76ers

'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

On paper, a lot of teams in the NBA look awfully good.

Both L.A. teams look like juggernauts. The Warriors lost Kevin Durant, but they’re still the Warriors. The Bucks have the reigning MVP and perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA.

Then there are the Sixers, who have as much potential as any team. Their starting five could be the best in the league. One prominent statistical model even gives them the best chance to win the Finals.

But the word “potential” can be dangerous. Al Horford may be the steadiest player there is. Joel Embiid is still ascending and has work to do, but is already arguably the best big man in the league. 

The other three members of the starting unit all have to tap into their full potential for the Sixers to accomplish their goals.

Does anyone in the league have more to prove than Ben Simmons? It seems weird typing that sentence for a 22-year-old who’s won Rookie of the Year and already made an All-Star team, but here we are. Simmons was given his rookie max extension Monday — which was 100 percent the right move — but questions still linger over his jump shot. He’s been working with famed trainer and shooting coach Chris Johnson in Los Angeles this summer. He also has decided not to play for the Australian national team in the FIBA World Cup so that he can focus on getting prepared for the NBA season.

Recently, Tobias Harris joined Simmons for a workout in L.A. and he came away impressed with Simmons’ progress.

“We played a lot of 1-on-1. He’s in the gym religiously every day – grinding, getting better. He’s in great shape,” Harris said at a press conference last Friday. “Everyone was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the three-point line. It was really because he hit two of them. I dared him to hit two of them and he hit two in a row — that’s why I was there. He’s made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has confidence to shoot it. I just kept telling him there, even in these workouts when you’re playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don’t’ get discouraged when you miss.”

Harris is another player with something to prove after being given the richest contract in franchise history. GM Elton Brand gave up a haul to acquire the 27-year-old from the Clippers and the results were mixed.

Harris came out on fire with the Sixers, averaging over 20 points a game and shooting 40 percent from three in his first 13 games. He then really struggled down the stretch, averaging 16.1 points a game and hitting only 23 percent of his threes. He was also inconsistent during the team’s postseason run.

Still, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding Harris’ fit with the team — especially with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick gone. He admitted that uncertainty surrounding his role affected his play, but these new pieces could unlock more of his potential. Harris had a borderline All-Star season and was one of the most prolific shooters in the league in a more featured role with the Clippers. He’s improved every season he’s been in the NBA and there’s hope that ascension will continue.

Harris hopes that ascension continues in Philadelphia — and only Philadelphia.

“Everybody knows over the course of my career I've been in a lot of situations,” Harris said. “Hearing in my meeting the possibility of getting these guys that are sitting up here with me was also one of the most appealing things in the pitch. For me, it was just a win-win, to come here in a situation where I can continue to develop and to be somewhere for many years to come. I'm excited for that and, obviously I signed a five-year deal, so I'll hopefully finish my career here, God willing."

It makes sense that Harris would be excited for the arrival of Josh Richardson. Other than Richardson proving to be a strong two-way player, the two have an existing relationship. While they missed playing with each other by a season at Tennessee, the two still crossed paths. Harris was stuck in Tennessee during the NBA lockout in his draft year so he took the incoming freshman Richardson out to dinner. 

Harris remembers an assistant coach saying around that time that Richardson “was going to be a pro” because of how hard he worked. It was a rather bold statement when you consider Richardson was a two-star recruit coming out of high school, but he made that unnamed coach look awfully prophetic.

Richardson, a second-round pick in 2015, had to earn his way onto the floor in the NBA with his tenacious defense and high energy. Much like Harris, Richardson’s offensive game has grown every season in the league. At times, he ran the Heat’s offense last season as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and took the most threes of his career by a healthy margin — though he was only right around league average percentage-wise.

While the team looks like a defensive monster, spacing is still a question mark. The Sixers are relying on all three players — and really even Embiid and Horford — to have the best shooting seasons of their careers.

"I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Brand said. “Defensively, of course that's where we're going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we'll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben's working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we're looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it's going to take some time. It should take some time."

With how much work Simmons, Harris and Richardson have put in, all that potential could be realized.

That could make the Sixers a very dangerous team.

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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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