76ers: Going as far as Joel Embiid takes them
Starters Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, the contributions of Al Horford and others off the bench, what Brett Brown decides to do with his rotation and other factors will clearly affect the 76ers in the playoffs.
But the primary determining factors in the success or failure of the 2019-20 Sixers will be Joel Embiid and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ben Simmons.
When Embiid is engaged and in attack mode like he was against Brooklyn, the Sixers are difficult to beat.
Embiid had 39 points and 16 rebounds in Thursday’s thoroughly dominant 42-minute performance. Most impressive was that he went to the foul line 19 times, making 18, and finished with a plus-minus total of +24.
“Being the best player in the world, I just intend to keep coming out every single night, playing hard and trying to get wins and just go out and try to win a championship,” Embiid said after the game.
While Embiid’s self-assessment is a bit overly optimistic — Giannis Antetokounmpo has better numbers across the board for the league-leading Bucks and is the reigning MVP — Embiid outplayed Antetokounmpo during a Christmas Day win over Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo turned the tables in the Bucks’ Feb. 6 victory over the Sixers, when Embiid shot just 6 for 26. The two were scheduled to face off again Saturday night in Milwaukee.
While he has had some terrific games, more consistent play — and Sixers wins — would bolster Embiid’s case. There are some nights when he doesn’t seem as engaged or motivated as he is other times.
Another occasional issue is his tendency to put on weight and lose his conditioning when he sits out. It happened following his two-game suspension for his skirmish with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns earlier this season.
Injury and illness have prevented Embiid from being 100% in either of the Sixers’ last two postseasons. That cannot happen again if they plan on advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001.
Embiid’s ability to score inside, from midrange and get to the line are incredibly important. But his interior defense might be the most essential to the Sixers’ success.
Simmons, who missed Thursday’s game with a lower back tightness, does so many things well. His absence was a big reason the Nets went on an incredible 44-8 first-half run because replacement Raul Neto and others struggled at the defensive end. Simmons is such a versatile, high-level defender capable of guarding all five positions that he gives Brown a lot of options in that respect.
On offense, Simmons sees the floor, finds open teammates and gets everybody involved. His ability to grab a defensive rebound, turn and the lead the fast break is something to behold.
Simmons, like Embiid, is a matchup nightmare.
But for all Simmons does well, his unwillingness to shoot outside 5 feet could have an effect in a best-of-seven playoff series. Opponents will probably defend Simmons by backing into the lane and daring him to take a 10-footer, which is not his preferred area. He likes to go all the way to the rim or shoot baby hooks in close.
Unless Simmons shoots at least some of the time in those situations, the result could be a clogged lane that affects Embiid and others, too. Plus, fastbreak opportunities in which Simmons thrives tend to decrease in halfcourt-heavy playoff series.
It’s no secret that the NBA is a star-driven league. Even if the supporting cast plays well, Embiid and Simmons must be the driving forces for the Sixers to make a deep postseason run.