Is Jimmy Buttler a Shrimp?
The Philadelphia 76ers are at a crossroads. In the next season, Ben Simmons’s 5-year contract extension kicks in. At the same time, the NBA’s salary cap is set to decrease, thanks to revenue lost in the pandemic. Even without a decrease, Philly’s star duo was looking to command more than half of the league’s proposed $115 million salary cap for the 2020-21 season.
Philadelphia needs to win before it becomes financially infeasible to do so. After all, building a championship team is difficult enough but to do it with less than $55 million on the books? It almost becomes a Herculean task.
So what options do the Sixers have? You could always blow it all up and try again. A re-roll at a new team identity sets the process all the way back to the dark days of Sam Hinkie’s team-building experiment. You’re closing the door early on two under-25-year-old stars. But you are freeing up capital.
Is a more flexible cap worth another Process-like experiment? Probably not. Option 2, however, is to find a system where both coexist.
That’s easier said than done. Embiid and Simmons both do their best work within five feet of the basket. In fact, an average Ben Simmons field goal in 2019-20 came from 3.6 feet away from the hoop. While Embiid is a towering center that would scare big men in the 1980s with his midrange game, Simmons is a hybrid point forward without a jump shot. Traditional settings favor Embiid and debilitate Simmons. Having both in the paint destroys spacing. Putting Embiid in the corner, where he shoots at a solid .35 clip from downtown, gives Simmons more space but also doesn’t take advantage of Embiid’s extraordinary footwork.
So that begs the question, what kind of system benefits and point guard that can play in the paint but doesn’t have any range AND a traditional center who’s still finding out just how effective his jump shot is.
The triangle offense would utilize both Simmons and Embiid pretty well on first glance. Embiid could act as an anchor in the paint, while putting Simmons in a position to either drive or pass to the corner, a cutter or weak side option. Defenses now have to worry about Simmons’s court vision, while having to handle Embiid in the paint.
Moving Simmons to the post role and Embiid to the weak side would be even more effective. Simmons can act as the primary passer in the post, drawing defenses inside, while letting Embiid play with more space. Now the Sixers are giving Embiid more outside looks and putting Simmons where he works best.
There is a major drawback. If Simmons is playing from the wing and can’t penetrate, all of a sudden he has to be a perimeter player. If he’s on the inside and Embiid on the weak side and you’re letting another wing handle the ball from the strong side, you have taken your two best players out of your offense.
Not only that, but you’re dramatically slowing down the pace of the game. The triangle is predicated on reacting faster than the defense. But the time it takes to recognize options in more complicated defensive sets is absolutely debilitating. If your team isn’t ready from the get go, you’ve put yourself in a hole that the defense can take advantage of. The triangle offense is in part a mind game. Once you’ve lost the mind game, you’ve lost the real game.
That said, other options for the Sixers are pretty much non-existent. A space and pace offense requires Simmons to play on the perimeter, very much out of his comfort zone. Same with the Princeton offense. Same with the wheel. Same with literally most motion offensive sets.
Weirdly enough, motion sets have actually benefited the Sixers, largely in part to Embiid’s passing. In 2018-19, the 76ers ran a solid give and go with Embiid operating out of the high post and J.J. Redick from the corner or low post on the weak side. Embiid would catch the ball near the free throw line on the weak side. From there, Redick would run out to the three-point line behind Embiid. Embiid would just hand off the ball to Redick and set a screen on his defender, giving Redick space for the jumper.
Having your big set up in the high post is a staple of the aptly named high post offense. This takes advantage of Embiid’s court vision and physicality as a screener, while playing to his mid range jump shot. The downside here is Simmons is left without a role. Does he play in the low post where he crowds the paint for a cutter? Do you put him on the three-point line for defenders to ignore?
Placing Simmons on the high post takes advantage of both his vision and pick and roll play. However, he’s shooting 16 percent from between 10-16 feet. Yikes. Moving him to the low post means he can’t run the offense, a position he’s most comfortable with.
So what do the Sixers do? Simmons, it seems, might need an offense tailored to his strengths. But that also means finding balance with Embiid’s offensive touches. It’s Philadelphia’s Gordian knot.
It is until you realize, Brett Brown can take elements from the triangle and apply them to Philly’s motion sets. That give-and-go with Embiid and a shooter can have an additional fold to it if Simmons cuts to the weak side low post. Want to run it with Simmons as the big? Embiid extends the range from the low post to the corner three.
Modern day offenses in the league are really just a mishmash of the best, applicable coaching philosophies. No one team sticks to a true, high post/Princeton/triangle offense. You take the best parts and see what works with the team you’ve assembled. At the end of the day, the best way to make Embiid and Simmons fit as well as they can is taking the time to see what works for them and what doesn’t. With that said, the clock is ticking Brett and the seat is only getting hotter.
BANNER: Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid during a 2018 game against the Washington Wizards. PHOTO CREDIT: Keith Allison//Wikimedia Commons