PHILADELPHIA,PA - NOVEMBER 20 : Ben Simmons #25 and Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers run up court against the Utah Jazz at Wells Fargo Center on November 20, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Increased Chemistry an Encouraging Sign of Growth

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Scene Setter:

CHICAGO, IL - In the 76ers’ two previous games - both twisting, turning marathon affairs - it was hard not to take notice of a concept the club leaned on when baskets were needed, and the players involved in executing it. 

Let’s first revisit last Tuesday’s outing in Minneapolis, where the Sixers ultimately beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, 118-112, in a tilt that required only a single, pedestrian overtime period. The clutch conversion below came with 80 seconds left in regulation.

Then, in the guts of the extra period, with the Sixers trying to put the Wolves away, a similar development surfaced.

Fast forward to this past Friday, the Sixers again went to the well, this time to tie the score in the final minute of the fourth quarter in what proved to be a thrilling three-overtime tussle with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What are we seeing here?

In each of the three plays above, the Sixers found success by initially posting Joel Embiid around an elbow, and subsequently having Ben Simmons sneak to the basket via hard cuts at the opposite block.

And while it might seem a bit inverted that in these key sequences it was the 7-foot Embiid acting as set-up man for the smooth-passing Simmons, and not the other way around, the big picture take away remains the same. More than a quarter of the way through their first campaign together, Embiid and Simmons are showing signs of increased chemistry.

"It’s getting a lot better,” Simmons said Friday, when asked about his rapport with Embiid. “Every game, we get better.”

Following the three-O.T. loss to Oklahoma City, Embiid, who will sit out Monday’s game in Chicago [back-to-back load management, back tightness], expressed similar sentiments, citing as evidence his recent late-game hook-ups with Simmons.

“I think we’ve been doing great,” said the big man, “getting better game by game, starting to learn how to play with each other, especially when I’m posting up, and when he’s at the low zone.”

[The ‘low zone’ is verbiage the Sixers use to refer to territory below the basket.]

Coaching is a profession of constant adjustment. As the 2017-2018 season has moved along, and opponents have attempted to scheme up solutions for keeping Embiid and Simmons under wraps, the Sixers have done their best to adapt, and be creative in deploying the two legitimate All-Star candidates.

“I think if you study what the looks are that we put those two guys in on purpose, you can see the floor spots we think are important,” Brett Brown said over the weekend.

In particular, he and the Sixers have noticed more and more teams adopting a common approach to defending Simmons specifically, through sagging coverages and choosing to go under almost all screens.

Enter the Embiid at the high post, Simmons in the low zone counterpunch.

“I think the area we were able to take advantage of in the [Minnesota] game was using Ben behind Joel after we posted Joel,” Brown said during his Friday pre-game media availability, before the Sixers dialed up the play again against OKC. “We’re going to trip on some more things, but it’s always on our mind how to grow those two and put them on the floor together.”

Through the 22 games they’ve played together, the tandem numbers produced by Embiid and Simmons have been promising. Most telling, with the duo on the floor, the Sixers have generated a stellar net rating of 10.3 (109.0 offensive rating, 98.7 defensive rating).

According to stats.nba.com, 39.1 percent of Embiid’s passes this season have gone to Simmons, more than any other teammate. Furthermore, 18 of Embiid’s 81 assists (slightly above 20.0%) have led to baskets that Simmons has scored.

Flip all that around, and 17.8 percent of Simmons’ passes have been sent to Embiid, making him the rookie’s second-most frequent target (Simmons passes to Dario Saric 18.3 percent of the time). Simmons has dished 40 dimes to Embiid, the most he’s given to any player, which account for roughly 19.0 percent of the Aussie’s 211 total helpers on the year.

As encouraging as the quantifiable byproducts of the Embiid-Simmons partnership have been, the intangible indicators have been moving in a positive direction as well. Simmons senses a budding instinctive, intuitive dynamic taking root.

“Definitely,” said the Aussie. “We’ve only played 20-something games together. It’s going to be a long learning experience, but it’s fun. We’re getting better every game, and learning more.”

Opponent Outlook:

The Chicago Bulls (8-20) have...done what? Won five games in a row? It’s the longest-active streak in the Eastern Conference. As it turns out, Chicago’s spurt began the day that Spanish Olympian Nikola Mirotic returned from injury. The skilled forward has averaged 20.0 points per game since he was cleared to play, and has hit 15 of his first 30 3-point attempts. Rookie Lauri Markkanen is questionable for Monday’s match-up due to back spasms. The seventh overall pick from this past June’s draft accounts for 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per tilt.

Follow Along:

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Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network

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