76ers

Why now is the right time for Ben Simmons to change positions

Why now is the right time for Ben Simmons to change positions

When the Sixers drafted Ben Simmons first overall in 2016, Brett Brown told the assembled media that night that asking the Australian to play point guard with no previous experience was “borderline cruel.”

Brown didn’t rule it out but wasn’t 100 percent sure where Simmons would play. We ultimately know what happened. Simmons has been a two-time All-Star as a point guard but has limitations in the half court.

As the team continues its training camp at Disney World, the ultimate solution for Brown and the Sixers may be to take the ball out of Simmons’ hands.

The last few days I played him exclusively as a four man,” Brown said in a video conference with reporters Monday. “He’s so dynamic. … Let’s just talk about running: There’s nobody faster in the NBA. And so to always have Ben have to have the ball and dribble it up against five guys … I think dilutes some of his potent weapons.

The decision for Brown is multi-faceted. The “clunky” fit of Al Horford and the emergence of second-year guard Shake Milton — who Joel Embiid revealed has been running the point with the starters — were factors. 

But the main purpose is to make the most out of Simmons’ skill set. His unwillingness to shoot is well documented, but there is little Simmons can’t do outside of that. We’ve seen Brown deploy Simmons as a screen and roller plenty this season. Though the results have been mixed from an analytics standpoint, Simmons’ physical traits lend themselves to that role.

Brown at one point compared Simmons to Blake Griffin, one of the more dangerous rollers in the league in his prime. It’s not hard to imagine Simmons playing that role in the half court while still being elite in transition with the ball in his hands.

So, why did it take Brown so long into Simmons’ career to make the change? The answer is simple: Necessity. Brown made Simmons the Sixers’ point guard initially because he was best suited for the role at the time.

With a player like Milton emerging and Simmons’ limitations continuing to be exposed, now is the right time to make this move.

We were young and really not that good so it was my decision, ‘You take the ball. We’re going to make you the point guard,’” Brown said. “It’s not like he came in and there was an established point guard that you had to bump out. And so there are zero regrets on doing that.

“But it’s important to understand the segue into where he was and where he is. And so now you fast forward it and it’s not like you’re looking over your shoulder and there’s Damian Lillard or Chris Paul. That isn’t true, that’s not where I’m going, but you realize the value that he has in many other areas.

The other way Simmons can be utilized in the half court is by putting him in a “snug” pick-and-roll in the post with Joel Embiid. While the action hasn’t always produced great results, Brown has continued to use it. The best example Brown has pointed to is the home win against the Clippers before the All-Star break.

It’s an action that both players have needed time to get a feel for, but if they can execute it, the duo’s combination of size and skill could be difficult to defend.

I feel like this role is actually going to be even better than being the starting point guard,” Embiid said, “because he’s so great defensively, and offensively, when he has a chance, he’s probably one of the fastest guys in the league, so just getting the rebound and pushing it in transition and find the shooters. And then in half-court play, we can use him in a lot of ways. He can roll or he and me, we can play out of that pick-and-roll out of the post. So I think we’re going to be great.

While it might be the end of Simmons as a point guard, you won’t hear the soon-to-be 24-year-old sulk about it. Simmons said last week that he’s comfortable in any role and that he “love(s)” playing in the pick-and-roll.

After all, this move isn’t just right for the Sixers and their chances to go on a deep playoff run. It’s also about the evolution of Simmons and the best way to use his dynamic skill set going forward.

Watching him fly up the floor, watching Joel and him play off each other has been a really good look. I think they’ve been fantastic together,” Brown said. “And most importantly, how has he responded to [not being the point guard]? Like a star. Just a mature, whatever it’s going to take to get this team to be the best that it can be with the pieces that we have that can be designed into a smooth thing, something that’s not clunky. That is one of the pieces he has to offer, and I think he’s been great at accepting that and really killing it in practice in the environment that I just said.

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Joel Embiid’s status, a lingering rotation question, more on Sixers’ final tune-up before playoffs

Joel Embiid’s status, a lingering rotation question, more on Sixers’ final tune-up before playoffs

The Sixers are a couple of days away from their games meaning something again.

They played well in their final seeding game Friday night, blowing out the Rockets, 134-96, and will begin their first-round series vs. the Celtics on Monday at 6:30 p.m. (see series schedule). 

Here are observations on Friday’s game: 

Embiid’s status 

Brett Brown was asked pregame whether there was any reason for concern with Embiid’s right hand. The All-Star center left Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors after having his hand whacked by Marc Gasol and appeared to be in discomfort. He had X-rays that night which were negative. 

“Not concern the way that you would think that I would say, ‘Yes, there is concern.’” Brown said. “I don’t have concern it’s going to restrict him from playing against the Boston Celtics. I don’t have concern that it’s going to minimize his effectiveness.”

Embiid was listed as questionable with left ankle soreness and the decision that he’d play wasn’t official until about 30 minutes before tip-off, after he’d gone through pregame warmups. The desire to avoid any sort of unnecessary layoff evidently outweighed the notion of exercising special caution with his health. 

He started the game aggressively against Houston’s ultra-small lineup, scoring seven points within the first five minutes. There was, however, cause for slight worry when he grabbed at his right hand late in the first quarter and checked out of the game. He returned at the start of the second period, played 23 minutes and finished with 14 points and six rebounds.

His decision-making when double teamed was less precise than in the early seeding games and he turned it over five times. That’s not worthy of much examination in a meaningless game, but Embiid will have to “quarterback the gym” effectively when the Celtics inevitably send help defenders his way. 

The Sixers’ chances of beating Boston sure don’t look great unless Embiid is healthy and playing very well. Embiid will hope this is the first postseason of his career when he can check off both those boxes. 

1st-half positives

There was a lot to like about the first half for the Sixers, who had a 71-47 lead at the break. Embiid, Tobias Harris, Alec Burks and Furkan Korkmaz all scored in double figures.

Burks’ emergence as an enterprising scorer, solid ball handler and sensible facilitator off the bench was one of the best seeding game developments for the Sixers. Those were all traits the Sixers knew he had when they acquired the 29-year-old from the Warriors in February, and he’s showcased them at a high level in Disney World. 

As a team, the Sixers shot 18 for 38 from three-point range in the game and ended their eight seeding games with a 41.6 percent mark from distance. 

Josh Richardson was the primary defender on James Harden. Though the MVP finalist scored 27 points and had 10 assists, he turned it over seven times and didn’t get much help from his supporting cast. The Rockets were without Russell Westbrook, who is sidelined by a right quad sprain. 

Houston went on a 24-11 run to start the second half. There was an odd exchange early in the third quarter when Embiid, frustrated after not receiving a call against Harden in the post, gave the eight-time All-Star a shove with his right arm to pick up his fifth foul. Harden was then the one called for a technical, apparently for tossing the ball in Embiid’s direction. It was not a prudent sequence from Embiid. 

A lingering rotation question 

The Sixers’ first two substitutions were Burks for Shake Milton and Korkmaz for Embiid. Matisse Thybulle and Mike Scott were the other two bench players to appear in the first quarter before Embiid’s brief stint on the bench at the end of the period. 

Glenn Robinson III missed Friday’s game with a left hip pointer, and that injury means the team’s rotation is not entirely certain. He first hurt his hip in the Sixers’ second scrimmage, returned for games against Portland and Phoenix, then sat out the final two seeding contests. On Tuesday, Robinson said he was still feeling the injury at times when he did specific things like talk and laugh. Brown on Friday said Robinson’s situation was “a little up in the air right now.”

Scott is a veteran who's helpful to have available in the postseason, but Robinson’s perimeter defense could be valuable against Boston’s talented wings, including Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It’s also quite possible Korkmaz’s defense could be problematic vs. the Celtics, which might be another route to Robinson (if healthy) receiving substantial playoff minutes. Brown endorsed Korkmaz’s defense Wednesday, but it’s fair to wonder whether he’s equipped to play Boston.

To Korkmaz’s credit, he’s playing with ample confidence and has shown he can occasionally swing games with his shotmaking when that’s the case. 

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Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka is, according to NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh, “the biggest name to watch” in the Bulls’ search for a new head coach.

Chicago fired Jim Boylen on Friday. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reports former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and Bucks assistant Darvin Ham are also expected to be included in Chicago's search. Bulls GM Marc Eversley used to be the Sixers’ vice president of player personnel. 

Udoka joined the Sixers this season after spending seven years as an assistant with the Spurs. In September, he said that he was responsible for game planning and strategizing against “eight or nine” opponents under Gregg Popovich. Brett Brown assigned him to be in charge of the Sixers’ defense, which is rated eighth in the NBA, and he's looked to install more aggressive defensive concepts. He’s a well-respected former player who, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania is also a candidate for the Nets job.

From the Sixers’ perspective, part of what may complicate this situation is Brown’s status. Here’s what Haberstroh wrote on that subject:  

Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.

“The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. 

In response to rumors last May that the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Raptors may have put Brown’s job in jeopardy, his players defended him vehemently. The team’s supersized roster has disappointed in this highly unusual, pandemic-affected season, as the presence of Al Horford has boosted the Sixers’ backup center play but generally not helped the team otherwise. Brown’s new-look starting lineup with Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at power forward only had three games together before Simmons injured his left knee. 

The Sixers’ first-round series against the Celtics begins on Monday night (see series schedule).

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