It was just two weeks ago that the Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers were able to rattle off four consecutive wins behind the play of All-Star guard Ben Simmons.
Granted, they weren't facing the toughest of competition, but they were winning games, nonetheless.
Since Embiid's return last week, the 76ers have gone 1-4 and are currently on a four-game losing skid following their loss to the first-place Milwaukee Bucks. To be fair, their opponents have been much tougher facing off against three of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but this Sixers squad was expected to be able to handle any type of challenge thrown at them.
Instead, they fall back to sixth place in the East, about four spots shy of where the general consensus placed them in the preseason.
As mentioned, Simmons and the 76ers were holding their own without Embiid in the lineup. While the team winning games without Embiid isn't necessarily common for Philly, Simmons taking his game to another level without his counterpart is.
The star point guard playing worse with his All-Star centre in the lineup - it shouldn't make as much sense as it does to the NBA world at this point.
The 76ers haven't been able to get re-adjusted just yet, and while Simmons hasn't exactly played bad since Embiid's return, his production has taken a hit. Take a look:
While he's getting to the line more frequently, showing he's still attacking the hoop, his field goal attempts per game are down. Though that is expected with an offensive presence like Embiid back in the lineup, it's even below Simmons' season average of 11.3 attempts per game. His assists, rebounds and scoring are all down, too, and he's been slightly less efficient from the field.
During the nine games without Embiid, Simmons was crashing the glass to get out in transition and get downhill - utilizing the scariest weapon in his offensive arsenal. He was getting to the rim, scoring in the paint and making defences pay for collapsing on him, dishing out a solid 7.9 assists per game despite looking for his own shot a bit more than usual. Now with Embiid back, he's forced to operate a little differently with the two typically working in the same areas of the court.
In Embiid's five games back, he hasn't been himself. The All-Star centre is averaging 20.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, but his field goal percentage is down shooting 42.3% from the field. He's attempting - and making - more 3s than his season average, but what's clear is that Embiid isn't working in the areas of the offensive end that he would like to, compromising his game to space things out for Simmons.
Prior to returning from his finger injury, Embiid spoke to ESPN's The Jump crew on the topic.
"I'm dominant (in the paint), that's where I'm best at. (Simmons) also likes to be down there, and sometimes, you have to make sacrifices for the team and that's what I have to do from time to time. I have to be at the 3-point line to make sure he's got some space. ... I can score on anybody (in the paint). But if I'm asked to space out and shoot some 3s, I gotta do it if it helps us win," Embiid stated.
And his "sacrifices" have caused for a bit of a basketball identity crisis between the Sixers' two franchise cornerstones. Their shot charts over the last five games are... interesting, to say the least.
One of those shot charts is a point guard. The other is a 7-foot, 280 lbs. centre who is one of the largest players in the NBA. Given the context, it's easy to guess which chart belongs to which player, but that doesn't make it any more logical.
Embiid is trying to venture away from his comfort zone to try and make his teammate, well, more comfortable. But at what cost? Simmons hasn't produced the way he was with Embiid out of the lineup, even when the big man is adjusting where he operates on the floor.
Embiid has shot 36.1% (115-319) from outside of the paint this season. That number is down to 30.2% (13-43) over the last five games. Floating away from the basket may give Simmons more space to attack the rim, but the results haven't came to fruition for either player or the team. And in that interview with ESPN's The Jump, Embiid closed with a strong statement that we may witness moving forward.
"At some point, if we're not winning, I gotta do what I do best."
As Philadelphia tries to mend their issues as the rest of the NBA season continues on around them, what are some main things you can look for in their three games leading into the All-Star break?
- Look for Embiid to be much more aggressive in the paint, even with Simmons working in that same area. Embiid has had two rough games, shooting 1-for-11 against the Boston Celtics and most recently, 6-for-26 against the Bucks. Don't be surprised if you start to see him consistently parking himself on the block and in the paint, despite being a commonground with Simmons' offensive game.
- Newly acquired Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III should help with teams collapsing in the paint. The two wings the 76ers traded for at the deadline add an immediate improvement in an area of need - 3-point shooting.
- Defense! The 76ers' 106.2 defensive rating is fifth-best in the NBA. Over their four-game losing streak, their defensive rating has been 122.1, allowing 123.0 points per game on average. It's not just their congested offence that has caused these struggles, they've abandoned their biggest strength.
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