With a chance to prove it tonight, can the 76ers two stars develop and mature enough to beat the best teams in the NBA consistently enough for a deep playoff run?
Before the start of the season, this year’s Sixers team was characterized as one that might struggle with shooting or scoring but would overcome those struggles with their stellar defensive capabilities, the addition of the Celtics’ Al Horford, and an improved Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Today, many Sixers fans see a team that not only struggles with scoring, but is often decimated by the lack of it. Meanwhile, Horford is struggling mightily, Embiid is regressing statistically and physically, and Ben Simmons still won’t shoot jumpers or threes efficiently enough to keep defenses honest.
The Horford situation could turn around if his play does, but Father Time is undefeated and tonight could be the perfect night to let him come off the bench as opposed to starting. Due to Doc Rivers’ affinity for going small with three guards and recent trade acquisition, power forward Marcus Morris, tonight might not be an ideal match-up for a longer and more seasoned player like Horford. The Sixers also have more than enough wings after the recent trade for Glenn Robinson III and Alex Burks.
Joel Embiid is not as dominant as he was last season and to make matters worse he is now in a spat with his home fan-base, a battle that is almost impossible to win. Sunday against Chicago, Embiid hit a three with under a minute left in the game and preceded to shush the home crowd (who had been booing for much of the night). He also put the photo of him making the “shush” sign on his Instagram and commented, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Granted, he also captioned that photo “All love” and explained to a reporter that he was actually shushing himself saying, “Just talking to myself. [I] have not been playing up to my standards. … Just mad at myself. Just frustrated.” While that might very well be the explanation, one has to wonder if this is one of those immature moments from Joel where he does something in the heat of the moment that he later regrets and attempts to backpedal on. This is the same player who once told Hassan Whiteside on Twitter, “Your plus-minus was ass. #softy.”
Let’s be honest, when it comes to Ben Simmons, while he did manage to make two threes this year his shooting hasn’t been what Philly hopefuls expected after the off-season hype videos that flooded YouTube with highlights of him hitting shot after shot during summer training. Today, he has shot exactly as many threes (six) as he shot last year. Although it is an improvement, we’ll be lucky if Ben Simmons finishes with 15 three-point attempts.
Many thought his behavior would change after fans calling him out since his rookie year, Brett Brown publicly acknowledging he wants Ben to shoot more, and all the work he claimed to be putting in during the off-season. Simmons’ downright refusal to shoot even one long-range shot per game (or even per week) is perplexing, defiant, and still one of the largest thorns in the Sixers side.
Simmons’ lack of three-point shooting is like the ice-cream machine being “broken” at McDonald’s every night: it’s BS, but Simmons isn’t going to chuck up threes any time soon and those McDonald’s employees aren’t making you a milkshake at 2am no matter how high or drunk you are
Additionally, while Simmons cemented himself as one of the league’s elite defenders, the 76ers are 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the floor according to NBA.com. Furthermore, as of this past Tuesday, ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus (which is said to separate an individual defender from his teammates) has the Sixers star ranked 183rd, six spots ahead of Carmelo Anthony (per CBS Sports).
Ben Simmons also contests just 5.3 shots per game, ranking 69th among guards. To give some context, Draymond Green who is a similar defender with a role where he is asked to do-it-all contests over 10 shots per game. Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown all contest over 10 per game as well. This is all mind-boggling considering that Simmons also leads the NBA in total steals, deflections and loose balls recovered.
The good news is Philly has the fifth-easiest remaining schedule the rest of the way based on record (per Bleacher Report), and currently still hold the fourth playoff seed. Tonight will be their hardest test and most promising challenge for a while as they face the Clippers who rank third in the West standings, and fourth in total points and third in rebounds per game across the NBA.