Ben Simmons Looking Like 76ers' Franchise Cornerstone in Joel Embiid's Absence

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2020

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 25: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers dribbles the ball against LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on January 25, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defeated the Lakers 108-91. 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)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Since he was drafted in 2014, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has appeared in just 41.4 percent of his team's regular-season games.

In Embiid's latest absence, another top-three pick of the Sixers, Ben Simmons, continued to reestablish his position as a bona fide franchise cornerstone.

Now, lest you worry that this is a hot take for hot take's sake, this isn't a suggestion that Philly must choose between Simmons and Embiid. The latter is under contract through the 2022-23 season. Simmons signed an extension this past summer that runs through the end of the 2024-25 season. There's plenty of time to figure out how (or if) these two fit together.

But again, Simmons' latest run without the All-Star big man has given us a look at how good a team might be if designed more specifically for him.

On Saturday, the 6'10" point guard engineered a commanding 108-91 victory over the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers. As is the case with most regular-season games, Simmons putting up zero three-point attempts didn't matter.

What did was his 28 points (on 12-of-15 shooting), 10 rebounds, eight assists and four steals. On the night LeBron James passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list, Simmons stole the show in Philly. That's no surprise when the show is tailored for Simmons' unique game.

After the win, Sixers coach Brett Brown raved about his positionless phenom to reporters:

"He was so, so good. And good at multiple positions again. You saw what we did with him playing the 5. You know, at the end of the game, they actually came up and started guarding him. So, I put him in a bunch of pick-and-rolls as the point guard. Put him in a lot of elbow action, you know, offensively. And then defensively, you look at the disturbance that Matisse [Thybulle] and Ben cause. What did they have? Nine cumulative turnovers? He was really special tonight."

With all the focus on the lack of three-point attempts, some seem to have forgotten that Simmons does everything else. So, it makes sense to surround him with players who can provide the one skill he doesn't.

It's not a perfect comparison, because Giannis Antetokounmpo is willing to at least try to score from the outside, but the blueprint the Milwaukee Bucks have laid out is a tantalizing option for Simmons.

Even without Embiid clogging up the middle of the floor, the Sixers don't have the ideal personnel to maximize Simmons. But they're a little closer. And the individual numbers he's put up over the last couple weeks show that.

Prior to Embiid's departure from the rotation, Simmons averaged 14.9 points, 8.6 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals. Stellar numbers, to be sure. But here's what he's done in the nine games since Embiid went down: 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.3 steals.

Over the entire season, Simmons has averaged more points, rebounds and assists per possession when he's on the floor without Embiid.

This goes beyond the numbers, though. It may be just as much about how it looks.

When Simmons plays with a spread floor and has only one man to beat, he's borderline unstoppable. Danny Green, Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo and others all had turns on Saturday. The Lakers in general looked helpless.

"He doesn't even need screens, or even the suggestion of a screen," Chasing Perfection author Andy Glockner tweeted. "He's just wasting defenders off the bounce with zero resistance."

Even if they had rotated to the rim more quickly, or sagged off the shooters to try to occupy Simmons' driving lanes, Philly's point guard has the vision and passing ability to set up his guys.

Now, imagine how much more congested the floor is inside the three-point line if Embiid is in this game. Plenty of those drives don't even happen.

And again, Simmons is doing this without even having a supporting cast truly tailored to him. Philly's four other starters—Al Horford, Thybulle, Tobias Harris and Shake Milton—are a combined 34.5 percent from three this season. Add Raul Neto, Mike Scott and Furkan Korkmaz (who all logged rotation minutes Saturday), and you pull that number up to right around the league average of 35.5 percent.

Put Simmons in lineups with elite, or even above-average shooters, and Philadelphia's attack suddenly becomes far more dynamic than what it's been so far this season, which is 20th overall.

Continue to have him initiate possessions that are stifled by post-ups, and you might be confined to an average offense. This season, Philly's 110.0 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor ranks in the 51st percentile.

The big man averages a league-leading 10.3 post-ups per game. And though he's one of the rare exceptions to the rule that post-up possessions simply aren't great offense anymore, they're hard to justify in lineups that include Simmons.

Now, again, it's probably too early to overreact. Better shooting around both top-tier talents could loosen things up a bit. But the concerns about long-term fit are legitimate. And Simmons has shown enough to take the lead in an imaginary competition for who might be the sturdier building block.

Since he missed his entire rookie campaign with a foot injury, Simmons has appeared in 97.2 percent of Philadelphia's regular-season games. He's more durable. And though he may never be an outside shooter, it's easier to design a modern offense around him. Defensively, he's not quite the ceiling-raiser Embiid is, but he's been among the league's best on the perimeter. When he and Thybulle are on the floor without Embiid, Philadelphia's points allowed per 100 possession ranks in the 87th percentile.

If the Sixers ever do decide to break up this top two, there's a strong argument for moving forward with the Swiss Army knife point man.

The issues they've had with Simmons in the playoffs, when teams pack the paint on his touches, should dissipate if they ever truly tailor the roster to him.

The time may not be now, but it also might not hurt to at least see what's on the trade market for Embiid.

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