CHICAGO — Joel Embiid has heard all of the chatter about the awkward fit between him and fellow Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Ben Simmons on the court, and whether the two of them are capable of winning at the highest levels playing together — noises that have only grown louder as the Sixers enter the All-Star break in fifth place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
He has a message for the doubters: just wait.
“I think it’s B.S.,” Embiid said here Saturday morning before All-Star practice, “because when you look at the last couple years, the last two years that we’ve been playing together, it’s not a problem. This year it’s only been a problem because our offense has struggled.
“It’s definitely going to be better after the All-Star break. I mean, just look at the last two years, what we’ve been able to do. I think it can work, and it’s going to work.”
As Embiid said, the issues for him and Simmons come — like they do for the Sixers in general — on the offensive end. Philadelphia’s size has worked as it was expected to at the defensive end, where the Sixers are ranked fourth in defensive rating, per NBA.com. Offensively, however, things have been a very different story, as the Sixers rank 20th, which is not nearly good enough to be the championship contender this team was expected to be entering the season.
As a result, much of the heat for those struggles has fallen on the shoulders of the team’s two frontline stars, and the ongoing awkwardness of Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot 3-pointers and the desire for just about all of Philadelphia’s starting lineup to try to take advantage of size mismatches by posting up inside. And while the Sixers are outscoring teams by 2.3 points per 100 possessions overall, that number drops to 1.3 when Simmons and Embiid play together.
Still, they both continue to maintain that their partnership is a good one, and that it will continue to improve as they get used to their new-look supporting cast, which includes the additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III in a trade from the Golden State Warriors before the trade deadline last week.
“It takes time,” Simmons said. “Not everything is perfect. Not everything works right away. I love playing with Joel. I think he’s an amazing talent, a guy I respect for his game, and I know he feels the same way about me. We continue to go the right way.
“There’s so many different things that we haven’t tried. We’ve got a lot of talent. It’s scary how good we can be.”
It will also help if the Sixers can keep their whole team on the court, as both Embiid and Josh Richardson have spent lengthy periods on the sideline with injuries. They should be operating at full strength coming out of the All-Star break, however, and will need things to stay that way in order to get back into the mix for a top seed in the East playoffs. Philadelphia currently sits two losses behind the Miami Heat for fourth place in the East, five behind the Boston Celtics for third and six behind the Toronto Raptors for second.
Meanwhile, when the Sixers open up against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday in Philadelphia, Embiid said that one other important thing will be different: the old version of himself — the trash-talking, social media-using one that disappeared for much of the first half of the season, only to reappear last weekend — is officially back for good.
“Because I’m back to being myself,” he said with a smile. “I think it starts with me, especially with the way we’ve been struggling on the road. Just me bringing our passion back, and I’ve always had the passion, but I haven’t been able to show it because I’ve been trying to be a changed man, I guess. It’s just me going back to being myself and having fun and talking trash, and I think it’s going to help a lot.”