The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
Today’s question: Are we sure the Sixers shouldn’t split up Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid?
There is no greater guilty pleasure for Sixers fans than breaking down offseason workout footage. Bravo ought to run the videos between episodes of Real Housewives and Below Deck. The ratings in the Delaware Valley would be massive.
Not surprisingly, Process loyalists got all lathered up when Ben Simmons’s new trainer, who also happens to be Jimmy Butler’s old trainer, tweeted a brief glimpse of the Sixers point guard in an undisclosed L.A.-area gym this summer. No one I know has shut up about it since.
That footage has since been put forth by Philly optimists—for most of my life that would have been an ugly oxymoron—that the one-time first pick and former Rookie of the Year has finally taken the necessary steps to add the one missing piece to his game: a jump shot. Indeed, you can see him knock down pull-up 3s, launch baseline fadeaways, and hit jumpers off the dribble at the nail. It’s encouraging. Of course, it is also [whispers to avoid the wrath of the true believers] carefully curated footage. Personal trainers tend to operate like autocracies, putting forth only propaganda that reinforces the state-approved narrative. In this case, the party wants us to believe Comrade Ben can shoot now.
Skeptics were quick to point out a few problems, among them the obvious lack of defensive intensity in the pickup game and the fact that the court in question featured a high school 3-point line. Not to mention that, in a different hype video from the same trainer, Andrew Wiggins is made to look pretty good as he blows past a defender who looks suspiciously like … [rewinds and squints eyes] … Ben Simmons. As these things go, we see what we want to see.
Subsequent videos also showed Simmons making easy jumpers. But when examined more closely, the individual frames weren’t quite so flattering.
This was always going to be a critical offseason for Simmons, who signed a five-year, $170 million max contract extension in mid-July. As Tobias Harris recently said, Simmons “wasn’t confident” in his jumper last season. But Harris, who has worked out with Simmons this summer, insisted Simmons is confident in that aspect of his game now. The alternative—another season with Simmons refusing to eat his jump shot vegetables—would be a brutal blow for a Sixers team that hungers to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Simmons just turned 23, and he’s already an All-Star. His proponents urge patience and see him as someone who is supremely talented. They might be right. But without a jumper, or even the threat of one, Simmons will limit the Sixers’ ceiling. That might seem silly to say given that Brett Brown’s crew came within four freak bounces of forcing overtime in that fateful Game 7 and potentially advancing past the eventual world champion Toronto Raptors. But we all saw what happened in the postseason. Simmons was marginalized because he couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot. His points, rebounds, and assists per game all dipped significantly from the regular season, while his usage rate dropped from 22.1 to 16.6. Philadelphia’s point guard duties were handed over to Butler out of necessity while Simmons was deployed as what Brown kindly called “a floor spacer.” To put it nicely, Big Ben became a decoy. That bothered Simmons, who in May told Zach Lowe in no uncertain terms that he’s “more valuable than that.” Maybe. But as demonstrations to the class go, there needs to be more show and less tell.
The other issue the Sixers had last postseason was keeping Joel Embiid healthy and on the floor. As Brown said a few months back, “There’s night and there’s day” when it comes to how the Sixers operate with and without their big man. That was also evident in Game 7 against the Raptors, when the Sixers disastrously tried to squeeze a couple of quick minutes out of Greg Monroe to rest Embiid. The Sixers believe they’ve addressed that concern by adding Al Horford to the mix. Meanwhile, Embiid looks like he’s gone full keto diet and has taken every opportunity this summer to post shirtless photos on Instagram.
Sixers partner Michael Rubin also recently told Bossman Bill that Embiid is “on a mission” with his conditioning, one that includes the center being “over” his love of Krispy Kreme. In August, these can be interpreted as encouraging signs.
It is hard to find two players as young and talented as Simmons and Embiid. And many teams pray that eventually they’ll have two pre-prime stars locked into long-term deals. It is easy to daydream about their bright future together—provided Simmons gets his jumper in shape and Embiid does the same with his body. If not, if things stagnate, if the two best players on the team keep clogging the floor when they’re on it together rather than complementing each other, there will come a time when people—probably here at The Ringer, because we’re blow-it-up addicts—wonder aloud whether the Sixers might be better off offloading Simmons for someone (or several someones) who will, you know, shoot a 3, you coward.
That might seem premature or even absurd right now. But there was a point when trading James Harden would have sounded absurd. Or Paul George. Or Russell Westbrook. Or Anthony Davis. Or any number of top-tier superstars we’ve seen shipped around the league. The NBA’s silly season runs year-round now. To be clear, though, I hope the Sixers keep Embiid and Simmons together forever—if not for the basketball, then for the modeling content.
An earlier version of this piece misstated Michael Rubin’s title.