In what has truly been one of the most unprecedented times in sports — and really the world — an unexpected nugget of news has emerged: The Sixers are (relatively) healthy.
None of their players tested positive for COVID-19 during the NBA’s Phase 2 protocol. The only player that will not be joining the team in Disney as of now will be second-year guard Zhaire Smith, who is dealing with a bone bruise in his knee.
But of all the health updates the team could provide, none are more important than the statuses of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, head coach Brett Brown had all positive news when it came to his All-Star duo.
In an interview just last month, Brown didn’t seem nearly as optimistic that Simmons would be 100 percent by the time play resumed. The team’s point guard had been dealing with a nerve impingement in his lower back which caused him to miss the last eight games before the NBA season was suspended.
In the time since that interview, several images — and a video of a couple acrobatic dunks — have shown Simmons working out in L.A. with his trainer Chris Johnson and LeBron James with the 23-year-old looking healthy.
You’re always trying to be responsible of not always being a cheerleader or delivering stuff that maybe you’re going to regret,” Brown said. “My comments on Ben [are] because you’re trying to walk that line of protecting him and not sort of jumping out of your lane where people’s hopes get a little too high. And so my decision to choose the words that I chose of we’re going to try to bring him along — I don’t backpedal from that — but the fact is he’s doing way better than that phrase would indicate. So I think the group should hear probably mostly now that you’re going to treat Ben like you’re going to treat Shake [Milton] or Matisse [Thybulle].
“He’s good to go. He’s put in a tremendous amount of work for me to able to confidently say that. I think when you search for silver linings with this pandemic and the way things have shaped up, it would be hard-pressed for me to find something more obvious than this. It’s enabled Ben to reclaim his health, but I think inching along from maybe a month ago that we spoke, that is not true. He’s good to go and we look forward to watching him with what I’m told is effectively 100 percent health.
While Embiid has dealt with a few injuries this season, the most pertinent question is whether he’ll be in top physical shape. It’s an issue Embiid has dealt with throughout his career and that Brown has been asked about ad nauseum.
Embiid recently said that he’s been working out six days a week in order to be ready for the league’s resumption.
Let’s just start with the respect and applause I give him for putting in time,” Brown said. “There is nobody on our team that has put in more time than Joel Embiid. ... I’m proud of him, I respect him — he needed to do it. We understand the impact he can have on our team. I think that once Joel has that fitness base that I’m talking about and we get a three-week runway to deliver him to the regular season, I’m looking for Joel to come in as good as shape as he has been in since I have coached him.
As for how the pair fit on the court, Brown has mentioned on more than one occasion that the Feb. 11 win over the Clippers is the best version of his team. A big part of that was the success Embiid and Simmons found playing together.
For years, Brown has used Embiid and Simmons in a snug pick-and-roll — basically just a low post pick-and-roll with Simmons as the ball handler. While it hasn’t been particularly effective throughout their time together, it was on that night.
Brown sees it not only as a pathway to making them better, but to possibly being one of the biggest pick-and-roll threats in the league.
When you look at that particular game, that action, they ran it quite a bit in flow and lot of that was just those two guys playing together,” Brown said. “It wasn’t anything where you’re sort of stomping your foot from the sideline and calling the play. They found it organically. … Maybe the most prolific pick-and-roll partnership that I remember is [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone, and I think that [Simmons and Embiid] have a chance to hook up in the environment that you’re speaking about and grow that part of their game and just the coexisting as teammates and relational side. And that is a crunch-time look for sure. …
“But it was significantly run against the Clippers. I do believe it helped us, and I am excited to develop that part of those two players’ world. I think you’re going to see more of it in the regular season and based on its success, see more of it in the playoffs.
Stockton wasn’t 6-foot-10 and Malone wasn’t chucking up threes, but if Simmons and Embiid can be anywhere near that effective in that action — and stay healthy — the Sixers could be mighty dangerous in Disney World.
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