Everyone knows that one couple who holds off as long as possible on the impending divorce for the sake of the children. It never ends well and ultimately does more damage to everyone involved despite the intention.
Well that is the Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
If you have been around since like 2018, you know I have been clamoring for the 76ers to trade either Simmons or Embiid. The duo always felt like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn’t work and it was so blatantly obvious.
But by holding off on the divorce, the 76ers have managed to turn Simmons, once viewed as the next in line to take the throne, to a depreciated asset.
After a failed attempt by the front office and Doc Rivers to mend whatever strands of a relationship still exist with Simmons, they’ve finally realized they need to sign the divorce papers. But Embiid isn’t waiting on the paper work.
On the third day of Sixers training camp, Embiid was asked a question about his reaction to Simmons’ perspective that their partnership has “run its course.”
Embiid offered a candid answer that summed up the Sixers’ past four seasons and the challenges of building a team around his talented running mate.
It would not be accurate to say Embiid spent all four minutes burying Simmons. At one point, he offered, “We are a better team with him. There’s no question about it.”
Despite that, Embiid gave a sober assessment of how Simmons’ skillset, or lack there of, has hampered the Sixers both on and off the court.
“Like I said, it is disappointing,” Embiid said of the situation. “But I feel like over the years, the way our team has been built around — like you look at last year, you got the whole starting lineup shot — I was the worst 3-point shooter in the starting lineup, and I shot 38 percent from 3.”
When Embiid mentions the team being built around Simmons’ needs, he was talking about one offseason in particular. On this day, he didn’t provide any need for speculation.
“So it was kind of surprising to see,” Embiid said. “I’ll always say that even going back to, I mean the reason we signed Al is (him). We got rid of Jimmy (Butler), which I still think was a mistake, just to make sure that he needed the ball in his hands and that’s the decision they made.”
In those 2019 playoffs, Butler was the unquestionable crunch-time player. Simmons stood in the dunker spot and defended Kawhi Leonard at a high level (even though that proved to be an impossible task) and let Butler run the offense at the end of games. After that season, Butler, with whom Embiid remains close, walked and led Miami to the NBA Finals. The Sixers floundered.
Maybe it wasn’t an ideal or desirable role for Simmons, but it worked. I could even understand Simmons wanting Butler out the way so he could become that player for the Sixers. Embiid probably could see his viewpoint too, wanting to be that top guy, hungry for those moments.
The issues came when Simmons clamored for that role only to regress as a player and never work on the skillset necessary to become that player.
Embiid was quick to move off reflecting on what ifs and the past.
“Like I said, it is surprising, but I’m really focused on the guys that are here,” Embiid said. “The situation is weird, disappointing, borderline kinda disrespectful to all the guys that are out here fighting for their lives. Some guys rely on the team to be successful to stay in the league and make money somehow. Because if you’re on a winning team, you’re always gonna have a spot in the league, just because you’re on a winning team and you contributed. Obviously, we’re a better team with him. We’re not a better team without him. We are a better team with him. But like I said, it is surprising but I’m focused on the guys that are here.”
Can the Sixers really be successful this season without Simmons?
Embiid has always respected Simmons’ talent level, for good reason. What he provides a team with his transition playmaking and defensive versatility is unquestionably positive and a major part of the Sixers’ success over the past four seasons.
Despite the great things Simmons does on a basketball court, he has never diversified his offensive game. That is why he has stagnated offensively in the regular season and remains a liability in the halfcourt during the postseason. It’s also the reason the idea that Embiid is holding him back falls flat. Individual improvement and overcoming the fear of failure are more important for Simmons moving forward than finding a different system.
“We’re trying to get better,” Embiid said. “We’re trying to get on the same agenda. We know what we gotta do, and every single day we gotta attack it and keep trying to get better every single day. But we are a better team with him. There’s no question about it.
“But we still hope that he changes his mind, but I kinda owe it to these guys to just worry about what we have here,” Embiid said. “That’s the front office’s job to kind of figure out what’s going to happen. That’s not my job, I’m not the GM, I’m not the owner so that’s actually none of my business honestly.”
How this gets resolved is still an open debate. The Sixers are in no rush to trade Simmons, and Simmons doesn’t want to play in Philadelphia anymore. Embiid’s comments likely didn’t help matters. I’d assume a trade happens by opening night, but that leaves little room for negotiations and even less room for the Sixers to ask for a decent return.
Perhaps only one thing from this week is clear. Joel Embiid is now willing to say the uncomfortable truth about Ben Simmons’ game out loud. And it is beautiful to hear.