76ers

Sixers-Grizzlies preseason observations: Ben Simmons sharp in loss

Sixers-Grizzlies preseason observations: Ben Simmons sharp in loss

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One preseason game down. One step closer to opening night. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz played their first games as the Sixers fell to the Grizzlies, 110-89, on Wednesday night.

Let’s get right to the biggest question: how did Simmons and Fultz play together?

Brett Brown started Simmons, Fultz, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes. Simmons took on the initial ball-handling duties. He looked poised off the inbound and the fast break. Simmons already showed off his court vision with savvy passes early on.

In the first quarter, Fultz played off the ball and Jerryd Bayless subbed in to do the same. The Sixers signed Bayless to complement Simmons last season before the two players were injured.

• Despite shooting 2 for 8, Simmons appeared comfortable. He posted six points, nine assists, seven rebounds and one block. 

• Fultz, on the other hand, struggled offensively. He went 2 for 13 from the field and looked tired in the fourth. Outside of three games in summer league, Fultz has not played since Feb. 18 (in college). His shot, and the possible change of it, has been a topic of debate during training camp. Fultz finished with four points, three assists and two rebounds.

• After being the backup … and the backup to the backup … his first two seasons, Holmes got the start at center. There is strong competition for that role between Holmes, Amir Johnson and Jahlil Okafor, and minutes to be earned with Joel Embiid sidelined. It remains to be seen if Holmes will stay in the starting lineup when Johnson returns from a sprained right ankle. 

“Just having that much talent, having that much depth, you have to earn everything you get,” Holmes said before he recorded nine points, three rebounds and three blocks in 16 minutes. “It’s kind of how I like it.” 

• Okafor looked lighter on his feet (literally, 20 pounds lighter) in his first game since March 22. He came off the bench behind Holmes. Okafor even came up with a spin move (see video). The third-year center notched 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting, six boards and two blocks. 

• Why did the Sixers sign Redick to a $23 million contract this season? Here’s one reason:

• Bayless could be heard yelling to teammates on the court. It will be key for the Sixers to spread their veteran leaders between units. While some believe Redick would be best suited to come off the bench behind Fultz, the young starters will benefit from playing alongside with him just as the reserves will do the same from sharing the floor with Bayless and Johnson. 

• Dario Saric noted he feels “100 percent ready,” but the Sixers wanted him to rest after a lengthy summer of international basketball. Saric played ball overseas up until one week before the start of training camp.

• Embiid watched the game from the bench in a suit. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (right knee patellar tendinitis) did not play. Memphis starters Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were among the Grizzlies who did not play. 

More questions than answers when it comes to Sixers' bench

More questions than answers when it comes to Sixers' bench

The trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris were blockbuster deals, but both hurt the Sixers’ depth.

GM Elton Brand did manage to get veterans Mike Scott and James Ennis, both of whom played significant roles during the Sixers’ playoff run. Still, the team had no viable backup for Joel Embiid and Brett Brown was essentially going with seven players by Game 7 in Toronto. 

By bringing back Scott and Ennis, trading up in the draft to acquire Matisse Thybulle and bringing in veteran big Kyle O’Quinn, Brand seemed to fortify the team’s depth.

So much for that.

We’re 42 games into the 2019-20 season and the Sixers are looking for answers off their bench.

We're trying to establish a little bit more consistency from that area,” Brett Brown said after practice Thursday. “And at times that you can't, you better have answers. And although we have the answers, not really anybody has just stamped their foot and said, 'This is mine.' And you hope over time, that happens. In the event that it doesn't, we're going to play this thing out and try to be wiser and smarter in the final third of the year as the run to the playoffs gets closer.

There have been times that we’ve seen flashes. 

Thybulle has shown elite disruption abilities at the defensive end, but still looks like a rookie every so often. Furkan Korkmaz’s hot stretches have helped carry the team at times, but he’s been inconsistent and has shortcomings on the defensive end.

Even the stable veterans haven’t been so stable. Though he hasn’t necessarily played poorly, O’Quinn is essentially fourth on the depth chart at center behind Joel Embiid, Al Horford and two-way player Norvel Pelle. Scott and Ennis, who gave the Sixers what they needed in the series against the Raptors, haven’t quite been the same players.

In fact, with Scott struggling so much recently, Brown opted to use Ennis at the four just a game after Ennis was a DNP-CD in Indiana.

Oddly enough, the rookie maybe the one player that has a rotational spot locked up.

Wednesday night’s win was a perfect example of what you get when Thybulle is at his best. While he’s made momentum-shifting defensive plays, what stood out against the Nets was just his ability to defend.

He was tasked with guarding the super slippery Kyrie Irving and the sharpshooting Joe Harris. He did quite well as both players were victims of Thybulle’s four blocked shots.

It hasn’t always been a smooth process. Brown has admitted that he’s had to increase his tolerance level with the 22-year-old’s gambles. For his part, Thybulle understands why his playing time was so up and down early in the season.

Brown has rewarded him by allowing him to close out games and take on tough assignments.

It's kind of been a process of just earning his trust,” Thybulle said. “I think in the beginning I didn't deserve a lot of it. He's allowed me to play through a lot of mistakes, to make those mistakes, so that I don't have to make them at times like this in the fourth quarter of big games against talented players.

There’s no denying the impact Thybulle has had on this team. When he plays at least 14:29 this season, the Sixers are 20-4. Not the largest sample size, but a pretty decent one.

Part of Brown’s thinking for starting Thybulle Wednesday was to simply get him the experience. The other part of it is that he earned it.

“I felt like Matisse, two reasons,” Brown said, “would come in and give us a better base to start the game defensively, and second, it is most definitely on my mind to increase his role to give him more responsibility/minutes in whatever is a rational way to deliver him to the playoffs where he has an actual role. And I see that happening now.”

So Thybulle is in. But who else? 

Ennis? Scott? Korkmaz? A player not on the roster that could arrive before the Feb. 6 trade deadline?

Not even the Sixers have that answer right now.

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Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

It is the third healthy season of Ben Simmons’ NBA career and he has made two three-point shots in the regular season. That fact is difficult to ignore and unfortunately tends to distort any evaluation of Simmons.

The 23-year-old is also, of course, a gifted player who leads the league in steals, is fifth in assists and, to put it simply, is very good at many parts of basketball besides shooting.

Instead of fixating on his shot or praising all his skills, let’s evaluate Simmons in half-court offense and examine, outside of the obvious, where he can get better. 

Making the most of all that room 

Normal NBA actions, like this 1-5 pick-and-roll at the end of the first half on Dec. 27, are sometimes less normal when Simmons is involved.

Going under a ball screen is a common scheme, but the way Aaron Gordon slid under Joel Embiid at the foul line before Simmons had even gone inside the arc is not. This defensive approach against Simmons can make it difficult to run conventional offense.

Since he hasn’t yet done it, we don’t know whether Simmons taking these near-omnipresent opportunities to shoot would change how teams defend him. The similar way opponents guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, now a very willing outside shooter (32.4 percent from three on 5.1 attempts per game), indicates it might not. 

One action the Sixers like as a means of exploiting the open space teams give Simmons is called “12,” and it begins with a wing rising up from the baseline to set a ball screen for Simmons, accept a handoff or slide out behind the arc, as Furkan Korkmaz did early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.

It got Josh Richardson a good look in the second quarter on Christmas. This is an odd way to produce a three in the modern NBA, but the Sixers managed an open one for Richardson because Donte DiVincenzo got caught under the sagging Antetokounmpo.

Simmons can chew up space well, and not just by sprinting at top speed. He countered the defense’s expectations and changed pace effectively on the play below, acting as if he was going to hand it off to James Ennis before accelerating.

A focus on spacing 

For the current version of Simmons, off-ball spacing is vital. When Al Horford posts up, Tobias Harris drives or two teammates run a pick-and-roll, it’s important that Simmons is in the proper floor spot.

Brett Brown said on Dec. 17 it’s something he often reviews with Simmons.

I spend so much time with Ben talking about spacing. … He uses the space to play downhill and so somewhere, the bottom line is we need to grow his perimeter game. And it starts with space. Out of a post, where is he? Out of a pick-and-roll, where is he? Not when he's in the post, not when he's in the pick-and-roll — when he's out of the action. Those are the areas that we've been talking a little bit about.

“He's been great. He sees it and he shares things with me, too, that I give him credit for. And so this is a partnership. I'm here to help him, help us, help himself. And that I'll continue to try to do. 

The Sixers are working to deprogram Simmons’ default mode of wanting to be as close to the basket as possible. On the play below, he stood in a no man’s land between the left block and left elbow instead of relocating behind the arc, didn’t look at the rim when Harris dropped the ball off to him and ultimately helped derail the trip. 

A positive possession for Simmons in terms of spacing is usually quite basic. Here, he recognized Embiid was in the “dunker spot,” walked back to the three-point line and stayed there as Harris drove.

The team just needs Simmons to be attentive, aware of both where his teammates are and where he should be once he gives up the ball. It didn’t have an impact on this particular play, but notice how Harris had to motion to Simmons as he stared at Horford posting up — “Move over to the corner.”

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Pick-and-roll progress 

The pick-and-roll pairing of Richardson and Simmons has picked up steam over the past few weeks.

As Brown noted on Jan. 5, Simmons has many qualities that should make him a good screener and roller.

“I think Ben is a really good screen setter,” he said. “He’s physical — he embraces that side of it. And he’s a dynamic roller — he’s a lob guy, he’s a catch-go guy and he can facilitate picking off corners as a passer.”

The lob part of that equation is unique for a "point guard."

Richardson obviously made the right read to throw it up to Simmons when he noticed James Harden hadn’t fully recovered, but Simmons’ size and athleticism are why that pass was an option.

When Brown talks about “quarterbacking” a gym, he usually is referring to Embiid picking out passes from the low block. Simmons, though, can do something similar from the top of the key, like on this after-timeout play from Dec. 28. 

That’s an easy pass for Simmons to throw once he sees Kelly Olynyk front the post like the Sixers hoped he would.

Simmons can often gain that position against smaller players. The Sixers got Simmons a switch against the 6-foot Chris Paul on Jan. 6, essentially leaving him free to throw any pass he wanted. He picked out an excellent one, rifling it to Horford in the corner when he saw Danilo Gallinari briefly fall asleep. 

This season, Simmons is 7 of 30 from 10 feet and out (23.3 percent). He was 25 for 105 last season (23.8 percent).

His major weakness is unavoidable and an obstacle the Sixers must continue to confront in their half-court offense. Simmons has strengths in the half court, too — his downhill driving ability, the attention he draws, his passing, his screening and rolling. 

One aspect of the current formula for success is maximizing those positives. The others are being fastidious about spacing, and intelligent in countering opponents knowing Simmons’ jump shot is not a threat and playing him as such. 



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