The Philadelphia 76ers have been an Eastern Conference powerhouse for the past few years, led by the polarizing duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Now, things are undoubtedly much different and may never be the same again. While the Sixers started the season as one of the best teams in basketball, a COVID-19 outbreak quickly derailed most of the team’s progress. Embiid, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle all missed time battling the virus and as a result, the team struggled to find their footing. Of course, disgruntled star forward Ben Simmons is still away from the team after demanding a trade in the offseason and battling mental health issues following the ugly loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the playoffs last season. A historically poor performance by Simmons resulted in the forward shouldering much of the blame for Philadelphia’s exit, including from his teammates and head coach, Doc Rivers. According to a report by The Athletic’s Sam Amick, Philadelphia has compiled a list of 30 players they would accept in a deal for Simmons and show no signs of compromise at the moment.
After a recent bout with COVID-19, star big man Joel Embiid returned to post 42 points and 10 rebounds but came up short in a hard-fought double-overtime loss last week to the Minnesota Timberwolves. After missing nine games battling the virus, Embiid is still working himself back into game shape and the star big man is not quite there yet. While Embiid’s return should be seen as a success so far with a 3-2 record with the two losses coming by a combined two points, work remains to be done. Tyrese Maxey has been a revelation this season, posting career-highs across the board and helping fill the void at point guard in the absence of Simmons. After coming off the bench last year, the second-year guard has taken his game to another level and could convince the Sixers to give him the role permanently once Simmons is traded. Seth Curry has also been fantastic this season, emulating his brother Stephen Curry(you may have heard of him), and is on track to finish the season shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the free-throw line. Primarily known as a spot-up shooter in years past, Curry has become a more complete offensive player this season by scoring in a variety of ways. The ball is in his hands a lot more than it used to be and given the absence of Simmons, Curry has taken on more playmaking duties than ever before. After coming over from Dallas last season, Curry has been easily the most consistent player on the team and fans will hope he continues his strong play moving forward.
Areas of Concern
The defense has taken a step back as predicted given the absence of Simmons, slotting in as a below-average team while ranking dead last in pace. Any offense centered around a dominant big man is a fairly safe bet to rank near the bottom of the league in pace of play but the Sixers offense needs to be addressed. Coach Doc Rivers has work to do as far as maximizing the talent he has on his roster, especially now that Embiid has to be worked back into the rotation. Rivers isn’t known as the most adaptable coach, one of his most glaring drawbacks but with his team back to full strength, the offense needs some tinkering. For instance, the offense cannot run entirely through Embiid now, given the emergence of Maxey and Curry as playmakers in their own right. As far as the eye test goes, Embiid has issues working the pick-and-roll, which is one of Maxey’s biggest strengths as a floor general. While not a great shooter, Maxey can drive the lane and work the screen-and-roll to generate easy looks for someone like Andre Drummond. Maxey can also work the pick-and-pop with Tobias Harris, an efficient shooter from most spots on the court. Harris is also one of their main options on offense, who also needs to be utilized properly to maximize the team’s potential. More concerning is the sudden decline in Maxey’s numbers after Embiid’s return, averaging approximately 10 points and 6 assists per game in the four games since Embiid rejoined the team. However, at the beginning of the season, Maxey was able to co-exist with Embiid, boding well for their future together and the two can hopefully regain their chemistry shortly.
Re-integrating Embiid and Harris, while maximizing Maxey’s time on the floor to emulate their 8-2 start at the beginning of the season should be their top priority. Given how much the Eastern Conference has improved this year, the Sixers cannot afford to sleepwalk through the regular season and expect to waltz into a top-three seed any longer. After the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets presumably at the top of the conference, the other teams seem interchangeable to some degree. To put things into perspective, the 11th seeded New York Knicks are just 2 games back of the fourth-seeded Miami Heat as of this writing. That alone speaks volumes to the level of competitiveness in the East this year.
The (eventual)Ben Simmons Trade
A lack of perimeter defenders has hampered the team in the absence of Simmons, with the Sixers struggling to contain many of the wing scorers in the league. While Matisse Thybulle is certainly one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, his offense leaves much to be desired. Given his offensive shortcomings, he cannot be in the game for too long and the team is forced to use other options despite the decline in defensive efficiency. In a potential Simmons trade, the Sixers should certainly focus on obtaining an above-average two-way player to address this weakness and look for a backup point guard who can run the offense in spurts. Despite Maxey and Shake Milton’s best efforts, neither of them are traditional point guards who can consistently carry an offense. They look to score first and foremost, but while Maxey has shown an improved ability to run the offense, he still has a long way to go. There lies the need to bring in an experienced veteran with a pass-first mentality to shore up the offense and get the most out of their main scoring options.
A report by The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Shams Charania also confirmed Portland Trailblazers superstar Damian Lillard’s desire to play with Simmons after rampant speculation in recent months that a trade was in the works which would send CJ McCollum to the Sixers. The trade would reportedly see McCollum, Anfernee Simons, Nasir Little and a future first-round pick heading to Philly in exchange for Simmons and another young player. From Philadelphia’s point of view, this trade is certainly a no-brainer as they receive a lot of value in exchange for Simmons but Portland would be wise to not pull the trigger. While Simmons is undoubtedly a premier talent in the league, his value around the league is at an all-time low given his shortcomings last season and his current holdout. While free throw shooting and the absence of a reliable jump shot are his two biggest weaknesses, the fact is Simmons does nearly everything else at an elite level. His vision, defensive ability, inside scoring, athleticism and rebounding are among the best in the league, which are still highly regarded despite his shortcomings. Of course, Simmons would help their league-worst defense but it is certainly not worth giving up so much young talent in return for a player with undeniable talent but also several drawbacks. At this point, the relationship between Simmons and the Sixers seems beyond repair which makes a trade inevitable. If the return addresses the weaknesses mentioned above, the Sixers should not think twice about pulling the trigger. Their future may depend on it.