How the 76ers cracked the code on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

After Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were dogged by fit questions for years, the 76ers figured out how to make them work together offensively.

Can the Philadelphia 76ers win a title with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? That question has hung over them for as long as they’ve been teammates.

Embiid is a throwback, low-post center who operates best in half-court settings. Simmons is a dynamic athlete who thrives in transition. It appeared impossible to maximize both players at once, especially since Simmons’ refusal to shoot jumpers tended to cramp Embiid’s spacing near the basket.

Thanks to new head coach Doc Rivers and team president Daryl Morey, the Sixers finally appear to have figured out how to make them work together.

“Just understanding spacing, that it’s good when you have one guy down there [in the paint] instead of that being a bad thing,” Rivers said Sunday when asked how Embiid and Simmons learned to coexist in half-court settings. “If Ben drives and Joel’s in the paint, that was always looked at as bad, but we showed them on film that’s good. You go to the basket, if Joel’s guy helps, you give it to him. If he doesn’t help, you get a layup. So I just think the spacing, and them understanding that there is enough room instead of being frustrated that one was down there, I thought they needed to understand that’s a good thing.”

The Sixers laid the foundation for that improvement with their draft-night acquisitions of Seth Curry and Danny Green. After the draft, Morey told reporters “it was pretty universal” that the Sixers needed to add more shooters to their roster.

“Having a truly gravity-elite shooter really changes the dynamic for Ben and Joel,” he added. “… When Joel and Ben have had that, it’s actually insane how good those lineups and how good those teams played when everyone was healthy.”

Although Morey cautioned against lineup analysis at the time, he noted the Sixers had a “historically great ability to build the lead” when J.J Redick shared the floor with Simmons and Embiid in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. The Sixers had a net rating of plus-14.4 with that trio on the floor across those two years, while Simmons and Embiid were only a plus-3.4 without Redick.

That plunged even further last season, as Redick left for the New Orleans Pelicans and the 76ers added two shaky shooters in Josh Richardson and Al Horford to their starting lineup alongside Simmons, Embiid and Tobias Harris. The Sixers had a net rating of only plus-1.8 with Simmons and Embiid together, which led to countless think pieces about why they eventually needed to trade one of the two All-Stars.

More shooting wasn’t the only solution for the Philadelphia 76ers

Rather than break apart Embiid and Simmons, Morey instead put together a roster with better-fitting pieces. And the Sixers reaped the rewards accordingly throughout the 2020-21 season.

Among five-man lineups that played at least 300 possessions together, the 76ers’ starting group of Simmons, Curry, Green, Harris and Embiid ranked fifth leaguewide with a net rating of plus-16.0. The Sixers were a plus-16.0 with Simmons and Embiid on the floor together regardless of their other three teammates, which is a massive upgrade over the previous season.

This year’s starting five didn’t quite reach the peak of the 2017-18 group — the lineup featuring Simmons, Redick, Embiid, Robert Covington and Dario Saric had an absurd plus-21.7 net rating — but the Simmons-Embiid pairing wasn’t far off from what it was that year (plus-16.2).

While the improved spacing has helped, Embiid and Simmons have also made significant individual improvements to improve their fit with one another.

Embiid finished the regular season averaging 28.5 points per game while shooting 51.3 percent overall and 37.7 from 3-point range, all of which were career highs. He led the league with 10.7 free-throw attempts per game, and he knocked them down at a career-best 85.9 percent clip.

The big fella’s surge in efficiency largely stems from his 48.0 percent hit rate from between 10-16 feet and 50.4 percent mark from between 16 feet and the 3-point line. He had never shot better than 43.1 percent on the former and 48.6 percent from on the latter prior to this year, and he took more shot attempts from those areas than ever before.

As Mike Prada of Prada’s Pictures noted in February, Embiid increased his efficiency by leaning more heavily on his face-up game rather than using his size to back opponents down in the post. It left him less susceptible to turning the ball over against double-teams and improved his floor vision both as a scorer and passer.

While Embiid’s offensive dominance was on full display all season, Simmons started to make major strides on that end of the floor as well.

As both Nekias Duncan and Steve Jones of the Dunker Spot podcast highlighted, Simmons began aggressively seeking out his own shot in half-court settings. Embiid set higher screens for him, which helped him get downhill toward the basket with a head of steam, and the two also developed chemistry on snug pick-and-roll sets near the rim.

Simmons appears to be growing more comfortable with his post-up game, too. When he’s matched up against a smaller guard or wing, he’ll often back them down and finish with a crafty hook shot using either hand. Although he still isn’t attempting a ton of jumpers — he shot only 10 3-pointers across 58 games this season — his ability to manufacture buckets for himself in the half-court could be a game-changer in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Rivers appears to have more clearly delineated each of their responsibilities.

“I think for them, it’s been the balance and simplification,” Harris told Spencer Davies of Basketball News. “For Joel, it’s like, hey, you’re the most dominant big in the NBA [and] one of the best post players analytically, if not the best in the NBA, when it comes to points per possession on the blocks and whatnot. It’s like, hey, if that’s your best offense, go down there and be a beast, right? And then for Ben, it’s hey, in transition, you’re one of the fastest guys in the NBA, right? So use it and abuse it, at the end of the day. And you’re one of the best passers in the NBA, and best decision-makers, so let’s figure out how we can put all those things together.”

The 76ers finished with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, thus ensuring they’d avoid the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks until the conference finals, but they still have plenty to prove in the playoffs. They finished the regular season only 13th in offensive rating and 18th in half-court offense, although their bench shoulders some of that blame.

But if Embiid and Simmons continue to build upon the progress they’ve made in recent months, they may finally quash the questions about whether they can win a championship together.

“They both know there’s room for both of them to be great,” Rivers said in March. I always use Bill Russell as a great example. Bill Russell played with four other guys who were in the top 50, right? Somehow, they were able to all make it work. Bill always told us when I was in Boston, ‘If you can’t make room for everybody else to be great, then you can’t be great.’ And I think that’s what’s going on here. They’ve realized that they both can be great together.”

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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