Philadelphia 76ers’ chemistry, fit evolving after bumpy 2019-20 season

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Cameron Pollack/Getty Images)
Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Cameron Pollack/Getty Images) /

ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently expanded on the Philadelphia 76ers’ budding chemistry and early season x’s and o’s. The article focuses on the on and off-court fits the Sixers are trying to perfect.

If you haven’t read Zach Lowe’s most recent Sixers-centric article, you absolutely must. It’s an combination of how the Philadelphia 76ers are building a cohesive unit off the floor, what the current basketball product looks like, and how much room for improvement there is.

Lowe is a national treasure. His NBA coverage is thorough and refreshing. Whether its written work, podcasting, or appearing on ESPN, Lowe is the supreme NBA voice. He has never bashed the Sixers with the redundant, meritless critiques like so many of his ESPN colleagues have over the years.

The depth and scope of the featured Sixers article is impressive. It’s not a cushy PR lovefest, but it’s giving Brett Brown and his staff due credit for establishing culture, while integrating new faces and maintaining championship aspirations. The on-court identity of the team is clear, but fine-tuning an offense designed for giant humans that aren’t quite the modern pace-and-space prototype is difficult.

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There are a few points in Lowe’s post that should be especially noted for Sixers fans.

"Three nights later at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Ben Simmons texted his half-brother, Sean Tribe, to see what he was up to. Tribe responded that Richardson and Joel Embiid were watching the Chicago Bulls-Los Angeles Lakers game with some team staff in the hotel lounge, and suggested Simmons join. Simmons came and watched with Embiid as LeBron led a huge comeback. It struck several people — including Simmons — that such a gathering would not have happened last season.“Definitely,” Simmons told ESPN. “The chemistry is much better. Guys are giving up their time to bond.”"

I’ve always thought the dynamic between Embiid and Simmons was overanalyzed. It felt like it was much more about them being friends, rather than competitors that understand each other on and off the floor. On the surface, it’s not hard to see how people could interpret them as distant. Embiid has a gregarious, playful personality, while Simmons is reserved and often expressionless. The outward contrast led to KD-Westbrook comparisons which is just a lazy, clickbait opinion.

The Sixers spending free time with each other may seem trivial, but coupled with the hint that last year’s chemistry was worse than it seemed, it’s definitively positive. The Sixers’ success hinges on Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The importance of the duo understanding of each other cannot be understated. The Sixers are still tinkering, but anecdotes of bonding and chemistry building will pay off in the spring.

Speaking of last season’s chemistry …

"But on June 30, there was no five-year maximum offer for Butler, multiple sources say. Perhaps the Sixers pivoted after learning of Horford’s interest in joining. Perhaps they were concerned about tension between Butler and some within the team, including on the coaching staff. Maybe those two things were interrelated. Like every team chasing Butler, they probably wondered how he would age."

It seems to be pretty clear who the culprit of the locker room dysfunction was Jimmy Butler. Unlike a contingent of Sixers fans, I’m not holding a grudge with Jimmy Butler. If he’s unwilling to compromise for a championship caliber team, then have fun in South Beach.

Jimmy Butler is a hard-nosed player that’s not shy and never backs down. It’s an endearing quality, but his fourth team in four years is a result of his own doing. My best guess is Jimmy Butler wanted the Sixers to change, and the Sixers asked the same from him. Obviously, neither side budged enough for reconciliation.

light. Related Story. Horford proving essential despite on-court struggles

In Chicago, there were reports of friction between him and former MVP Derrick Rose. Rose was traded, followed by Butler in June of 2017. He requested a trade from Minnesota at the start of the 2018 season. Butler very publicly did not get along with the younger Timberwolves. His time with the Sixers was relatively quiet, but his tension with the coaching staff and some of his Sixers teammates became clear reasons for his decision to not return to the Sixers. Noticing a pattern ?

If Jimmy Butler doesn’t think things are up to his standards, he leaves. Jimmy Butler has said publicly over and over, winning is all that matters to him. Winning games his way is what matters to him, and that might be why he never becomes a real winner.

"The Sixers hope time brings flow; between suspensions, injuries and rest days, their starting five has played only 70 minutes in six games. That group has obliterated opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions, with elite marks on both sides of the ball.More broadly, the Sixers are betting on defense to paper over inconsistent scoring. Philly ranks 10th in points allowed per possession, but as they coalesce, they should smother teams. They already allow the fewest 3s in the league.The Sixers are almost built to render the whims of shooting irrelevant. Defense travels. They are tied for fifth in offensive rebounding rate and rank first in defensive rebounding. When Embiid plays, they earn heaps of free throws. How much does shooting really matter if you rebound 30% of your own misses, generate tons of free points, and provide the opponent very few second chances?"

The Sixers roster is an example of the front office zigging while others are zagging. The NBA’s obsession with pace and space isn’t evident when you look at the Sixers. There is ample height and length across the roster.

This team will go as far as their defense takes them. Scoring comes and goes. If you live by the three, you’ll die by the three. The Sixers are built to weather poor offensive nights. They rebound and defend at high rates, while the offense aims to catch up.

In essence, the Sixers have built the best, ugliest-styled team since the Grit n’ Grind Grizzlies, which is something nobody should complain about. The growing pains have been evident thus far, but the blueprint remains the same. The Sixers aren’t going to magically become the Nash-Amar’e Suns or the Run TMC Warriors. They’re going to win games by being a diligent, prodding offensive team that gives you nothing easy on the glass or on defense. The toughest team sets the rules.

"It is also how playoff teams hunted Redick. The Sixers knew they were sacrificing a unique shooter by letting Redick walk. They are betting on what they gained being more powerful in the postseason: a defense without any exploitable weak link.Teams that can play small and fast, with tons of shooting — Boston and Milwaukee come to mind — will test that defense. Even if the Sixers prove up to the task, defense alone won’t carry them all the way.Simmons and Embiid may never make for a snug fit on offense. Fit isn’t everything. Talent matters. Supernova talent can zoom through corridors too narrow for regular players. It smashes well-intentioned schemes."

The last two postseason trips saw smaller Sixers get constantly targeted. For every whacky shot Marco Belinelli drained, there’s a defensive possession where he gets deep fried. J.J. Redick will be missed on offense, but nobody will miss watching teams run multiple actions to isolate him on a superior scorer.

The Sixers are built for the playoffs, but that doesn’t come without concerns. Guards with capable game off the bounce hurt the Sixers and that will be a weakness that will get repeatedly tested late in the season. If Matisse Thybulle can prove he can play long stretches without being a liability, then he could almost single-handedly diffuse that issue. 48 minutes of James Ennis III, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, and Matisse Thybulle harassing guards? … Good luck.

The last paragraph is immaculate. From a  aesthetic writing standpoint, and as a reminder of the Sixers’ superhero potential. Simmons and Embiid may never fit like puzzle pieces, but they have the outlier talent to smooth the rough edges. The Sixers will only go as far as their young stars take them. The Sixers have complimentary pieces that hold immense value to the success of the team, but Simmons and Embiid have the keys to the car.

"Horford is a rock. He senses his basketball mortality. New teammates are surprised how much he is speaking behind closed doors. As Horford went to ring the ceremonial victory bell in Philly’s locker room after the Nov. 10 win over Charlotte, teammates surrounding him, he paused, holding the rope attached to the clapper. Charlotte’s reserves had trimmed the lead to five in garbage time.“Next man up has to be ready,” Horford told the group. “Doesn’t matter if it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter. Be ready.” Ding.“When he speaks,” Scott says, “everyone listens.”"

The Al Horford signing won’t pay off until regular seasons end. It will be validated by two things: the durability/availability to keep Embiid fresh, and stabilize the team when Embiid is off the floor. I doubt Horford will fail to deliver. In 120 career playoff games he averages double-figure scoring numbers with elite shooting percentages. During the postseason, Horford is a career 50 percent shooter and 40 percent from distance. When the lights are bright, Horford shines.

Rattling off veteran clichés is usually an eye roll, but so many apply to the Sixers’ big summer acquisition. He’s team-first and hard-working. He makes the right plays and does the little things. Use any of your least favorite windbag announcers’ favorite fodder to use about guys that aren’t 20 years old and Al Horford is the textbook example.

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are steadily becoming leaders, but Horford has been the veteran presence on his teams for years now. His influence on the Sixers will extend beyond the basketball court. Leaders voices are loudest while on the floor. Whether is setting the right screen or scrapping for second chance points, Horford is someone the team looks up to.

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His impact on the team is still probably greater than we know, but Horford’s impressions on and off the floor might just be the crowbar that cracks open the championship window.