Four Ways The Sixers Can Be Better When Joel Embiid Sits
No Greg Monroe, still a problem.
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
It’s a tale as old as time: the Sixers are absolutely dominant when Joel Embiid is on the floor, and mediocre-to-bad when he’s off. You can change every single thing around Embiid -- the entire supporting cast, his positional backup, the entire coaching staff, and even his minutes distribution. Doesn’t matter. Somehow, some way, the Sixers still disintegrate every year when he sits.
Since it’s essentially a given at this point that the Sixers will perform at the level of a championship contender when Embiid is on the floor, then the number one thing standing in the way of their championship contention is their inability to not fall off a cliff when he’s off. Here in this piece, I’ll try to pinpoint a few things that the Sixers can do to become passable when their MVP candidate sits.
Play Embiid and Simmons together more
As my former colleague Derek Bodner noted recently, one of the leading issues facing the Embiid-less Sixers has been the (lack of) success of the Ben Simmons-Dwight Howard pairing. So far this year, the Sixers have an abhorrent -15.0 net rating with Simmons and Howard on the court together. And for Simmons individually, the drop-off in production has been drastic: he is shooting 10.1 percent better from the field and averaging 5.9 more points per 100 possessions when he plays next to Embiid, per NBA.com.
Simmons will always be most accentuated by a shooting big, and Howard is not that. But even despite an iffy fit, it’s astonishing how poor Simmons has been without Embiid -- when Embiid sits, his turnovers skyrocket (7.3 per 100 vs. 3.8), and his shot attempts and free throws both go down. There is no reason for his decision making and aggressiveness falling off a cliff.
Naturally, that leads to a discussion of what it says about Simmons that he is so unable to produce and carry the team without Embiid present. But it also leads us to a potential solution: perhaps the Sixers should align Simmons and Embiid’s minutes even more, and turn over the second unit completely to Shake Milton, Tobias Harris, and others. They could play a spaced-out, pick and roll based style with Howard, rather than trying to force the awkward spacing of an offense based around Simmons with Howard.
On the season, the Sixers have a far better net rating (-5.7) with both Simmons and Embiid off the floor, compared to when only Simmons is on the floor without Embiid (-17.1), per Cleaning the Glass. And, that Embiid and Simmons-less number is likely dragged down by the Sixers’ half-quarantined stretch, as well as by the fact that they are shooting an unsustainably bad 28.7 percent from 3 with their two stars off the court.
Again, the stats here are underlied by Simmons' early season performance, and that is likely to improve. But unless the lineup stats do a complete 180, I’m not sure how the Sixers can continue in this direction. The Simmons-Howard pairing is not working, and Tony Bradley isn’t likely to offer any solutions. Better to see if Milton and Harris can carry the load with Embiid sitting than to continue to play around Simmons with the results that they’re currently getting.
Improved transition defense
For whatever reason, the number one thing afflicting the Sixers’ defense when Embiid is off the floor is historically bad transition defense. They are solid in the half court, and are very good protecting the rim, but they rank in the first (!) percentile in opponent points added in transition, with most of those are coming off of live rebounds.
Part of their issues here could be due to Simmons’ posting up and attacking the rim leaving both him and Howard trailing the play. But regardless, it makes zero sense as to why the Sixers would be an average transition defense team with Embiid on the floor and historically bad with him off of it. This dynamic did not exist last year, and I’d have to expect that it will improve as this year goes along.
Stop playing non-shooters in Simmons+bench lineups
Another issue for the Simmons-Howard pairing is the lineups that Doc Rivers has chosen to surround them with. Per Cleaning The Glass, the most frequently used lineup that includes Simmons and Howard is rounded out by Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey, and Matisse Thybulle -- two very shaky shooters alongside two non-shooters. The spacing in that lineup is just awful, and as a result, they struggle to create offense around the rim both in terms of frequency and efficiency.
Part of the reason that lineup has seen so many minutes is because of injuries and availability. Still, Rivers needs to be more careful about trotting out lineups with little-to-no shooting.
Despite my gripes here, even the well spaced lineups around Simmons and Howard have been awful. For example, another very common Embiid-less lineup has been the combination of Simmons-Milton-Green-Harris-Howard, which has posted a 71.0 offensive rating. So, the problem goes deeper than simply the personnel around Simmons and Howard.
Trade for a stretch five
AU, if you’re reading this, just click away now, my friend.
The Sixers should try to acquire Mike Muscala. He’ll be available for either nothing or next to nothing, and he’d offer a nice change of pace from Howard on nights when the Sixers’ spacing feels particularly cramped. Also of interest would be Gorgui Dieng, even though he makes $17.1 million, so he would be difficult to trade for without giving up a rotation piece.
Those might be the only two players in the league who figure to be available and could feasibly be described as stretch fives. Regardless of which one, I think it would be of enormous benefit for the Sixers to acquire one of them to have as a tool in their kit to use in the playoffs.
While the short-term solution is likely to tether Simmons and Embiid’s minutes more closely together, the Sixers absolutely have to figure out how to get the most out of Simmons in the long run. After the success that Simmons had last year with Al Horford at center, they should be looking to get a cheap floor spacer at the five to compliment him.
Before the year, I’d had hopes of turning Simmons into a more pick and roll based player, which would’ve meant good things for the Simmons-Howard pairing. However, that just doesn’t seem to be coming to fruition. He’s handling 3.0 pick and rolls per game compared to 2.6 last year, per NBA.com -- a minimal uptick considering the preseason hype.
The formula for maximizing Simmons is simply to add spacing, and Howard, though useful, doesn’t do that. After trying and failing to change Simmons’ play style to make that partnership work, it’s time to tinker with the lineups and potentially make a trade. Howard doesn’t need to be out of the rotation, but they could certainly use an alternative from a stylistic perspective.