It was just two years ago when Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers’ gregarious and talented center, told reporters about an interaction he had with his gifted rookie partner, the much more subdued but still skillful Ben Simmons.
Simmons approached Embiid after the Boston Celtics had just eliminated the Sixers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games and showed him his hands.
“There’s going to be a lot of rings on these,” Embiid recounted Simmons saying.
The Sixers were the envy of many opposing teams, their two young dynamic stars with their best days in front of them. They had won over a typically unforgiving fan base, many of whom among it brushing aside their flaws, assuming that, like with many league greats, they would be fixed with time.
Two disappointing playoff runs later, Philadelphia finds itself once again hitting reset. The Sixers were heartbroken in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors last year, when Kawhi Leonard’s series-clinching jump shot rimmed in, and humiliated this year, when those pesky Celtics swept them in the first round with Simmons out injured. Gone is the hopefulness with which Simmons held up his hands. The team has little salary cap flexibility, few trade assets with which to retool and an unclear organizational direction. They’ve gone from the envy of the league to a cautionary tale.
Much of the blame has fallen on the front office, particularly Elton Brand, the team’s general manager, for putting together a mismatched roster through botched trades and by overpaying inconsistent veterans like Tobias Harris and Al Horford. The team blamed the coach, Brett Brown, saying in the announcement of his firing on Aug. 24 that the Sixers “fell well short of our goals” and that it would be “best to go in a new direction.” This is what often happens in these situations: a clean, easy way to absolve the front office of responsibility.
But there are also the curious cases of Embiid and Simmons, the franchise pillars who have not shown the growth expected of prospective superstars. Embiid, 26, is a maestro in the low post. His dazzling footwork near the basket has made him difficult to stop during his four healthy seasons.
Yet after averaging a career-high 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds per game last year, his numbers dipped to a more pedestrian 23 points and 11.6 rebounds this year. His 3-point shooting (33.1 percent) remained a weak point, down slightly from his rookie-year percentage of 36.7. And yet again, Embiid’s conditioning became an issue late in games, as he often looked tired and was slow getting up and down the floor.
Simmons, 24, has developed into one of the best defenders in the league over three seasons, after he missed his postdraft season with a foot injury. But his numbers haven’t varied much beyond what they were this season: per-game averages of 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8 assists. A constant stream of criticism of Simmons has centered on his strange, seemingly purposeful refusal to shoot 3-pointers; he has shot just 24 in three seasons.
It became enough of an issue that Brown publicly called for Simmons to shoot more from deep. A month later, in January, Brown said that he had “failed” to get Simmons to change his game.
Simmons and Embiid have put up good, consistent numbers — and, occasionally, great ones. Their production has been reliable. But “good,” “consistent” and “reliable” typically are not the words most prominently associated with franchise centerpieces who win championships.
So the question becomes: Are Embiid and Simmons championship-level focal points? Or are they merely mortal stars? If the answer to the latter is yes, Simmons’s hands will be devoid of rings for years to come.
If this seems unfair, remember that it was the players — particularly Embiid — who raised expectations for themselves. After Embiid’s rookie 2016-17 season, in which he played fewer than half the 82 regular-season games, he declared to The Daily Mail, “I think I have the talent to become a Hall of Famer, to win championships and Most Valuable Player Awards.”
This is not to say that the book has been written on the duo, who have contrasting playing styles, personalities and approaches to the game at a still-early stage in their careers. Their best days may very well be in front of them.
Billy Lange, an assistant coach for the Sixers from 2013 to 2019, said in an interview that observers should be patient. After all, he said, greatness does not happen overnight.
“I think sometimes what gets very lost in how people evaluate them is that, look, this is still very new,” said Lange, now the head coach at Saint Joseph’s University. “Ben just finished his third season, and he didn’t have a full season. People want to often comment about what he can’t do, but the reality is that he’s an All-Star and now he’s got to take the next jump to superstar.”
He added: “I can say this about both of those guys: They have ambition. What comes with maturity and ownership is now, ‘How do I match that ambition to reach those goals?’ They both want to be great.”
When Simmons and Embiid entered the N.B.A. two years apart, they came with different levels of fame. Simmons, the first pick of the 2016 draft, was quieter but in some ways better known. That fall, Showtime released a documentary called “One & Done” that examined Simmons’s lone year at Louisiana State.
Embiid was drafted third in 2014 out of the University of Kansas. Hailing from Cameroon, he was more of a mystery, having arrived in the United States when he was 16, shortly after playing basketball for the first time. From his own telling, he learned how to shoot by watching videos on YouTube. After missing his first two N.B.A. seasons — because of foot injuries, which also cost Simmons his first postdraft year — Embiid quickly drew attention with his unfiltered, jovial nature. Just a sampling:
There was the time in 2017 when a Lyft driver spotted Embiid casually going for a nighttime jog by himself through the streets of Philadelphia.
In 2018, Embiid asked Rihanna on Twitter if she was single.
Embiid won over the Philadelphia fans, who have not seen a 76ers championship since 1983, by being funny, vicious and brilliant on their behalf. But as the Sixers embarked on a disappointing regular season that left them fighting for the sixth seed in the N.B.A.’s weaker Eastern Conference, there were signs that Embiid’s relationship with the city’s fan base had frayed. In February, Embiid shushed the home crowd after hitting a clutch 3-pointer against the Chicago Bulls, following reports of booing from the unhappy fans. At the end of July, Embiid played down that incident on “The Rights to Ricky Sanchez,” a Sixers fan podcast, saying that he loved playing in Philadelphia because of its passionate fans.
“But then again,” Embiid said, “if you dish it, you’ve also got to be able to take it. Just like when I shushed them and they all went crazy. I’m like ‘Well, you were booing me!’”
For now, it appears that the Embiid and Simmons partnership is staying together. On that same podcast, Embiid said that they “can get so much better than we are right now.”
“The potential that we have, I love him, I want to be with him for the rest of my career,” he said.
And despite the team’s struggles this year, Brand recently told reporters that he intended to continue to build around Embiid and Simmons. But if they don’t make a leap soon, there is a decent chance that the city’s love for them — tenuous with even the best athletes — may come to an end.
“We do this thing with Ben and Joel where we call them superstars and then when they fail, we say: ‘Well, they’re just young. You can’t expect a lot out of them,’” Spike Eskin, a host of “The Rights to Ricky Sanchez,” said in an interview. “Those two things don’t exist together. Either you are growing and getting better and a future star, or you are a superstar. But you can’t be both.”