What’s wrong with the Sixers?

We are four seasons into the Embiid-Simmons era, and until now, the Philadelphia 76ers are as perplexing as ever.

No NBA team seems to oscillate between “Is this the best team in the league?” highs and “I can’t believe Trey Burke is playing clutch minutes” lows more than Philly. Case in point: After limiting Giannis to 18 points on 29.6% shooting, drilling their season-best 21 threes, and drubbing the best team on Christmas day, the Sixers proceeded to lose five of their next seven games, filled with the same problems and drama that have colored the team since 2016.

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It’s difficult to pinpoint the most pressing issue in their recent slump, but the root cause of their problems seems to be the pairing of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, a fit that has dogged the team for years.

The two essentially occupy the same areas on the court. Simmons’ non-existent threat from deep leaves Embiid with minimal room to operate on the low block, while Embiid’s own lackluster shooting and propensity inside only make Simmons’ off-the-bounce woes worse. It’s no surprise that the Sixers turn into a bottom-ten offense when Embiid and Simmons share the floor together. 

Take a look at Embiid’s lack of space and how far James Harden sags off Simmons in their loss against Houston last week: 

Calling that disrespect is an understatement. It wouldn’t have made a difference if Simmons sat down on a courtside seat and enjoyed a beer in that possession. The Sixers have such a horrendous half court attack for a championship contender, and those problems will only intensify as the game bogs down in the playoffs.

Of course, none of these issues are new. It’s never a good sign when a team’s roster is built to compensate for rather than complement their two best players. Al Horford was signed to shore up the Embiid-less minutes and to be a better big man foil to Simmons, and to their credit, this has worked wonders. The Sixers’ best lineups are when Simmons and Horford share the floor flanked by shooters.

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But they essentially paid Horford $97 million to be a back-up center. What’s even more worrying is that the Sixers’ offense is terrible when Horford and Embiid share the floor — worse than the bottom-ranked offense in the league. The eye test supports this: teams are comfortable leaving Horford open beyond the arc, confident that they can close out on his slow-release set shot. Horford’s his pump-and-go game isn’t dangerous. He has essentially become a glorified Ryan Anderson when playing with Embiid on the floor. He just doesn’t have the gravity to merit the role. It’s no surprise then that Horford, an All-Star center that has thrived with the ball at the high post, is starting to grumble about his role. 

These issues on offense don’t seem to be fixable by any in-house improvement. Unless Simmons magically starts shooting threes — and I’d bet real money that he won’t any time soon — their halfcourt attack will remain mediocre at best.

These structural problems have prompted every Trade Machine aficionado’s favorite question: should the Sixers break up their core five? One of my favorite proposals comes from Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer to trade a combination of Horford, Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle, and picks to the Thunder for Chris Paul.

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Adding Paul, who is leading the league with a total of 103 points on 54.5% shooting in the clutch this season, is a game changer for a Sixers team devoid of perimeter creation. It also allows Brett Brown to slide Simmons to the four as a rich man’s Draymond Green, opening up the Aussie’s halfcourt game. However, the Thunder don’t really have an incentive to trade CP3 — who is playing like an All-Star this year, by the way — for Horford’s huge contract that runs a year longer than Paul’s megadeal.

A bolder option would be to trade Simmons, but there doesn’t seem to be a viable trade partner that would satisfy Philly’s probable demand of young assets and a top-level perimeter creator. Most deals would also have to happen in the offseason, when Simmons’ extension kicks in, for salary-matching purposes. Would Philly consider a Denver package centered around Michael Porter Jr. and Jamaal Murray? (Both say no.) What about to the Wizards for Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans? (Wizards say no.) Jrue Holiday plus a young Pelican asset would be enticing for both sides, but the overlap between Simmons, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson would probably deter the Pels from pulling the trigger

The biggest reason against trading Simmons is clear as day right now: Embiid’s not-so-clean bill of health. Embiid is out with another freak injury that looks straight out of Saw, sidelining him for at least a week or two, but possibly a lot longer given how gruesome it was. Simmons is the over-qualified insurance in times like this, as he is one of the few NBA players teams can build an offense around.

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The hope is that these Simmons-led Sixers turn things around with Embiid out. There is a universe where Simmons flourishes with the keys to the offense in a more spaced-out attack as the Sixers go on a run, unlocking a new dimension to their offense that could come handy in the playoffs. The sparkling numbers when Simmons and Horford play without Embiid, as well as the Embiid-less win against the Celtics last Friday, are certainly good signs. The Ewing Theory is in play.

Of course, there’s also a good chance Philadelphia spirals downward without their best player, plummeting down the East standings. (They are only a game ahead the sixth-placed Pacers and seven games ahead of the eighth-placed Nets.)

Given how polarizing these Sixers have been over the past couple of years, all the cards are on the table. This could equally be the year the Sixers figure it out, or blow it up for the fourth time in 14 months.