76ers

The latest on Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and how the Sixers plan to use them

The latest on Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and how the Sixers plan to use them

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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What’s in a name? Alec Burks, Trey Burke and where Sixers stand without Ben Simmons


What’s in a name? Alec Burks, Trey Burke and where Sixers stand without Ben Simmons

When Ben Simmons missed his first game of this season on Nov. 8 because of an AC joint sprain in his right shoulder, Raul Neto started and Trey Burke played 17:34 as the Sixers’ backup point guard.

Burke was waived in February and is now a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Brett Brown, however, often uses Burke’s surname when he’s talking about Alec Burks, whose addition prompted the release of Burke.

The prior sentence was likely confusing, but let's be clear: Brown knows the player who scored 22 points Friday night and closed out the Sixers’ 108-101 win over the Magic (see observations). He’s colorfully discussed Burks’ “streetball-type game” and “lightning in a bottle” potential, and he had more praise to dish out Friday. 

You just felt confident that something as simple as a spaced pick-and-roll — put Al (Horford) or (Joel Embiid) in, roll Joel, let Alec dance … it was a clean, simple environment that I thought he really was excellent in. He can get into the paint at times and just play bully ball. And he has the ability to create his own shot — he sometimes doesn’t even need a pick-and-roll. And so all of those things were part of the reason that I extended his minutes, and maybe none more importantly, I think, than his defense.

“I think he’s really taken pride in knowing the scouting report. I think he’s sitting in a stance and taking pride in not getting beat on the first or second dribble with live-dribble guys. And so the package just enabled me to play him more than I normally have been, and I think he was a major contributor to the win. He was our bell ringer tonight, and we need him doing those types of things going forward.

With Simmons sidelined by a left patella subluxation, Burks’ abilities to run a pick-and-roll and conjure offense from nothing become more valuable. In truth, though, his strengths are skills the Sixers lacked back in October. It’s why Burke — the 6-foot Allen Iverson admirer, not the 6-foot-6 University of Colorado product — held appeal as a backup point guard possibility. Many of the themes we’ve heard from Brown about instant offense and shot creation echo. 

“I think my skill set adjusts well — playing great in the pick-and-roll and I can read the defense, find open people,” Burks said. “I’m just trying to thrive in that and help the team any way I can.”

The Sixers need these traits because zero members of their original starting lineup have them. Josh Richardson, the player who comes closest to resembling that mould, shot 2 for 12 vs. the Magic and has struggled to find his spots in an offense where he’s far from the first option. The fact that Shake Milton can handle the ball, conduct a pick-and-roll and hit open shots boosted his case to start, as basic as it sounds. 

Though Burks and Milton’s minutes were staggered with the exception of an early-fourth quarter stretch, there were encouraging signs from both players individually. Milton had six points, a career-high eight assists and only one turnover in 25 minutes. Since turning it over three times in the Sixers’ seeding game opener, he has two turnovers in 78 minutes. 

“With Shake, he’s going to continue to figure it out,” Horford said. “Obviously we all haven’t played together, and that makes a difference. He continues to feel it out, he continues to understand how he needs to play. And he was good tonight. He was solid, making the right plays … not turning the ball over. 

“And then Alec, he just has the ability to score in bunches, and we need that. We just need to continue to keep him involved and put him in positions where he can help us.”

Horford started Friday alongside Milton, as he’d done on March 11 in the Sixers’ final game before the NBA’s hiatus. He played well, posting 21 points and nine rebounds, and adding a physicality that Brown appreciated. 

Despite the aforementioned positives, the Sixers trailed the 32-38 Magic by two points after three quarters. Competent ball handling and shotmaking in Simmons’ absence is necessary, but it's fair to be skeptical about whether that would be enough in the playoffs against a team like the Celtics or Bucks. After all, none of the Sixers’ three wins at Disney World have been comfortable or against top-tier opposition. 

“It’s hard to replace Ben,” Horford said. “He does a lot for our group. The way that we’re looking at it is we all just have to step up a little more. It’s going to give opportunities to guys from the bench and other guys to come in to have an impact. We really don’t know. We don’t know, we just hope that he’s able to get healthy and get healthy quickly.”



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Sixers Talk podcast: Alec Burks is earning more minutes

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Sixers Talk podcast: Alec Burks is earning more minutes

On this edition of the Sixers Talk podcast, Danny Pommells, Paul Hudrick and Ben Berry discuss:

(1:11) — The Sixers' play in the bubble doesn't leave us with any confidence.
(5:45) — Embiid, Simmons and Horford do not fit together.
(11:45) — Should Alec Burks be higher in the rotation?
(20:55) — Josh Richardson looks out of sorts.
(24:04) — Draymond Green critical of Joel Embiid's play.
(33:40) — The reasons to be optimistic are shrinking.

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