76ers

Al Horford can still make a big impact off Sixers' bench

Al Horford can still make a big impact off Sixers' bench

Going into the 54th game of the season, Brett Brown was contemplating a difficult decision. 

Al Horford hadn’t come off the bench in an NBA game since Nov. 21 of 2007, his rookie year. Yet, Horford’s struggles and fit with the starting unit left Brown in a tough spot.

After hinting at a change before last Friday’s game and again at practice Monday, Brown pulled the trigger Tuesday night ahead of the Sixers’ 110-103 win over the Clippers (see observations).

“I just accepted it,” Horford said. “Obviously not the position that I saw myself in this situation, but it was what was best for the team.”

When Horford signed with the Sixers this summer, GM Elton Brand saw the 33-year-old as an insurance policy for Joel Embiid and a floor spacer for his young All-Star duo. The latter hasn’t quite come to fruition with Horford shooting just 32.7 from three.

That’s part of the reason Brown opted to use the red-hot Furkan Korkmaz in his place. Korkmaz was held scoreless Tuesday but was coming off back-to-back 30-point performances. 

While the matchup against the Clippers was a part of it, Brown admitted it’s something that had been on his mind.

“It was originated out of I thought that they were going to go small,” Brown said. “I think that in general, not to use that as the reason, I spoke to Al about it — we're trying to find ways to help him and help the team. I felt, disregarding the lineup defensive adjustments that I just spoke of, that the time was appropriate to do it and see if we can get sort of that second unit going with Al. We did it with [Manu] Ginobili [with the Spurs] long ago. Al is obviously a quality player and how I end games will be, to me, the judgment.”

While Brown is obviously not making an apples to apples comparison with Horford and Ginobili, it is a fair way of demonstrating that a player can still have a significant impact on games coming off the bench.

And Horford truly did. He had nine points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks. The amount of minutes Horford will receive likely won’t differ much either. He’s averaging 30.9 minutes a game and played 28 Tuesday night.

He can still bring plenty to the table for the Sixers in a reserve role.

“I honestly don't think it changes much from what I was doing before,” Horford said. “Just trying to stay engaged as much as I could, focus. Just coming in and just trying to have an impact.”

Horford is a five-time All-Star and has started 832 of the 836 NBA games he’s played in.

It was clear Horford wasn’t thrilled about the notion of coming off the bench, but he handled the situation with professionalism and dignity with media postgame.

He did the same when his coach told him.

“All class,” Brown said about Horford’s reaction. “Right now, this starting group has been struggling, you've done nothing wrong. I keep myself up late at night trying to find ways to better coach it and fix it and let it coexist. And to date after 50 whatever games, we've struggled a little bit. And that's one thing. Then the second thing is I feel like I can help you play at the level that you can play at. ... You kept us up late at night with many scouting reports trying to figure you out. And I think it can be a win-win.”

If Tuesday’s game is any indication, perhaps Horford can have a big impact coming off the Sixers’ bench.

His acceptance of his new role could be just as big.

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Ben Simmons went through an initial evaluation on his back Sunday in Philadelphia, will have an additional evaluation Monday and is out for the Sixers’ game tomorrow night vs. the Atlanta Hawks, a team source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the news.

Simmons missed Thursday’s game vs. the Nets with lower back soreness and irritated the injury in the first quarter Saturday night against the Bucks. 

Head coach Brett Brown said Thursday that Simmons was injured at the team’s practice Wednesday.

“It was a play where he went up for a rebound and I looked over and he left the court, and went and got treatment,” Brown said. “And it has played out as it has played out. We don’t believe it’s anything too significant.”

After drawing a foul on Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez with 7:21 left in the first on a running hook shot, Simmons put his hands on his knees and appeared in discomfort. He stayed in to make 1 of 2 free throws, and the Sixers then had Matisse Thybulle commit a foul to stop the game and allow Simmons to return to the locker room.

Before Saturday, Simmons had been averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists this season in a team-high 36.3 minutes per game. The two-time All-Star has an NBA-best 115 steals. 

Simmons had entered the All-Star break strong, with a 26-point triple-double in the Sixers’ Feb. 11 win over the Clippers. 

He’d posted 20.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game in the final 18 contests before the All-Star Game, shooting 68.9 percent from the foul line during that stretch. When Joel Embiid was out with a torn ligament in his left ring finger, Simmons had carried the Sixers to a 6-3 record. 

With 25 regular-season games remaining, the Sixers are 35-22 and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. They have a 26-2 home record, best in the NBA, and a 9-20 away mark that’s the worst of any team currently in a playoff position. The team’s remaining schedule is the easiest in the league.

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If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

We don’t need to spend much time explaining how and why Ben Simmons is very valuable for the Sixers. 

The two-time All-Star leads the NBA in steals and, before irritating a lower back injury Saturday night in Milwaukee, was averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds.

Of course, the Sixers will hope the injury doesn’t keep Simmons out for long. The question of how the Sixers will manage if Simmons’ injury does sideline him for an extended period of time, however, deserves attention.

Who’d be in the starting lineup? 

Though Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place Thursday against the Nets, he didn’t play against the Bucks until the game was well out of hand.

Shake Milton handled much of the point guard duties after Simmons left and was solid, making 5 of 7 three-point shots and scoring 17 points.

Josh Richardson and Alec Burks are other ball handling options, with Brett Brown seeming to prefer Burks’ “scoring punch” off the bench.

In his second NBA season, Milton has posted 6.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, shooting 36.9 percent from three. The 23-year-old was on a two-way contract with the Sixers as a rookie and starred with the Delaware Blue Coats, scoring 24.9 points per game in the G League.

Who else would be impacted? 

Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, Milton started eight straight games for the Sixers because of Richardson’s hamstring injury. Brown didn’t play him as much as a typical starter during that stretch, giving him 25.4 minutes per game. He only exceeded 30 minutes once, when he scored a career-high 27 points on Jan. 30 in Atlanta.

Milton again would not likely be assuming full-on starters minutes. Perhaps Richardson and Burks would combine for a greater sum of backup point guard minutes than usual. If Richardson were to handle backup point guard duties, that would presumably mean Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle would have more minutes to take on the wing. 

Simmons was averaging a team-high 36.3 minutes entering Saturday’s game, so there is simply a lot of playing time that would need to be allocated among multiple players. 

Where would the Sixers suffer the most? 

The defense would take a big hit. The on-off stats mysteriously indicate that the Sixers have been a better defensive team with Simmons not on the floor, but they’d clearly be losing one of the best defenders in the game. 

Along with being first in steals, Simmons has the most total deflections and the most defensive loose balls recovered. He can defend opposing stars and, in general, most point guards, wings and power forwards. The Sixers would not be able to replace that defensive versatility or overall quality.

They’d obviously gain something in terms of outside shooting but would lose a lot in other offensive areas. Simmons has assisted on more threes than any player this season.

How much would it hurt overall? 

Because Simmons has played in 214 of a possible 221 regular-season games over the last three seasons, we don’t have any meaningful track record of how the Sixers tend to fare without him.

Joel Embiid would be the focus of a Simmons-less team, and it would make sense for the offense to involve more Embiid post-ups than ever.

The most basic formula for success without Simmons would be an elite Embiid on both ends of the floor, Milton and other guards succeeding in expanded roles, and Tobias Harris and Al Horford being better across the board, especially as three-point shooters. It’s not impossible that all those pieces would come together, but it would be a lot to ask. 

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