Is there a more fun twosome in the NBA right now than Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? LeBron is practically a solo act in Cleveland. The Warriors are too loaded to pick out only two players. And Glen Davis and Nate Robinson have been out of the league for years. Meanwhile, Simmons and Embiid have shaken off doubts about their games and are dunking and trash-talking their way through the Association.
The 76ers’ rollercoaster season (7–6) reached another high point Monday night, as Philly eked out a closer win over the Clippers in L.A. It was a solid win for the Sixers, even if the Clips were missing multiple starters. What Philly may have lacked in point differential, however, it more than made up in style points. Simmons and Embiid were the stars of the game, as they have been for much of the young season.
The concerns about Simmons’s jump shot are warranted. He’s attempted only three threes in the month of November, seven all season, and has yet to connect from outside as a pro. His field goal percentage can fluctuate wildly from game-to-game, though he’s still hovering around 50% for the year. But perhaps most importantly, none of this matters, because he’s been fun-as-hell to watch on offense with or without a jump shot.
Simmons is averaging gaudy numbers (17.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 7.8 APG) as a redshirt rookie, posting a near triple–double every night. He takes most of his shots in the paint, particularly the restricted area, where he often punctuates possessions with a dunk. The variety of ways Simmons finds himself at the hoop is staggering. Against the Clippers alone, he dunked the ball off a lob, as a roll man, after a blow by, and after fighting for post position against a smaller defender. And Simmons takes advantage of fastbreak opportunities as well, leaking out for easy scores and even more slams. Combined with his passing vision, Simmons is a constant threat with the ball in his hands, and has so far assuaged concerns that he would be nothing more than a tall Rajon Rondo.
Arguably the most impressive part of Simmons’s game is that he actually plays point guard. Simmons is the lead ball handler in Philly’s most-used lineup, which makes him (and the Sixers in general) a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. If there has been any silver lining whatsoever to Markelle Fultz’s shoulder injury, it’s that Simmons has been given control over the offense and proven he’s capable conductor. Though Fultz wasn’t starting, it’s been critical experience for Simmons to be running the show down the stretch of close games.
At 6’10”, 230 pounds, with the vision of a point guard and athleticism of a mini-LeBron, Simmons is somehow still not the most impressive talent on the 76ers. That would be Embiid, who has managed to stay healthy enough this season to tour visiting arenas in a quest to embarrass every center in the NBA.
Embiid’s physical talents are as long as his wingspan. He can shoot. He can dribble. He can score in the post. He can block shots. He’s fast. He’s strong. All of that is well and good, but nothing is more exciting about this guy than how he flies in the face of convention when it comes to competing. Embiid’s Twitter is hilarious because he’s self-aware and original. His on-court antics are on another level.
On Monday in L.A., Embiid stared down Blake Griffin after a thunderous dunk, yelled “He can’t guard me!” after taking a hard foul from Willie Reed, taunted a fan after fouling out DeAndre Jordan, and then pretended(?) to forget Reed’s name during his on-court, postgame interview.
While other trash-talkers, like Draymond Green come off much as vicious heels, Embiid finds a way to perfectly troll the opposition while dominating his one-on-one matchup. (His masterpiece, though, remains this quote about Andre Drummond: “Defensively, he doesn't play any defense.”)
Together, Simmons and Embiid (and the rest of the Sixers) make for an extremely enjoyable viewing experience. Simmons is a threat to throw down a highlight dunk on any given possession. Embiid will make your jaw drop with his athleticism while also making you laugh with his exaggerated pantomimes. And while all of this has been happening, Simmons and Embiid have made sure to be more than just some cute league pass gem—they’ve been dominant. Their two-man lineup has a net rating of 10.4, leading to six wins in their last eight games.
As long as these two stay healthy, the Sixers are not only going to make the playoffs in an inconsistent Eastern Conference, they may make some noise. Philly’s lineup of Simmons, Embiid, J.J. Redick, Dario Saric and Robert Covington (shoutout RoCo!) is a legitimately devastating five-man group, and if Fultz returns to form, the Sixers could have another wildcard to deploy later in the season.
There are many reasons to enjoy Sixers basketball, but the first and foremost is the combination of Simmons and Embiid. Their early success has (finally) put Philly ahead of its rebuilding schedule. For even the biggest process skeptics, there’s no denying the impact Simmons and Embiid have had in establishing a new direction for the Sixers. In a league thriving on superteams, Philly appears to be halfway there.