76ers

Even with new starters, Sixers can't avoid the issue of the Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing

Even with new starters, Sixers can't avoid the issue of the Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing

Brett Brown said Tuesday night that Al Horford and Joel Embiid “have not played at this stage together” during the Sixers’ practices at Disney World. 

That very well may not indicate anything too substantial. But, with under two weeks until the Sixers are set to play their first seeding game, it’s at least interesting that the team hasn’t yet practiced with the starting frontcourt it used on opening night. 

Horford said he hasn’t had a conversation with Brown about whether he’ll eventually play with Embiid. 

“I haven’t,” he said, “but the reality is that it’s going to happen at some point. I think we’ll be fine. I do understand the changes and things like that. I don’t want people to make more of this than what it is. The reality is that we’ll be fine and we’ll be playing together at times, at times we won’t, and that’s just it.”

In the Sixers’ Feb. 11 win over the Clippers, a game Brown has called a “very good reference point,” Horford and Embiid each played 28 minutes, sharing the floor for about nine. If the two big men are eventually going to play next to each other, as Horford expects, one assumes they’ll also practice together. 

Brown said Saturday he’s “happy to share when it happens when we start looking closely at Al and Joel together again,” so it’s possible we’ll gain more clarity shortly. The Sixers are off Wednesday and scrimmage against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. 

Brown and Horford have faced questions about this topic plenty throughout the year. When an expensive free-agent signing is relegated to the bench for the first time since November of 2007, it’s a big story, like it or not. After Brown made that move in February, he emphasized that Horford still had an important role to play. He made it sound as if he wasn’t going to cast aside the Embiid-Horford pairing unless the opposition forced his hand. 

“… It’s still the desire to have those two guys play quality basketball and coexist whenever that is required,” he said on Feb. 21. "But I feel like the number (of minutes they play together) should be judged based on matchups. You're going to see if it's a tiny number, I'll be shocked if it's not driven completely because the game is really small.”

Five months later, the situation still looks a bit murky.

First, we’re left to wonder if it’s “required” for Horford and Embiid to share the court. Though it isn’t in a literal sense — Brown is free to play whoever he wants, whenever he wants — the idea of Horford getting 10 minutes per game in the postseason is striking at first glance. That’s how much the 34-year-old would play if he served exclusively as a backup center and Embiid hit Brown’s “ambitious” target of 38 minutes per playoff game.

Second, though Brown’s answer from February about matchups is reasonable, few matchups this season have been advantageous for the Horford-Embiid pairing. As we’ve noted many times, out of all regular Sixers duos, the team has the worst net rating with Horford and Embiid on the floor — minus-1.3 overall, and minus-8.8 in 328 shared minutes since December. Both players have fared much better when the other is on the bench. Horford’s field goal percentage is over eight points higher when Embiid is off the court, and the Sixers’ net rating is almost six points better than when he’s alongside the three-time All-Star

Will there be matchups in the playoffs where a Horford-Embiid frontcourt is the best one the Sixers can employ?

There’s still time for Brown to nail this down — and perhaps he already has in his mind — but it’s unavoidable. It stands out, too, in the context of him forging ahead with a new starting lineup in the team’s first week back at practice.

If Horford and Embiid do indeed play together, what’s the key to improving their on-court partnership?

“Well, really that’s Coach has to figure things out in that way,” Horford said. “Now that the games mean more at this point, especially the playoffs coming in, the focus really shifts to defense and we have to make sure that we’re great defensively.

"The offense, it will come. We will figure that out. But defensively, we just have to make sure that we’re great, and I believe that we will be.”

Elite interior defense might be enough for the Horford-Embiid duo to be a positive one, though it was not before the NBA season paused because of COVID-19. The hope that it will be isn’t an adequate way to address the issue, and Brown surely knows that. 

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube



Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Updated: 8:42 p.m.

Ben Simmons is out for the Sixers’ seeding game Friday against the Orlando Magic with a left patella subluxation and there's not currently a timeline for his return as he considers treatment options. That news is clearly significant in the Sixers’ world, and it raises a range of questions. 

Let’s run through some of the bigger ones: 

What exactly is the injury? 

A simpler way to classify the injury is as a partial dislocation of the kneecap. 

How long will Simmons be out?

This is the largest question and still murky. Brett Brown on Thursday said “stuff is still being evaluated” and that he wasn’t in a position to offer a timeline. Presumably, factors such as the state of the ligaments around the knee could play a key role in determining how long Simmons is out. 

Outside of Simmons’ physical status, the team’s approach will be important. There’s no reason to put Simmons back on the court before he’s healthy. 

Shake Milton is hoping for a speedy return.

“It’s tough for us,” he said Thursday. “Ben is an incredible player, an incredible athlete. I don’t know, he’s like a freaking superhuman, so hopefully he’s able to heal super fast and get back on the court, because we definitely need him.”

How will the starting lineup change?

On March 11, the Sixers’ final pre-hiatus game, the team started Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. That’s one possibility. The Horford-Embiid pairing is still the Sixers’ worst regular duo in terms of net rating despite having a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World.

If Brown wants to prepare for a scenario in which Simmons is available and in the postseason starting five, he could keep Horford as the sixth man. He could instead turn to a wing such as Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III, all of whom have started games for the Sixers this year. Robinson, who has missed the Sixers' first three seeding games with a left hip pointer, is doubtful for Friday's game. 

What about the rotation?

Robinson’s health is a relevant issue with the rotation, which Brown shrunk to nine players when the Sixers played the Wizards. Raul Neto didn’t play against Washington after seeing time in the first two seeding games.

It’s interesting to note that Neto started in Simmons’ place on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 when the Australian was out with a shoulder injury. The circumstances were very different, however, as Milton was sidelined by a bone bruise and left knee sprain, leaving Neto and Trey Burke as the two main ball handlers on the roster. Trade deadline acquisition Alec Burks now appears ahead of Neto in the backup point guard pecking order, and Simmons’ injury should increase Burks' value a touch. 

As of Wednesday, Brown said his plan was still to have a nine-player rotation for the playoffs. 

What’s the intangible impact? 

When Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back on Feb. 22, Brown recalled him vomiting because of pain. He’s lauded Simmons often for the diligent rehabilitation he did to recover from that injury and be ready to go when play resumed amid a pandemic.

Injuries aren’t anything new to Brown, but he admitted it hurt some to learn about this one after witnessing the process of Simmons’ back rehabilitation. 

“It’s the life that we've lived since I have been in Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m sure every coach has some level of a similar story. This one stings, for sure. We all felt with the pandemic and are we going to play again, it obviously bought time for Ben — had the season kept going, it’s anybody’s best guess. In relation to being incredibly down about it, I’m not. When I think too long about it, probably I can go there.

“But I feel numb to it. I feel conditioned, that we’ve gone through this type of thing before. There is a level of faith that I have in the rest of the team that we can hold the fort until we hopefully get him back. But snakebitten, woe is me, I don’t go there.”

In addition to dealing with the disappointment of a star going down, the Sixers will have to tinker with ingredients like leadership that aren’t necessarily evident to an outsider.

“It’s going to be kind of everyone has to step up by committee,” Richardson said. “I think we have a few guys that can step up as leaders, who can step up and have big games for us. We don’t really like to put too much pressure on one or a few guys. Everybody’s going to step up in his absence.”

Can the Sixers manage without Simmons? 

Again, the lack of a timeline looms large here. We can say without question that the Sixers are 6-5 this season without Simmons and don’t have direct replacements for his elite defense, transition talents, creative passing and more.

It’s also logical that the Sixers will rely on Embiid defensively and feed him frequently in the post. His 34.4 percent usage rate so far in Florida may very well rise. 

“Offensively, he needs to get as many touches as we can get him,” Brown said. “And I think that one of the areas of most noticeable growth … is what he’s been doing passing out of the post. It’s maybe the single thing that stands out most to me offensively when you look at whether it’s Jo, or just us as a team — I like our post spacing.

“I like Jo’s unselfishness quarterbacking the gym. His ability to read where the double teams are coming from I think has been shown.”

Thybulle, Richardson, and perhaps Robinson when healthy could assume challenging defensive assignments that otherwise would have been Simmons’. Players like Harris and Korkmaz will miss Simmons’ ability to drive and set up three-pointers. 

Initially, the Sixers are coming to terms with the situation and hoping the injury doesn’t dent their playoff hopes.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now and really we're all coming to grips with the news that we’ve received,” Brown said. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Updated: 8:37 p.m.

The injury Ben Simmons sustained in the Sixers' win Wednesday night over the Wizards is a subluxation of the left patella. He's out for the team's game Friday night against the Magic and treatment options are being considered.

Simmons exited Wednesday's game in the third quarter after throwing a pass for Al Horford. He immediately flexed his left knee and headed to the locker room.

Brett Brown was not prepared to give a timeline for how long Simmons will be sidelined.

"Some of the information is fluid, it’s still moving," he said Thursday. "In relation to saying any type of deadline, timeline, playoff, whatever, I’m not in a position to offer anything. Not because we don’t want to, but stuff is still being evaluated. What I do know — it’s boring, but we play Orlando tomorrow and we don’t have him. That’s kind of all I know at this point.”

The 24-year-old Simmons made his second All-Star team this season and has averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds. The Sixers shifted him to power forward in their new starting lineup, and he was open to the change.

"You've just gotta work with different things,” he said on July 14. “You’ve gotta try different things out, see if they work. We’re not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself ... what feels comfortable, what’s right for this team and how we’re gonna win. 

“If it’s this way, then I’m all for it. I’ve been having fun in that position — whatever you guys say, the four — whatever it is. But at the end of the day, when you see me I’m on the floor, I’m making plays."

He'd missed the Sixers' final eight games before the NBA's hiatus with a nerve impingement in his lower back but recovered from that injury and said he felt explosive heading into the restart. 

Without Simmons, Brown will have a few options to replace Simmons in the starting lineup, including original starting power forward Al Horford and wings Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz.

Brown said he spoke with Simmons and Sixers medical director Scott Epsley on Wednesday night during a team dinner.

"There is clearly disappointment," Brown said, "because I don’t know if anybody really understood what he did to get ready to play basketball again. He really invested time, he really was diligent during the whole pandemic about recovery and rehab and strength and conditioning. ... And so I feel like there is certainly some disappointment, I think (there’s) the uncertainty of what really is it right now, is obviously there.

"But he’s a great teammate and his teammates care about him, and I think more will unfold, I suspect, in the next 24 hours where we can maybe provide more information.”

In other injury news, Mike Scott (right knee soreness) is questionable for Friday's game and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful. Both participate in the Sixers' practice Thursday after missing the team's first three seeding games. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers