It often feels like relentless forces are driving the Philadelphia 76ers toward disharmony – and finally, the breakup of their star core.
Jimmy Butler, the newest star, jumped because of his idiosyncratic offenses. The Sixers do not run many pick-and-rolls because their best ball handler Ben Simmons practically refuses to shoot outside the restricted area. Joel Embiid sees the restricted area as his territory from 19459004; he beat Butler to complain about his place in Philly's new three-star ecosystem.
Every time the Sixers lose a high-profile game, especially to Boston, there are calls in the media to act as Simmons. Embiid is the superior player. Philly has mostly built his half-judicial offense around him. Simmons' missing jump shot becomes a burden in the postseason as the game slows down.
The young cornerstones do not complement each other, at least not as much as you like. They carry about 4.5 pick-and-rolls per 1
Following a blowout defeat by the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, the Sixers have now scored 105.7 points per 100 possessions in 366 minutes, with Simmons, Embiid and Butler on the floor – about the same amount of Detroit's 23rd NBA offense .com.
The Sixers are not worried yet. Many of those minutes have come with shaky backups starting in place of Wilson Chandler and JJ Redick. The sample size is small. Many indicators – the team's shot profile in these 366 minutes – indicate that the three-star alignment works better than the 105.7 figure suggests. All three are elite defenders when they are engaged.
The Sixers went into the Butler experience with open eyes and still hope to be able to sign it again this summer. He protested during the final movie session only after coach Brett Brown asked if anyone wanted to add anything – and after assistant coach T.J. McConnell, to talk about his concerns, sources say. Butler did not just mention his own role; he also mentioned McConnell.
"When you ask the team," What do you see? "You should be better prepared to listen," Brown told ESPN.com. "I agree, I have to be, I'm the instigator."
The Sixers know that Embiid and Simmons are an unpleasant fit. They know that the story of the young star duo provides for a conflict of control. They notice that when two stars simultaneously dive into the posts and almost knock each other:
They understand that putting Simmons in the Dunker Spot is an inelegant solution to getting him out of the way while Embiid posts:  Feel the tension between a fast-break sprinter and a back-it-down bully. "Ben being one of the three or four fastest players in the league – and sometimes the game can only pass Joel – is both a blessing and a curse," says Brown. "Joel needs the ball." That's not the 100-yard strike, Ben knows better. "
Philly got the butler yesterday. Simmons has played 122 games in the regular season. Philly is 18-9 since Butler is on the ball, and is ranked eighth on points. The Sixers are eliminated at their fifth start with 15 points per 100 possessions – a proof that the stars work well with legitimate supporters.
All three have the talent and intelligence to ultimately get more out of whatever will be incomplete stylistic fit.
Embiid can take quick breaks, grow into an average 3-point shooter, and drive past centers that can not smell his abilities. He touches the ball in the post about 12.5 times per 100 possessions, if all three stars share the ground per Second Spectrum. He gets more when Simmons sits on the bench – about 19 per 100 possessions – but the 12.5 figure is his average before the butler. It would be sixth in the league. The epilogue of Embiid was not marginalized.
Simmons and Butlers are clever cutters who can post mismatches. Butler has reached more than 40 percent of his 3-point average in the last three seasons. The shot quality of the Sixers with all three stars on the ground is a hair higher than the overall average per Second Spectrum; They feast in the restricted area. Three-star lineups have forced an unusually low amount of revenue for inexplicable and probably random reasons. Throw easier transition points, and the numbers look different.
Nevertheless, there will be games if it does not flow. Philly has been more efficient with two of the three on the court and the rest, according to NBA.com. Brown feels the effort to satisfy all three.
"I do not like to be a waiter – like serving any of them," he says. "Although it sometimes has to be. Joel needs a touch Ben has to be posted Jimmy needs a game. They hope the offense dictates who gets hit, but it was a challenge."  Butler has given up the most. He has only completed 18.7 percent of Philadelphia's possessions when playing with Simmons and Embiid – the rate of use of a role-playing game. "Sometimes Jimmy does not get the touch he needs," says Brown. "This is true."
Tough. This is how you normally win championships: Join three great players and find out who has to sacrifice what and when top teams have to beat. The warriors spoiled us with the idea that the process is clean and simple. They are an anomaly, blessed with three of the best shooters of all time – boys who are useful and comfortable to a certain extent.
If Butler wants to perform 50 pick-and-rolls per game, he should ask Kemba Walker about the 1-star purgatory.
Simmons flourished as a solo drive-and-kick star last season, leading Philly to 10 wins in a row with injured Embiid. This run was mostly against bad teams. How would a Simmons and Shooter team proceed in the postseason? (In this sense, the playoffs are a mesmerizing test for the Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are too good to refer to the Bucks merely as "Giannis-and-shooters"), but the gap between the best and the next best players Milwaukee is taller than a typical championship team.)
Fit is not everything. To compete for titles, you need a base of top talent, even if that talent overlaps. These Sixers depend on how much everyone from Simmons, Embiid and Butler is willing to spend Chris Bosh snippets on each game.
"I always remember all three: you do not always win on your terms," Brown says.
Bosh was a perennial all-star who entered the third wheel in Miami in the late 1920s. Big men make more natural third wheels. They do not initiate any possessions and find no obvious verification of wheels # 1 and # 2.
Butler is the most natural analog to Bosh in terms of age, but he's not a big man. Embiid and Simmons are in their early 20s to consolidate dominance. Maybe relentless forces – age and time – are really working against Philly.
But what should the Sixers do? You do not buy superstar talent in a grocery store. You take what you can get, if you can get it.
At the moment, Philly mitigates matching issues through stunning minutes. Each star has over 30 logs per game, even though the trio is only about 17 years old.
The substitution patterns have worked against Butler, who plays the ball-dominant role he craves. Embiid and Redick are so good together that Brown tied her at the hip. He prefers to keep one of Simmons and Embiid on the ground. Of course that means more Butler Simmons without Embiid and less Butler Embiid without Simmons – an alignment specifically tailored to Butler Embiid pick-and-roll.
There is plenty of time left to construct more. Brown has found some extensive spots for it. Meanwhile, the team persuades Simmons to try mid-jumpers. The long 2 are out of fashion, but Simmons is able to beat it when guys duck under picks to introduce more organic flow. The firing takes only 24 seconds; Against the defense of the postseason no better view is guaranteed.
Simmons has just completed 11.7 pick-and-roll scores per 100 possessions this season, a steep decline from its average (26.2) last season per Second Spectrum. That's not enough. At the same time, he works as a screener for pick-and-roll. He and Butler have a nice two-man chemistry.
Simmons should more frequently screen for Butler, Redick and even Embiid in random half-transition situations. When he completes his game, Simmons will sweep away some of the matching incongruities.
But they will always be there, and the playoffs will test them. In this setting Philly has to extend the 3-star minutes over 17 per game. They need it to work.
The calls to deal with Simmons multiple shooters will not stop until the Sixers advance at least until the final of the conference. I even saw Philly suggest that he negotiate with Minnesota for Simmons to bring back Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
These people are good. However, it is really hard to overestimate how much talent – raw talent, supernova talent – you need to win at the highest level. Do you know who looked worse against Simmons vs. Boston in last season's playoffs? Covington shooting is a talent, but it is not an independent talent. Simmons trading for supplemental shooters also means that franchise is being put on Embiid's continued health. Philly is not ready to do that and should not be.
If you've come up with a Simmons-for-multiple-shooter deal, you could meet a couple like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray – 3-point gunner who makes the jump. Even if Philly Simmons would turn for the pair – and they would not – Denver does not risk the good mood this season to see what a Simmons-Nikola Jokic pairing looks like.
The eight-part Dokuseries, produced by UNINTERRUPTED and aired on ESPN +, will follow LeBron James and Maverick Carter's unlikely journey from Akron to the world stage. Watch on ESPN +
And remember: Any discussion about how to deal with Simmons with shooters and playmakers is really a discussion about Markelle Fultz. Fultz should be the shooter and playmaker to fuse everything. Instead, he is a zero. The Sixers cleared their throat – Sacramento's First-Rounder 2019 – to come to Fultz. Keep it as a trade ammunition, and maybe the Sixers butler would have gotten caught without losing both Covington and Saric.
The depth is the Sixers' biggest current issue. There could be more depth. Jonah Bolden was solid. There is still hope that Zhaire Smith will return this season. The buyout market is emerging. Philly will have room for the cap again this summer.
For those who like Simmons, finding a two-man package as young, talented, and plug-and-play is almost impossible. They quickly switch to "dollars for three-quarters". If the Sixers ever reach the point where Simmons trading value is studied, they should look for a younger blue-chipper and a smaller complementary piece.
Even if you could build such a deal that makes sense for both teams, executing the six-shuttles would require both to feel ready for a franchise-modified shake-up. Blockbuster synchronization is rare.
Some non-Anthony Davis examples that fit the template:
• Simmons to Washington for Bradley Beal. Beal would not make enough return for Philly. He is three years older than Simmons, two years after his third contract. Simmons is on his rookie deal. Philly would demand more, and Washington would be tired. You come across this evaluation connection again and again.
• Simmons to Phoenix for Devin Booker. Booker is actually younger than Simmons. Philly probably needs enough extra stuff to kill Phoenix.
• Simmons to Portland for C.J. McCollum. McCollum is five years older than Simmons. Ask for Zach Collins and a first-rounder, and the blazers bid farewell, unless they're ready to end the Damian Lillard era.
• Simmons to Charlotte for Walker, Miles Bridges and an unprotected first-round pick. Interesting, but Walker signs with 29 years a massive contract.
• Simmons to the Clippers for Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and an unprotected first round selection. This probably makes both teams a bit uncomfortable. The Clippers love SGA. Harris is probably not tempting enough as a centerpiece for the Sixers.
• Simmons to Utah for Donovan Mitchell. Spicy! If Simmons and Embiid have trouble with placement chemistry, how would Simmons and Rudy Gobert do it? Philly is probably asking for a sweetener anyway.
• Simmons to Sacramento for … who? The kings do not trade both De'Arton Fox and Buddy Hield. Any other combination of Sacramento assets is unlikely to be achieved.
• Simmons to Chicago for Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and another asset. Dunn is 2 ½ years older than Simmons and has a groundbreaking NBA record. Markkanen played 86 games. Is he old enough to be elected to the Bulls Leadership Council? I'm super tall, but you could not blame Philly for having questions about his blanket today.
• Simmons to Indiana for Victor Oladipo. Oladipo is really good. He was better than Simmons last season. Simmons has a chance to be good at all times. This must have some appeal for an Indiana franchise, which – admirably – was no longer written as # 10 since 19-freaking-89. But the Pacers are happy where they are. Probably Philly (again) requires something more.
• Simmons to Miami for Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and at least one unprotected first round selection. Winslow's rise last month was one of the biggest stories under the radar. If he's really that good, Miami's trajectory looks different. But Philly does not do that.
• Simmons for Luka Doncic. Ha. Never happens. You would not blame Philly for calling, right?
The Sixers have time to try this, even after butler trade has accelerated their schedule. Simulate the next five seasons of Sixers basketball a thousand times, and many simulations would include the Sixers acting Simmons. Stars are traded towards the end of their second contracts all the time . The fit problems are real.
But that's a result of many. In the meantime, a dozen events could shift odds against it: another embiid injury; a home run draft pick; Nailing free agency; a business out of nowhere that strengthens the cadre around them; Injuries, trade and voiding of the rivals in the Eastern Conference; a championship.
Yes, the last one too. It could be in the game for this core. At the start of 2019, at the mid-season of Simmons' second season in the NBA, two things can be true at the same time: The Sixers may someday win a championship with Simmons, Embiid and Butler; and the Sixers may come to the realization that they must act Simmons during its heyday.
The possibility of the first is why one does not push the second.