We Don't Need to Act Like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons Are Best Friends
Let’s be normal about this one.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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Maybe it’s just that it’s now been two weeks since something quasi-tragic has happened with the Sixers -- practically a presidential term by Process and/or post-Process standards -- but I’m feeling strangely confident about them for the rest of the season. A soft schedule, a staggered Horford, a deepened bench, a re-energized (and now-splintless) Joel Embiid, and plenty of reason to actually care about winning games? There’s 27 games left, and going 21-6 seems strangely attainable. Hell, 24-3 wouldn’t even be shocking. 27-0, perhaps? They’re playing all 27 at home, right?
Seems like a lot of folks might be feeling the same way, as the tenor of Sixers Twitter has evolved from post-war U.K. to a Roaring Twenties theme party since the All-Star Break. (Going into that thing on a strong home win over the Clippers was brilliant scheduling on our part, truly.) After a solid week or two of true deflation, the chest-puffing is back in full force. And the most galvanizing Us vs. Them subject of the moment? The undeniable and unbreakable bond between our two best players, and those who would still attempt to deny or sever.
Yes, there was encouraging BS + JE stuff over the All-Star Break. In the long afterglow of arguably their best game together as Sixers -- particularly if Brett’s doing the arguing -- Joel and Ben both gave quotes over the long weekend about how they loved playing with one another and thought the media narrative of them being unable to coexist was bunk. Then, of course, the All-Star ass slap heard louder than the 6ABC Action News theme: Simmons, of Team LeBron, celebrating a Team Giannis turnover by winding up like Cole Hamels to deliver one direct to Embiid’s behind, then slowly shrinking away like a 12-year-old hoping his older brother has learned to have a sense of humor about his expensive new guitar. Much Instagram bantering ensued.
The ass slap in particular had the Process Faithful already mapping parade routes. You’d have thought Embiid and Simmons had just gone on a double-honeymoon for their double-wedding -- do Paula and Kendall get along, I wonder? -- with the way Sixers Twitter was victory lapping over the two’s obvious womb-to-tomb brotherhood. And I get it: We’ve had to deal all season with the TNT, First Take and Ringer (podcast division) crews acting more and more like splitting up our No. 1A and No. 1B boys is an ideological imperative, and it’s left us more irritated than Embiid’s right cheek. It’s not surprising that we’d reach for the “But I was told…” tweets and SpongeBob memes at the first available opportunity.
But it’s getting to be a bit much, especially considering it’s not really necessary. Three plus seasons into their relationship, we should probably know who Ben and Joel are together by now, off court if not necessarily on: They’re co-workers. They’re not avoiding each other in the hallways, but they’re not going out for drinks after a stressful day. They don’t automatically shit talk the other when talking with someone else from the same department, but they won’t hold their tongue about complaining if the other one does something annoying. They have a private Slack conversation but 85% of it is strictly work-related. They’re polite, friendly, and almost always respectful, and they might even have one or two shared quirks or inside jokes they bring up when forced to make conversation at company functions. But generally, they’ve got their own things going which don’t totally involve the other, and they’re fine with that.
It’s not surprising to me that they should appear closer at All-Star Weekend, since it’s basically the NBA equivalent of a business conference where only your company only sends a couple staffers as representatives. Ben and Joel might not exactly be road-tripping to Chicago together or sharing a hotel room once there, but they are still kinda in that fish-out-of-water situation that often brings co-workers together by taking them out of their comfort zones and forcing them to kinda cling to each other as familiars. Playing together as the lone Sixers -- not just in the Sunday game, but across the entire weekend -- on the NBA’s most celebratory stage, without even having to really interact with one another on the court… it makes sense that maybe they’d be acting a little more brotherly than usual.
I’d be surprised if that continues all that notably once we’re all back in Philly. Even if it mostly involves winning, as we all hope it does, the regular-season grind is very much the working week, and there’ll be times when the two just don’t much want to deal with the other one. Embiid will be asked about Simmons’ shooting for the millionth time, or Simmons will get a question about Embiid’s health that he has no clue how to answer, and they’ll breathe exasperatedly and wonder if their entire careers are gonna be like this. A return to further ass-slapping seems unlikely, at least until the playoffs.
And that’s fine! All fine. We don’t have to act like the Sixers’ success hinges on whether or not Embiid and Simmons are going to each others’ houses to watch Survivor: Winners at War. We don’t even need to act like the national media’s criticisms of Embiid and Simmons’ partnership are mostly interpersonal, that they actually hinge on the idea that the guys can’t stand the sight of one another. There’s nothing to prove here: Embiid and Simmons mostly-but-not-totally get along, most of the time (but not always) -- like the overwhelming majority of co-workers on the planet -- and with just a few annoying exceptions, people understand this to be the case.
Where there is still something to prove, of course, is on the court. Which isn’t to say that anyone who’s concluded that it’s already well beyond time to break the two up is justified in proclaiming their partnership a failure -- just that, for two Top 15 players who ostensibly play non-conflicting positions, they haven’t always proven particularly complementary on the court. And as Spike has pointed out repeatedly on the Ricky, if the two aren’t BFFs in the locker room, and they’re not clearly making one another’s games better, they might eventually decide they’ve had enough and seek new situations, either within or without the Sixers.
But the good news there -- and the news that actually means way more than Simmons putting palm to butt -- is that the Clippers game was not only one of each of their best games individually, but also probably their best game as a two-man unit. Thiago of The Painted Lines had a great Twitter thread last week breaking down all the ways in which Simmons and Embiid played off one another brilliantly against L.A., including in myriad ways that went against most of the suffocating (but often at least somewhat corroborated) media narratives about why the two aren’t good for each other as teammates. It’s one game, and hardly a cure-all, but you have to hope that after this -- and particularly without so much Horford making things further cramped for the two of them -- we’ll see more of this version of Jo and Ben together in the 27 regular-season games that remain on the schedule.
And then, of course, the real test. As good as they can look together in the regular season, and as much back and forth they can have on the bench and on social media, it’s all for naught if the Sixers flame out early in the playoffs -- and if it’s really early, firing Brett probably won’t be enough to appease the bloodthirst of fans and ownership. There are a good number of potential fixes that the team should resort to before deciding it’s time to split of Ben and Joel, but as long as they’re both here and the team is underachieving, it’s on the table, which any number of outside voices will take great pains to continue to remind us about. It’s been a fun All-Star break, but we’d be better off acknowledging this as the ongoing reality than responding to any flicker of friendship between these two like it’s a sign that they’ll be together forever.