Against the backdrop of an emotionally charged month, the Los Angeles Clippers came into town prior to the All Star break looking to assert their heavy title expectations. On Philadelphia’s side, the discourse centered on Joel Embiid’s potentially fractured relationship with the team (and the fans). From a team’s perspective, arrows pointed directly at the Sixers’ offensive struggles – with sharp criticism levied on the current basketball fit between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. But prior to tip-off, Sixers head coach Brett Brown announced a key lineup change. One that included moving Al Horford to the bench. With a retooled group, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons took the court with the clear intent on delivering a LOUD message. And boy, did they ever!
REDISCOVERING AN “OLD” FRIEND
Much has been said of Horford’s awkward fit with Philadelphia thus far. But with Al in the starting lineup, the impact of the Simmons-Embiid relationship extends far beyond the highly debated spacing constraints. The Sixers rely heavily on Simmons to jump start Horford’s offense. In 53 games this season, 20% of Ben’s passes find Horford’s hands. And the effect on Joel Embiid is significant. As of the All Star break, only 11% of Simmons’ passes go to the Sixers’ center (a career low among the duo). But with Al mostly out of the picture, EVERYTHING changed. The Sixers ball handler looked for Embiid a whopping 25% of the time. And the results were significant. So let’s dissect where the partnership took off for Philadelphia.
THE HIGH-LOW & PICK-AND-POP
In order to star Joel Embiid, Brett Brown called on a series of looks that highlight the immense potential of his star duo. The concept centered on moving Embiid away from the block and utilizing Simmons’ strengths to get him clean and easy looks. To understand where the duo thrived, let’s take a peek at these two possessions:
And a little modern day, pick and pop action.— Thiago (@TScabbia) February 12, 2020
Which, according to ESPN, is impossible to run with those two ?♂️ pic.twitter.com/2bpab5v2a5
The first possession speaks to Philadelphia’s strong intent on getting Embiid the ball under the basket. The Sixers’ center entered the matchup averaging 4.5 attempts inside the restricted area (21st among all centers). But last Tuesday, the message was simple. Clear the paint, and let the big guy work. With Simmons orchestrating the offense at the top of the key, Embiid finished with 8 attempts inside the restricted area (or in the paint). Embiid dominated the Clippers’ front court. In particular, Ivica Zucac. In 19 possessions vs. Zubac, Joel finished a strong 5-for-9 with 6 free throw attempts. The Sixers consistently bullied Los Angeles by getting inside the heart of the defense. A physical display led by Embiid’s assertive presence. And highlighted by Simmons’ ability to see over the defense.
But Philadelphia did not stop there. Looking to replace Horford’s abysmal shooting thus far, Brett Brown used Embiid in similar fashion to the benched power forward. On the second clip, we see another way in which the Simmons-Embiid partnership can thrive. In this instance, Simmons’ on-ball gravity pulls the defense away from Embiid. As a result, the Sixers’ center has plenty of time to gather and fire an open look. Joel is currently shooting a respectable 34% on 132 off-the-catch threes this season. And without Horford, Brown can freely expand on Embiid’s repertoire. A repertoire that complements his star ball handler extremely well.
JOEL THE ROAD GRADER
While in the midst of a dominant evening, it was off the ball where Embiid stood out. With an aggressive Ben, Joel was more than willing to help as a screener. As a result, Embiid created ample space for his counterpart. Here is a sample of how the duo partnered to attack Los Angeles.
From this look, it is easy to see how Embiid enables Simmons to be more aggressive. Since Joel’s injury, Simmons is shooting 60% on 228 drives to the basket (4th among all NBA players with 200+ drives). With Joel back in the mix, Simmons was equally as assertive in utilizing the space created by his teammate. The duo consistently targeted the slow footed Zubac. And while Embiid can improve as a screener, it is clear where the Sixers’ center helps his counterpart to flourish. Specially near the rim, where Simmons has been close to unstoppable since the new year.
TWO DEFENSIVE GIANTS IN CRUNCH TIME
With some cohesion established offensively, Philadelphia looked to its two defensive pillars to close out the game. Much praise is thrown at the potential of Embiid and Simmons. But watching it come together against one of the elite offenses was special. The Sixers’ duo logged six combined minutes in the final frame. And the outcome was powerful. In those six critical minutes, Philadelphia posted an elite 76.9 defensive rating (while holding Los Angeles to a sub-optimal 49% true shooting percentage). To see it come to fruition, let’s examine two critical sequences in which Simmons and Embiid combined to suffocate Los Angeles.
Simmons vs. Leonard
This is kind of unreal defense pic.twitter.com/qXMK463D8e— Hoops Reference (@HoopsReference) February 12, 2020
Embiid vs Morris
Joel Embiid STUFFS Marcus Morris at the rim ❌ ? pic.twitter.com/FARanZbNBF— ClutchPoints NBA (@ClutchPointsNBA) February 12, 2020
Rarely can teams pair this type of defensive talent late in games. Simmons and Embiid give Philadelphia two tremendous anchors with the game on the balance. Simmons’ ability to stick with some of the elite isolation scorers is transcending. Meanwhile, Embiid’s rim protection can cover for any defensive lapse. In those two, the Sixers have significant defensive solutions. And when paired late in games, they are a massive roadblock for teams to maneuver.
Going into the All Star break much of the discussion was centered on what Embiid and Simmons represent to the future of the franchise. Pundits are quick to point to the deficiencies among the duo. While some of it is justifiable, it doesn’t take much to see how this pairing can thrive. Against one of the league’s title contenders, Embiid and Simmons once again reminded us of what that potential looks like. And in doing so, set a possible road map for the second half of the season.