LOS ANGELES — Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown admittedly has no idea when All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will return from their respective injuries. Brown expressed more clairvoyance, however, on how their NBA careers will turn out.
“I personally am convinced those two are going to win a championship at some point in their career and that they, for sure, can coexist,” Brown said following practice Monday at UCLA. “The myth is that they can’t. I think that is so abused and not articulated the way I see it.”
So how does Brown see it? Brown insisted that the plodding 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid can play as fast a pace as the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Simmons. Brown contended that Simmons can adjust his dynamic play-making to make Embiid more comfortable. If not for Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater last season in Toronto’s decisive Game 7 win over Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals, perhaps Embiid and Simmons would have already won an NBA championship. Instead, they have faced season-long scrutiny over whether they are better off without each other.
“We played an exciting style and they coexisted just fine,” Brown said. “It always goes down to surrounding cast and style of play and willingness to coexist and the acknowledgement they need each other. They need each other.”
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During All-Star weekend in Chicago, Simmons and Embiid also said they needed each other. Embiid called the ongoing story line “BS.” Simmons added, “I love playing with Joel.” Nonetheless, Simmons and Embiid have fielded criticism of their on-court fit for different reasons.
The Sixers (37-24) are fifth in the East after entering the season as an expected title contender. Though the Sixers have a league-leading 28-2 home record, they only have a 9-22 road record. They are 25-14 when Embiid and Simmons start together.
Though Embiid averages 23.3 points on 47.2% shooting and 11.8 rebounds along with effective pick-and-roll play and rim protection, he does not play at the same pace needed for most modern NBA offenses. Though Simmons averages 16.7 points on 58.5% shooting, 8.2 assists and 7.8 rebounds along with positional versatility, he lacks the shooting touch that modern NBA offenses need.
Still, Brown stressed patience with the 23-year-old Simmons and 25-year-old Embiid (who turns 26 on March 16).
“Do your homework and look at pairings that have won and when they win. You aren’t going to see many that are 23 and 26,” Brown said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of time.”
Consider the age of the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan (28) and Scottie Pippen (25) when they won their first NBA title. Magic Johnson (20), Kobe Bryant (21) and Tim Duncan (23) each won NBA championships at a young age, but they were also paired with a more established veteran. Bryant won his first NBA championship with a 28-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. Johnson won his first as a rookie with a 33-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And Duncan won his first with a 33-year-old David Robinson.
Embiid and Simmons have faced season-long adjustments to the Sixers’ offseason free-agency departures, including an enigmatic star (Jimmy Butler) and a consistent shooter (J.J. Redick). The Sixers then devoted $289 million in salary to Tobias Harris and Al Horford, resulting in two trusted and productive veterans, albeit at the expense of more proven shooting and bench depth. Before the trade deadline, the Sixers acquired two possible shooters in Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III from Golden State for three second-round draft picks.
“These guys are actually in a position where they can do some really special things,” Brown said of Simmons and Embiid. “How do we surround them with the resources to be able to do that?”
Lately, Brown has faced more challenges than figuring out how to maximize the chemistry between his two All-Stars. Brown predicted that Simmons will be “out for a while” after missing four of the past five games. Brown expects Embiid to stay sidelined for rest of the Sixers’ three-game trip against the Los Angeles Lakers (Tuesday), Sacramento Kings (Thursday) and Golden State Warriors (Saturday).
Brown originally envisioned Horford, Harris and Josh Richardson would become the de facto leaders without Simmons and Embiid. Then, Richardson suffered a concussion in Sunday’s loss to the Clippers and will remain sidelined for Tuesday’s game against the Lakers. The Sixers do not have a timetable for Richardson’s return.
“Sometimes you have things figured out. Then we get some curveballs,” Horford said. “That’s what’s going on with us. We have to figure it out.”
How has Brown figured out this puzzle? On one hand, Brown mused “we have had a lot of practice at this” during his seven years coaching the Sixers. He went through four lottery seasons. He saw the Sixers whiff on various draft prospects, including Michael Carter-Williams, Jahlil Okafor and Markelle Fultz. He coached through various front office staffs, including Sam Hinkie, Bryan Colangelo and currently Elton Brand. On the other hand, Brown admitted “it’s very different” this season amid juggling heightened expectations and 19 different starting lineups due to players missing a combined 67 games because of injuries.
Brown has expanded roles for Harris and Horford after admitting he needed to put them in better positions to succeed. Brown has installed a zone defense, preached mental toughness and offered positive reinforcement. And after Brown previously told seldom-used reserve Shake Milton he would be out of the rotation following the All-Star break, Milton has scored in double digits in four of the past five contests, including a career-high 39-point performance against the Clippers on Sunday.
“He’s been great,” Milton said of Brown. “He’s always available. His door is always open if you want to go talk to him. He’s done a really good job of communicating with us. He’s been a great coach.”
Brown remains mindful that fulfilling that role still hinges on results. It also depends on how well Simmons and Embiid play together once they return.
“Sometimes you have to get beaten around a little bit to understand truly what you have,” Brown said. “What they have is special.”