76ers

‘He’s fast as light,’ and Ben Simmons' preseason goal of Defensive Player of the Year doesn't seem so outlandish

‘He’s fast as light,’ and Ben Simmons' preseason goal of Defensive Player of the Year doesn't seem so outlandish

When asked about his goals for this season at media day, Ben Simmons would only reveal one.

He wanted to be the Defensive Player of the Year.

Saturday night against the Pacers, he acted like one, recording three steals in the final 13.9 seconds of the Sixers’ 119-116 win over the Pacers (see observations). Amid all the concern about Simmons’ offense and the question of whether he’ll ever be a willing and able jump shooter, he’s racked up some gaudy defensive numbers.

His 42 steals in 18 games are most in the NBA, while his 72 deflections and 41 loose balls recovered are second. Opponents have shot just 40.9 percent when guarded by Simmons this year. 

Simmons has been excellent defensively in important moments, too. He intercepted Jeremy Lamb’s inbounds pass Saturday in a similar fashion as his game-sealing swipe of Frank Ntilikina’s inbounds the night before at Madison Square Garden.

“The plays that he can make from an athletic standpoint, the plays that he makes from a physical standpoint in that part of the game — we saw last night, you saw two tonight — are just elite,” Brett Brown said. “You hear me sort of cheerlead the cause of him being on an NBA All-Defensive team and it's examples like that that to me make it a no-brainer.”

Simmons has perhaps received the most attention this season for his weakest skill, and the speculation about what it would mean for the Sixers if he were to become a threat as a shooter. Yet since his first regular-season three-pointer on Nov. 20 vs. the Knicks, Simmons has shot just 23 of 59 from the floor (39 percent). 

He did have two bright areas offensively against Indiana — his 13 assists, and his 7-for-7 performance at the foul line. It’s the most foul shots Simmons has taken in an NBA game without a miss, and his teammates and head coach are constantly encouraging the aggression that produces those free throw attempts.

“It’s really been Jo and guys like that, making sure I’m being aggressive and getting to the rim,” Simmons said. “Once I’m doing that, I’m able to make plays and find my guys in the corners, or Jo rolling.”

The free throws are significant, but they’re definitely not what Simmons enjoyed the most about his night. 

“I love being able to get steals and make guys turn the ball over,” he said. “I have a sense of pride in that. It gives us energy.”

His teammates love it, too, even if it doesn’t surprise them.

James Ennis picked up a key steal of his own about a minute before Simmons’ flurry of thefts, jabbing from behind Lamb and unearthing the ball. Like Simmons, he was waiting for his moment to strike. 

“They kept running a 2-5 pick-and-roll with Lamb,” Ennis said. “I’d seen the last two to three times, he put the ball right there. The third time he did it, I saw it happen and I just poked it.”

Unlike Simmons, Ennis doesn’t have the gifts to materialize out of nowhere or single-handedly change a game with his defense. 

“Ben’s incredible,” he said. “He’s fast as light, so he’s everywhere. That’s what he [does.]" 

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Why it’s logical to be wary of NBA restart or feel it shouldn’t be happening

Why it’s logical to be wary of NBA restart or feel it shouldn’t be happening

Even among those who have built their careers and lives around basketball, the attitude toward the NBA’s planned restart in Orlando has not been unconditional enthusiasm. 

The Sixers travel to Disney World on Thursday and are scheduled to resume play on Aug. 1, and yet shouting, “Basketball is back!” would feel incongruous in so many ways. There are valid reasons to be excited, sure — watching Joel Embiid dunk and shimmy again sounds fun — but also to be wary and troubled. 

An obvious one is the location of the NBA’s campus. Florida reported 9,989 new coronavirus cases Wednesday and hospitals across the state are running out of available ICU beds, including in Orange County. 

Outside of financial motivations, it is unclear why playing a sport during a pandemic would be necessary or prudent, especially in a location that’s seen such a rise in cases and toll on the healthcare system. The vision of sports being a unifier, symbol of hope and welcome distraction does not outweigh other strong, tangible concerns. 

Embiid, who said Tuesday he “hated the idea” of playing at Disney World and does not believe it is sufficiently safe, laid out the situation well. 

If you told me that the current trend is that people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying,” he said, “obviously you don’t know what's going to happen and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk ... and all that stuff, just for what? The money and all that stuff. At the end of the day, basketball is not all that matters. I've got family, I've got myself to look out for. That's all I care about.

Is there a legitimate argument against his perspective? One might claim Embiid should be quiet and do his job, as many who are paid much less have. There are several rebuttals to this contention, though.  

Firstly, the fact that people across the country have gone back to work does not automatically mean the regulations which cleared their return were advisable. For instance, the spike in Florida’s cases sure seems to suggest that many aspects of life were allowed to reopen too soon there. Second, the money Embiid has earned should not prohibit him from highlighting that the NBA’s venture contains substantial risk. And third, Embiid’s concerns are not wholly self-motivated.

We wear masks, use hand sanitizer and physically distance to minimize the risk of exposing others to the coronavirus. Embiid said he’ll follow all of the league’s health and safety protocols but is not confident everyone else will do the same. With 22 groups of up to 35 people expected to be in the league’s “bubble,” that is a fair worry, even with the NBA's meticulous plans to maintain as much separation as possible. 

Even if Embiid were only concerned with himself, it's worth noting the long-term, non-fatal effects of the coronavirus are not yet known. It appears there may be serious future impacts for some, such as lung scarring. Even for athletes who are young and otherwise healthy, the virus can have a severe effect. Phillies second baseman Scott Kingery recounted a harrowing, hellish experience with COVID-19 that included chills, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and loss of smell and taste in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury

Brett Brown talked last week about hoping to see “appropriate fear” of the coronavirus. At a minimum, it’s apparent the level of fear here should not be zero. 

There is no monolithic view from the Sixers on the restart plan.

Raul Neto is concerned about being away from loved ones but thinks “there’s not any way to be safer than what we’re going to be going through in the bubble.” Though Furkan Korkmaz knows there are “going to be some risks,” he believes in the NBA. While respecting the personal decisions of those who sit out, Ben Simmons trusts the league and veterans like LeBron James and Chris Paul. Alec Burks considered opting out when he learned his wife was pregnant — she’s due in December — but chose to go along with his teammates. Shake Milton “doesn’t really think we should be playing.” 

It is a nuanced and high-stakes matter. For Milton and other players, the thought of detracting from issues such as racial inequality and police brutality doesn’t sit well. 

“There are issues going on right now in the world that are way bigger than a sport, way bigger than the game of basketball,” Milton said Tuesday. “I feel like we’re on the cusp of finally having people tune in and really try to listen and try to understand more about the things that are happening in our country. I feel like the moment is too big right now and I don’t want the game of basketball to overshadow it.”

Mike Scott described the NBA’s idea of allowing players to choose from a pre-approved list of words and phrases to put on the back of their jerseys as “terrible” and a “bad list.” 

The NBA has said the aim of the restart is to “take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice.” It will certainly be interesting to see what the league and its players do on that front.

“I think there’s definitely going to be something that we’re going to be doing,” Josh Richardson said Monday, “so just keep your eyes peeled.” 

The aforementioned financial incentives loom over just about every choice the league makes. If the season were to be canceled, the CBA could be terminated under the force majeure clause. 

Commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t ruled out cancellation if the NBA’s plan proves ineffective.

“If we had any sort of significant spread within our campus, we would be shut down again,” Silver said Tuesday in an interview with Fortune Brainstorm Health, per ESPN

We don’t have an exact number from Silver regarding what would constitute a “significant spread.” If we never find out what it is, that’s a very positive development.

But, as the NBA attempts to pull off a multi-month indoor sporting endeavor during a pandemic, it’s only logical to have some degree of trepidation.

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Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Joel Embiid on Tuesday gave a thoughtful and detailed explanation for why he initially “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and still does not believe it is safe enough.

Wednesday, Kendrick Perkins reacted to Embiid’s comments on ESPN’s “First Take,” and his stance was not as well-reasoned. 

In part, Perkins said, “To me, this is just an excuse. If they get knocked out, this is going to be an excuse because their superstar was halfway in. … Man, go down there and hoop. I ain’t trying to hear that, man. It’s a billion-dollar bubble.”

Perkins’ response evades the substance of Embiid’s remarks. Among Embiid’s primary points were that he is concerned about consequences the coronavirus might have for himself and his family, that basketball isn’t the only thing which should define him, and that he is skeptical other players will adhere to the NBA’s health and safety protocols intended to minimize risk of COVID-19 exposure. (Embiid noted he doesn’t do much outside of basketball besides playing video games and will personally do everything necessary to mitigate risk.) What Perkins said addresses none of those issues.

Instead, he focused on the notion of Embiid somehow being weaker than other superstars who committed to resume play without publicly voicing any concerns. To express worry about doing one’s job in these circumstances — playing basketball, in Embiid’s case — does not suggest a lack of character or toughness. It is a logical sentiment, and there is nothing wrong with Embiid being candid on the subject. 

… If you told me that the current trend is that people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying,” Embiid said, “obviously you don’t know what's going to happen and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk ... and all that stuff, just for what? The money and all that stuff. At the end of the day, basketball is not all that matters. I've got family, I've got myself to look out for. That's all I care about.

Coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Florida, to the extent that many hospitals in the state have maxed out their ICU capacity. Embiid, who’s donated $500,000 to coronavirus relief efforts, has every right to say he is “not a big fan” of playing in Orlando. 

Familiar cliches in sports about sacrifice for the sake of the team and adversity over obstacles do not apply to a pandemic. This is a different category from Embiid shifting how he plays to accommodate teammates, and a topic that should be approached seriously. 

Perkins is allowed to criticize Embiid, of course, but his viewpoint is lacking in empathy and perspective.

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