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Sixers weekly observations: Why you should keep a close eye on Delaware Blue Coats in 2019

Sixers weekly observations: Why you should keep a close eye on Delaware Blue Coats in 2019

For a Sixers team that’s had a knack for making every game close, this was an unusual week — four straight blowouts. 

After wins over Cleveland, New York and Toronto and a loss to San Antonio, the Sixers sit at 22-12, third in the Eastern Conference, as they gear up for a difficult five-game road trip (see story).

Here are a few observations from the past week:

• It’s easy to chalk the Spurs game up as a schedule loss. The Sixers were playing the second game of a road back-to-back and they looked slow and lethargic. At first glance, there’s no reason to be concerned about their performance Monday night in a big picture sense.

If you look closer, though, there is one troubling takeaway from that game: The Sixers can’t afford for multiple stars to have off nights on the same night. The team just has far too thin a bench to win a game in which Joel Embiid shoots 6 for 17 and Jimmy Butler goes 3 for 13. 

• Ben Simmons was the one Sixers’ star who didn’t have a terrible shooting game in San Antonio — he went 9 for 15. In fact, Simmons hasn’t had a bad shooting game for a long time. He’s only shot worse than 40 percent from the floor twice this season. 

This week, Simmons had two triple-doubles, scored a season-high 26 points Saturday night vs. Toronto, and averaged 19.3 points on 66.7 percent shooting, 10.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists. He even shot 76.5 percent from the foul line. He’s making a strong push for his first All-Star Game. 

• Brett Brown said Wednesday he’d prefer to fill the Sixers’ open roster spot with a “perimeter defensive player".

That seems like a fair assessment of his team’s largest need, though there are, of course, several — you could also make solid arguments for backup center, power forward and perimeter shot creator.

General manager Elton Brand told reporters Saturday night that the Delaware Blue Coats, the Sixers' G-League affiliate, could be a resource the team uses to improve their roster, mentioning wing Haywood Highsmith and center Norvel Pelle (see story). Both players are intriguing options, though it would be a surprising turn of events if either had a significant impact on the Sixers this year. 

Highsmith, a product of Division II Wheeling Jesuit, looks the part of an NBA player, with good size (6-foot-7, 220 pounds) and a smooth shooting stroke. 

The 6-foot-11 Pelle’s major calling cards are his athleticism and rim protection— he’s averaging 2.5 blocks in 21.6 minutes per game for the Blue Coats.

It’s also worth noting that rookie Jonah Bolden, who has been yo-yoing between Delaware and Philadelphia, had by far the best game of his NBA career Saturday night — after Brand spoke to the media. One game isn’t nearly enough to prove Bolden deserves major minutes as the Sixers’ backup big man, but it's clear he's a more viable option than Pelle.

You can see why Brand would be interested in Highsmith and Pelle, but you wouldn’t expect the Sixers to rely on a 22-year-old D-II product with a still-developing game or a 25-year-old with no NBA experience for key minutes this season.

That said, much stranger things have happened with the Sixers.

• While we’re on the topics of the Sixers’ roster and the G League: There are two more reasons you're going to want to keep a closer eye on the Blue Coats in 2019. Big man Justin Patton and rookie Zhaire Smith are both inching closer to returning to the court — Brand said the Sixers expect Smith back this season, and Patton told NBC Sports Philadelphia he “definitely” plans to return in 2018-19 —  and both will likely start out in the G League.

As Brown noted Wednesday, Smith could help alleviate some of the Sixers’ woes with perimeter defense, while it’s not so crazy to think Patton, a first-round pick in 2017, could fill part of the void at backup center. 

Again, you wouldn’t think the Sixers would bank on two young, somewhat raw players still rehabbing from serious injuries. But if everything goes well with the final stages of rehab and in Delaware, Patton and Smith could change the complexion of the Sixers. 

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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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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons to undergo further testing for back injury reaggrevated vs. Bucks

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons to undergo further testing for back injury reaggrevated vs. Bucks

The Sixers took a beat down from the Bucks Saturday night, but that seems secondary to what else took place in Milwaukee.

Ben Simmons, who missed the first game after the All-Star break Thursday with lower back soreness, left Saturday’s game not even five minutes in and did not return. Simmons will undergo further testing in Philadelphia Sunday, per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters.

A report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided concerning info:

Sources described Simmons as emotional upon leaving the X-ray room at the Fiserv Forum late Saturday.

"There is some level of concern surrounding the possible nature of the injury, league sources tell ESPN.

The All-Star point guard appeared to reaggravate the injury on a drive against Brook Lopez. After a foul was called on Lopez, Simmons could be seen attempting to stretch his back out. After Simmons made 1 of 2 from the line, Matisse Thybulle fouled Khris Middleton to get a stoppage so Simmons could go back to the locker room.

At first, the ABC broadcast said the plan was for Simmons to go to the locker room to receive treatment throughout the night. A few minutes later, Simmons was ruled out for the rest of the game.

A broken foot cost Simmons a season the year he was drafted, but he’s been one of the Sixers’ most durable players since. The 23-year-old has played 214 of a possible 221 games during his three-year career.

Sitting in fifth in the Eastern Conference with 25 games remaining, the Sixers can ill afford to miss Simmons for an extended period of time.

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