A rational response to the news Saturday that Ben Simmons will have surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee is that it’s time to recalibrate expectations for the Sixers.
The notion of a championship run naturally dims with the loss of an All-Star. With four seeding games to go before the playoffs, the Sixers will have to address the myriad of concerns raised by Simmons’ absence.
Let’s dissect four main issues:
When games this season have been on the line, Simmons has often helped the Sixers seize control with excellent defense on the opponent’s best playmaker. His versatility has also enabled the Sixers to give other players favorable matchups.
Who takes on the job of defending top scoring threats late in games? It will presumably be dictated by matchups — for instance, you’d think Joel Embiid and Al Horford would guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle would split time on Jayson Tatum. There’s no default answer anymore, and it’ll be a bigger challenge to “hide” players like Furkan Korkmaz.
Horford in the spotlight
The instinctive reaction when a team loses a player of Simmons’ caliber is that everyone else needs to "step up." That’s fair enough, and yet much of the attention will shift specifically to Horford.
He started in Simmons’ place on Friday and played well, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds. His much-scrutinized pairing with Embiid is the only Sixers duo with at least 300 minutes together this year to have a negative net rating. In 60 Horford-Embiid minutes at Disney World, though, the Sixers have a plus-9.2 net rating.
Notably, the presence of Simmons has had a negative effect on the Horford-Embiid pairing, at least offensively. The team has a 98.7 offensive rating when Horford, Embiid and Simmons have played together, by far the worst of any three-man group. Perhaps removing Simmons from the equation and losing another player whose preferred territory is near the rim in the process will help Horford-Embiid lineups score efficiently.
When Brett Brown was asked what he found out about his team Friday night with Simmons sidelined, Horford was the first name that came to his mind.
“You can’t help but feel an emerging Al Horford,” he said. “It’s clear that he understands we need him more than we ever have needed him.”
Post-ups and 3s
During the eight-game stretch in late February and early March when Simmons was out with a nerve impingement in his back, the Sixers fired up 35.8 three-point attempts per game and converted 42.3 percent. They’ve posted up far more than any other team and have the league’s best high-volume post player in Embiid. Without Simmons, a blend of Embiid post touches and more three-point attempts from players such as Richardson and Tobias Harris would make sense.
Brown has requested throughout the year that Harris and Richardson “hunt threes." The Sixers, however, are 20th in three-point attempts per game out of the 22 teams in Florida. There has to be a collective willingness to shoot from beyond the arc, and a reduction in the low-efficiency plays where an open three turns into a contested two.
Embiid’s averages at Disney World are 30 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s attempted 11.4 free throws per game and facilitated for teammates well when powering through a double team isn’t the smart play.
“(He has) the willingness and unselfishness, born with the confidence of ‘I know where my teammates are coming,’ under a backdrop of a poise and a patience — it’s ball to chin, tuck it in stuff you’d teach young players — and he’s figuring stuff out quite quickly — like real quickly,” Brown said before Friday’s game.
“All of those things, when you add them all up, equal a team offense. Arguably the best play that J-Rich can have or Tobias can have is throw the ball into Jo and they’re probably going to double, and then it’s coming back out.”
The Sixers’ unofficial mantra this year has been “built for the playoffs.” They maintained faith that talent, size and defense would prevail in the postseason.
Being down a star should change that. Against the Celtics, Bucks or Raptors, Brown may need to adopt unorthodox strategies if feeding Embiid, relying on the big man to protect the rim and asking Thybulle and Richardson to shut down perimeter scorers is ineffective.
That could look like blitzing the pick-and-roll if Kemba Walker is giving Richardson trouble. It could mean calling some double drag actions with Embiid and Horford if the defense is denying the Cameroonian and Horford is knocking down jumpers and distributing sharply as a pick-and-pop guy.
Perhaps Brown could ask for spurts of full-court pressure with Thybulle on the floor in an effort to force turnovers, spark transition offense and boost the rookie’s disruptive abilities. If Alec Burks is hot and Milton is making poised, intelligent decisions, Brown could play the two ball handlers together, as he did Friday at the start of the fourth quarter.
Philosophically, Brown likes letting his players figure things out for themselves and setting them up in “environments” over calling a ton of plays. He may now have to embrace greater proactivity and innovation.
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