Jimmy Butler as point guard going from experiment to solution

Jimmy Butler as point guard going from experiment to solution

Ben Simmons is an All-Star point guard. Jimmy Butler is a four-time All-Star as a forward.

But sometimes, change is good. 

Simmons struggled in the first half of the Sixers’ win Thursday, but had a huge second half that helped lead the team to a win. He was just 2 of 6 before halftime, but went 7 of 13 after and finished with 21 points.

The difference? Simmons saw way more touches in the post. 

If you’re looking for an area of Simmons’ game that’s improved drastically, it’s his post play. Last season, he shot just 30 percent and took just 70 shots in the post. In 2018-19, he’s hitting 51 percent — sixth in the league among players with at least 250 post ups — and has already taken 104 attempts.

When push came to shove, Simmons knew where he could score. And the Heat didn’t have an answer, allowing Simmons to score eight straight points for the Sixers in the third. 

“Rarely when the game is unfolding do you look out on the floor and don’t think, ‘Oh, he’s got a mismatch,’” Brett Brown said. “He’s 6-foot-10 and there’s a physicality to him that’s more potent and powerful than others may see on a stat sheet. He’s physical and he’s big. I thought what stood out was that he wanted the ball. He sensed we needed a bucket.”

Everyone knows Simmons’ biggest flaw. He’s a point guard that can’t shoot. 

Just look at what the Celtics did to him last season in the playoffs — and what they’ve done to him this season. They sag way off him, daring him to shoot. They’re disciplined and get back on defense, hindering Simmons’ ability to utilize his strength in transition.

The Sixers’ solution may already be in the works. Before the game in Los Angeles against the Lakers back on Jan.29, Brown mentioned that he was going to experiment with Butler at point guard. At first, that was kind of eyebrow raising, but when you break it down, it actually makes a ton of sense.

Butler is an underrated playmaker and doesn’t the turn ball over much for a high-usage player. Among players that average at least 25 minutes a game, Butler ranks seventh in turnover percentage (the number of turnovers a player commits per 100 possessions).

As far as the eye test goes, Butler appears more than comfortable in the role. With how much firepower the Sixers have, Butler has a tendency to just sort of blend in offensively at times. Playing the one, he gets the ball in his hands early and initiates the offense.

It begs the question: Why didn’t any other coach ever think of putting Butler at point guard? Perhaps it was his size at 6-foot-8 that gave coaches pause.

With what they’ve been willing to do with Simmons, clearly that’s not a concern for Brown and the Sixers.

“Every time I see Jimmy play and he gets into these situations, you’re just reminded, he has so much sort of brute force on the game,” Brown said. “I think that when he can get a shoulder by people, it’s over. It’s hard to recover on that. When he can’t get a shoulder by somebody and he just sort of initiates shoulder on chest, he’s still able to create space. 

“He’s big enough with his size to see over things and deliver balls to the rim out of pick-and-rolls.”

Playing Simmons at a traditional four and Butler at the one allows Simmons to play more out of the post and Butler to be involved in more pick-and-rolls, where’s he’s comfortable. And even with Butler as the point guard, Simmons can still grab the ball off the rim and push it up the floor when the opportunity arises.

With the playoffs looming, this may no longer be an experiment. This may be a solution.

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Sixers will begin phased reopening of practice facility Wednesday

Sixers will begin phased reopening of practice facility Wednesday

The Sixers will begin a phased reopening of their practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, on Wednesday for voluntary, individual workouts, the team announced.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday that professional sports teams in New Jersey are now permitted to resume training and competition, which opened the door for the Sixers.

NBA teams had been allowed to hold individual workouts for players beginning on May 8 with strict restrictions in place. Because of coronavirus-related restrictions imposed in New Jersey, the Sixers hadn’t been among the teams holding workouts. However, general manager Elton Brand did say that Ben Simmons had been allowed to use the team’s practice facility to do rehab work for a nerve impingement in his lower back.

“Ben and others have been given permission to use our facility,” Brand said on May 5. “It’s essential that they have the proper equipment to workout and rehab, so he’s been doing that ever since the first week. We were able to get him access there. Joel Embiid’s been working out. He’s conditioning, he’s focused, he’s asking about when his trainer can come in, when he can get on the court.

"So I wouldn’t bet against him. He’s going to be ready and ramped up. Tobias [Harris] is a similar situation. He’s been getting treatment on and off. Most of our players are in market, by the way. Tobias is in market and he’s been getting treatment also.”

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reported last week that teams expect the league to issue guidelines around June 1 on recalling players who have left their markets, and for workouts to expand around the same time.

The NBA announced Saturday that it is engaged in “exploratory conversations” about resuming the 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in late July. The season has been suspended since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

On May 15, head coach Brett Brown said he thought a three-week ramp-up period would likely be sufficient before returning to play. 

“The notion of how the players come in influences kind of everything,” Brown said. “The three-week thing I think can be achieved as long as the fitness base of the players coming in is at the standard that I’m saying,” he said. “With that … I feel comfortable that we could go play basketball again.”

Though the team's facility reopening for individual workouts is not a massive step, it does appear that the NBA is moving toward a resumption. Wojnarowski has reported that, "barring something unforeseen," the widespread expectation is that commissioner Adam Silver will clear a return in June. 

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2020 NBA free agency: 6 bigs the Sixers could target this offseason

2020 NBA free agency: 6 bigs the Sixers could target this offseason

Another big man may not be high on the priority list for the Sixers this offseason, but a lot can change between when/if the season resumes and when next season starts.

Will the Sixers try to move Al Horford’s contract? Does the team trust Norvel Pelle to take on a bigger role next season? Would Kyle O’Quinn consider returning after he reportedly asked to be waived?

Here are six bigs that could fit the Sixers in free agency depending on how everything shakes out.

Marc Gasol

Gasol is most known around these parts for being a thorn in Joel Embiid’s side. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol is big, smart and physical — a combination that has caused Embiid serious difficulty. He’s not the offensive player he was in his prime, but he can still shoot it (40.2 percent from three), pass it (3.4 assists) and is an excellent screen setter.

At 35, it will be interesting see what kind of offers Gasol will get. The only scenario in which the Sixers would likely be able to make it work is if they successfully trade Horford and his massive contract. Is it worth taking a shot on Gasol with the team’s mid-level exception? With the Sixers having other pressing needs, it’s a tough call. Gasol would make an excellent Embiid backup and mentor.

Aron Baynes

Baynes had a solid run in Boston and was having a strong season in Monty Williams’ system in Phoenix. The Sixers were the first team to experience Baynes’ evolution as a three-point shooter in the 2018 playoffs. He was hitting 35 percent on over four attempts a game before the 2019-20 season was suspended. He also has proven to be a solid post defender and screen setter.

This is going to be all about what Baynes’ preferences are. If he wants to get paid like a starting center, the Sixers aren’t the team for him. If he’s willing to accept a backup role to Embiid on a lesser deal, there’s a possibility. It seems more likely Baynes could find a better situation, but he’d be a solid option for the Sixers if he can’t.

Alex Len

Len hasn’t lived up to the status of being the fifth overall pick, but he’s become a solid rotational NBA big. His career numbers per 36 minutes are solid: 14.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks. Though he struggled to hit threes this season, he’s had some success for a big (33 percent for his career).

Still just 26, there could be a team that views Len as having a higher ceiling. Being so young, he also could value playing time and money over being a reserve on a contender. Like Baynes, if he can’t find a better situation, the Sixers could do worse in a backup center.

Noah Vonleh

Vonleh is another top-10 pick that hasn’t quite panned out but has shown he can be a serviceable NBA player. After a strong campaign for the Knicks in 2018-19, Vonleh had a tough year for the Timberwolves. He was eventually shipped to the Nuggets in that crazy four-team deal ahead of the trade deadline.

Signing Vonleh would be similar to when the Sixers signed O’Quinn this past offseason. He won’t have a definitive role but could be a nice insurance policy if there are injuries and Pelle struggles. Though he’s only 24, the price shouldn’t be high given his struggles in Minnesota this season.

Dario Saric

If you’re reading this, you should know all about this guy. Saric hasn’t been the same player since he was dealt to the Timberwolves in the Jimmy Butler trade. Still, he’s played a solid role for Williams in Phoenix. Saric has flashed the combination of skill and grit he did here, but his lack of athleticism has limited him.

Saric is a true four. Though you could get away with using Saric as a small-ball five in certain lineups, you wouldn’t want him back there for an extended period of time with a true NBA center. Saric did love his time here and played the best basketball of his NBA career. He's a restricted free agent so the Suns would likely have to rescind his rights for the Sixers to have a chance. If the price is right, you can’t rule out a reunion.

Markieff Morris

The Philly native was having a good year in Detroit before being bought out and signing with the Lakers. He’s struggled with his shot during his eight-game stint in L.A. but was hitting just below 40 percent of his threes with the Pistons. Morris plays with an edge and could bring that physical style and attitude back home.

Morris could be repetitive with Mike Scott already signed for next season. Though Scott struggled this year, he’d come on a bit before the season was suspended and looked more like the player we saw during last year's playoff run.

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