summed up the partnership. Embiid and Simmons, two young stars oozing with the talent and tools to transform Philadelphia into a dynasty, shared a pregame interaction that seemed to symbolize a synergy that, in theory, would elevate the Sixers to a victory and the Eastern Conference Finals.
And yet, a few hours later, Embiid and Simmons were back in the same locker room, trying to process a devastating, season-ending, two-point loss, one in which Simmons took just five shots.
"I think our relationship got a lot closer. We grew a lot more as people and players," Simmons said the next day.
In other words: Whether Embiid and Simmons like each other was never the most pressing question. As Embiid put it to reporters during the series against the Raptors: "Chemistry is overrated. When you have great basketball players on the floor, it's easy. It's not that complicated."
More important for Philadelphia to figure out is whether a marriage between its 25-year-old center and 22-year-old sort-of point guard can deliver the title the team and city so desperately crave. Everything else swirling around the Sixers—including the futures of impending free agents Jimmy Butler (player option) and Tobias Harris—is secondary. The foundation is Embiid and Simmons. Can they successfully play with each other? Two years into their on-court partnership, the answer remains unknown.
The root of the problem is Simmons' inability and unwillingness to shoot. That's the wrench in the system, the flaw that sometimes gives the offense that round-peg-in-a-square-hole feel. Players like him need knockdown shooters around them (think Giannis Antetokounmpo's supporting cast in Milwaukee). As long as Simmons plays alongside Embiid, this will never be the case.
A similar problem arises when the ball's not in Simmons' hands: There's nowhere for him to stand but near the hoop. With him down low, the paint grows cramped, and Embiid—who's most potent on the block—is often relegated to the perimeter to space the floor. The Sixers scored just 110.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season when the duo shared the court, according to NBA.com, a number equal to the Minnesota Timberwolves' regular-season offensive rating, which was 13th in the league.
Simmons (and this conversation almost always centers around Simmons; Embiid is a consensus top-10 player) this summer is eligible to receive a five-year, $168 million contract extension. If you're the Sixers, do you really want to ink one player to a max contract if the presence of another max player limits the other's ability to fulfill his potential? Or, put more simply: Is it wise to build a team around two players whose games don't complement one another's?
This was also the second consecutive season where Simmons was neutralized in the playoffs' second round, a sample size worth fretting over. His numbers this year against the Raptors: Just 11.6 points scored, just 8.6 shots attempted, just 4.9 assists dished per game. His usage rate—the percentage of possessions finished with a shot, drawn shooting foul or turnover—dipped from his regular season mark of 21.4 to 14.7, per NBA.com. He didn't attempt a shot outside 11 feet all series, allowing whichever player was defending him to roam as a free safety. His weak half-court game also forced Brown to hand over ball-handling and playmaking duties to Butler.
"Unless his shooting improves drastically, it's always going to be really hard to build a team around him," one front-office evaluator said. "At some point in the postseason, you're going to run into the same problems. The only way is to do so bottom-up, with the idea that he's your star and everything brought in must boost him."
Does that mean the Sixers should be wary of building around Embiid and Simmons? A quick poll of a handful of opposing executives and scouts revealed split opinions.
"Everything for them should be on the table," one executive said.
Others shared the view of Brown.
"He's 22 years old," Brown said recently. "And his game, as he grows his shot and tries to get a better command of his position, and deals with the stage of the NBA playoffs. Shame on us for thinking like he's going to be all day, every day, here he is and he's just going to go knock it out of the park. It's just not fair.
Brown's point is a reasonable one. Who was the last 22-year-old All-Star to have his flaws so heavily weighed? Simmons is a masterful passer, a locomotive in transition and a willing, switchy and ace defender. He doesn't even need to develop a three-point shot. A mid-range game with more consistency from the free-throw line (he shot 60 percent this season) would be more than enough to elevate him to the All-NBA level.
"The other thing," another opposing executive pointed out, "is that his health is more certain." We're all familiar with Embiid's injury history and physical profile. It's not hard to envision a world five years from now in which Simmons is the more effective player.
In the meantime, tweaks along the edges are available, ones that could push the Sixers closer to a title. The most obvious is Simmons finally acknowledging that fixing his jumper must become a priority. But Embiid can help, too. Right now, he's a clunky roller off screens. He rumbles down the lane, out of control and often stumbles into charges or turnovers. He can be flummoxed by traps in the post. Simmons is a savvy, dynamic off-ball cutter, a skill the Sixers could better take advantage of if Embiid was better at reading the floor.
We've also seen other teams learn how to thrive with multiple non-shooters on the floor. The Golden State Warriors offer a prime example. Perhaps Simmons' destiny is to be less like the Greek Freak and more like a souped-up Draymond Green.
The continuity borne of Philly having a training camp and full season with its star-laden starting five would help as well. That, for the Sixers, appears to be the apt approach. Run this thing back, trust the...well, you know, and go from there. The Embiid-Simmons pairing might not be a traditional one, but that doesn't mean it can't thrive and do so in even more dynamic ways. That's the sort of thing that seems silly to give up on. But that doesn't mean the Sixers should spend years waiting.