Despite having arguably two of the top 10 players in the Eastern Conference in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers have not lived up to lofty expectations this season.
After failing to advance farther than the second round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, the 76ers do not seem better positioned for the playoffs this year, sitting currently in the fifth seed in the East. At their current pace, the Sixers would have their worst finish in the conference since the 2016-17 season, the season before Simmons first played for the Sixers.
Part of the 76ers’ mediocrity this season stems from Embiid’s and Simmons’ inability to coexist. While both stars seem to be on the edge of their prime, the young stars have yet to figure out how to mesh and get the best out of the other on the court, making it seem more and more plausible by the loss that the 76ers’ most viable path to long term success is to build around one and trade the other. Should the 76ers decide to take this route, it should be Simmons, and not Embiid, around whom the 76ers build their future.
Despite being maligned frequently for his lack of willingness to shoot from outside the paint, with only two made three-pointers in his two and a half seasons of play, Simmons has one of the most unique skill sets in the NBA. He, along with LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, is one of the few players to have the ball handling and passing ability to play point guard, while having the height of a power forward, as Simmons is currently listed at 6’10”. This advantage makes Simmons an extremely difficult player for opponents to plan to stop, with Simmons having a size and skill advantage against opposing point guards and a speed advantage over opposing power forwards.
Simmons has shown a well-established ability to dominate guards in the past and has used his size and athleticism to hold his own defensively against both guards and forwards.
Given Simmons’ lack of ability and willingness to shoot, however, Embiid, a traditional center who dominates in the paint and on the glass, is not an optimal fit for a second star on a team whose other star is built like players of the future. Teams like the Lakers and Bucks have built around James and Antetokounmpo, who are both also not proficient shooters, though each shoot substantially more frequently than Simmons from three-point range, by surrounding them with reliable three-point shooting specialists to free up driving lanes for their stars. This model has worked extremely well, with both teams currently sitting on top of their conference standings, each by five or more games as of Feb. 25.
The 76ers have enough shooting for that model of team building between Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, therefore making Embiid expendable. As it stands, the Sixers are struggling to maximize their potential with both stars needing to occupy similar space on the offensive end of the court. Simmons has shown an ability to thrive when Embiid has missed games due to injury and has proven he is more than capable of leading his own team as the primary star. In January, with Embiid sidelined because of a torn ligament for six games, Simmons’ points per game increased by 4.3, his field goal percentage jumped up 2.8%, his field goals attempted grew by 3.9 and his rebounds per game increased by 1.2.
Embiid’s injury history also provides another reason to trade the star center instead of Simmons as the Sixers’ sole star. After missing his first two seasons due to injury, Embiid has missed more than 64 games in an 82-game season. Considering Embiid is only 25 years old, the 76ers should be highly concerned with how many injuries he has already sustained since starting to play basketball late in his high school career, prompting worry about his future ability to play in the league.
Embiid, however, has shown flashes of dominance when he is on the court and is arguably the best center in the NBA. Therefore, it is certainly plausible that Embiid could haul a larger trade package than Simmons, especially as the league pivots to an emphasis on shooting, a skill which Embiid has, especially compared to Simmons. It should be noted, however, that Simmons did miss the first season of his NBA career due to a right foot injury. Since missing the 2016-17 season, however, Simmons has done a better job of staying on the court.
Bypassing Embiid’s obvious talent is certainly a risk for the 76ers, but prioritizing a more frequently healthy and consistent player in Simmons is ultimately the best decision for the franchise moving forward. Although a trade cannot happen until late June or July following the season, the Sixers would be smart to begin considering a trade package.
Regardless of the risk, trading Embiid is a bold move the 76ers should take given Simmons’ unique skill set, Embiid’s injury history and an inability for the two stars to mesh on the court. If the Sixers wish to return to the success of seasons past, the organization should move on from Embiid to focus on a Simmons-led empire.