After a summer where everything finally looked like it was coming together, the Philadelphia 76ers will have to wait at least three months before finding the light at the end of the process tunnel. Ben Simmons fracturing his foot in the final session of training camp was a devastating return to reality for fans who thought all the team’s problems were behind them. However, the injury certainly isn’t as severe as Joel Embiid’s, and the talent on the roster is suitable enough that the team still might be watchable in his absence.
Here’s how the Sixers will adjust:
Dario Saric Becomes Ben Simmons-lite
There’s no other player in the NBA like Ben Simmons, but the closest solution to filling his absence is already on the Sixers roster. The 6-foot-10, 243 lbs., Croatian sensation Dario Saric has nuances in his game that separate him from the 2016 draft’s top pick, but he’ll likely jump into a point forward role similar to the one Simmons was going to occupy. As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor touched upon, Saric probably won’t direct the offense nearly as much in half court sets as Simmons would, but he’s capable of pushing the ball off rebounds, and has great court vision. Allowing him to run the fast break is where you’ll probably see Saric at his best.
Now, the downside. While Simmons will do most of his scoring by attacking the hoop off the dribble, Saric is poor at that. He doesn’t have a quick first step, and he struggles to play through contact around the rim. His stroke has definitely improved since being drafted in 2014 (and it’s far superior to Simmons’ jumper), but he’s never shown any proficiency as a pull-up shooter. Both of those deficiencies really hurt his value as a ball handler in the half court. Based off Olympic play, he seems best suited in a catch-and-shoot role so he has enough space and time to set his feet.
Since Philadelphia’s offense over the past three years has been almost exclusively dribble hand offs, Brett Brown can use that to Saric’s advantage. Playing Gerald Henderson or Jerryd Bayless alongside the former Anadolu Efes star, Saric’s handoffs can double as a ball screen, which could create space for pick-and-pops. Run that play effectively enough, and the Sixers can fake the hand off into backdoor cuts, which allows Saric to display his passing abilities. It’s very simplistic, but the Sixers offense has never been fancy, and it gives Saric the chance to play into his strengths.
Expanded Role For Sergio Rodriguez
Jerryd Bayless will and always was going to be the starting point guard on opening night, but he’s best suited in playing an off ball role. He played 45 percent of his minutes as a two guard last year with the Milwaukee Bucks (according to Basketball Reference), and was a pretty prolific from beyond the arc in catch-and-shoot situations. Bayless has also never averaged more than 3.8 assists per game over the course of a full season. Even before Simmons returns to action, Bayless probably won’t be the primary source of offensive creation. Enter Sergio Rodriguez. Our Sean O’Connor went into a deep dive on Rodriguez’s game (as well as his role in a world without Simmons), and there’s a lot to look forward to with him.
Rodriguez’s shooting has vastly improved since his last stint in the NBA, and his ability to create offense for others is by far his greatest asset. He’ll be Bayless’s backup, but Philadelphia will look to “El Chacho” to be the primary playmaker in the half court. The 30-year-old is tremendous at running the pick-and-roll, and his ability to penetrate and kick will benefit the Sixers’ wing shooters.
Time For T.J.
General manager Bryan Colangelo mentioned on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast that the improved roster would have and adverse impact on some of the younger players, and mentioned McConnell by name. But neither Bayless or Rodriguez are known for being strong on-ball defenders, and that may be where T.J. McConnell gets his opportunity to see the floor early on. He averaged 1.2 steals per game last year playing nearly air-tight defense on fellow point guards, and on the opposite end of the floor McConnell was on pace for 8.2 assists per 36. If McConnell looks good in the preseason, then the coaching staff should be able to find (at least) 10-15 minutes a night for him.
Jerami Grant Returns To The Four
Prior to the Simmons injury, Brown had expressed plans to play Jerami Grant at the three, something the team dabbled with last year. It sounded like a pretty bad idea, considering his jumper hasn’t advanced at all in the past two seasons.
I get that the log jam means Brett Brown has to get creative, but Grant at the 3 is a terrible idea. He can not shoot . pic.twitter.com/4zoeAUNing— Jake Pavorsky (@JakePavorsky) September 26, 2016
Those were his numbers from last season, and they’re actually worse than his rookie season, which was wasn’t pretty either. There’s no positives to Simmons being injured, but Brown opting to move Grant back to the four is the closest thing to good news in this depressing situation.
Here's how Brett Brown started when asked about scrapping the offense yesterday:— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) October 3, 2016
“I don’t think so. You just move Jerami over and Dario up"
Grant will still have the opportunities to jack up threes, but hopefully he’ll focus most of his attention on becoming a legitimate roll threat in Simmons’ absence. He could very easily be as effective as Nerlens Noel, because Grant might be even better than him above the rim. He’ll continue to block a ton of shots as a quality help defender, and will hold his own on switches in the pick-and-roll.
Philadelphia should be able to survive without Simmons for a couple months, but his three-month absence is undoubtedly demoralizing for a team and fanbase that’s been dying to move forward.