Without question, acquiring star-level talent is the first step toward team-building. After that (admittedly huge) hurdle is cleared, the next step is figuring out how to arrange the time those players will spend both together and apart within the rotation. You only have to look back upon Scott Brooks’ coaching tenure in Oklahoma City to recognize the extent those sorts of decisions will be analyzed.
If the first two games of the regular season are any indication, Sixers head coach Brett Brown clearly intends to have either Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons on the court as much as possible. Aside from garbage time, there was only a single two-minute stretch in each game when both young stars were simultaneously on the sidelines.
Against Boston, the rest of the team actually trimmed the Celtics’ lead from seven to six points in the third quarter when the star duo sat. However, against Chicago, the reserves blew a chance to provide the stars some rest in the fourth quarter; the Bulls went on a quick 10-0 run, forcing Brett Brown to re-insert Embiid into the game.
Ben Simmons back tightness-induced early exit Saturday night against the Magic provided an opportunity for the supporting cast to redeem themselves. Though Joel Embiid dropped a game-high 32 points, the Sixers were actually -8 with Embiid in the game, while going +9 in the 14 minutes Amir Johnson had been tagged into the fray.
Johnson certainly played a big role in the team’s victory. The veteran looked spry on both ends, turning garbage into gold with some hook shots in the paint, and running the floor off his own steal for yet another huge dunk. It was the type of steady, efficient performance the Sixers were hoping to receive from Johnson when they re-signed him this past offseason.
However, the biggest factor in the Sixers’ success was unquestionably new reserve JJ Redick. Though Redick’s game-deciding three-pointer came as a result of the two-man game with Embiid (as detailed by The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann), Redick actually did a fair amount of work without the big guy on the court. The Sixers outscored Orlando 42-26 when Redick was in the game without Embiid (38-26 if you don’t count four minutes with Simmons).
Here, Redick dribbles off an Amir Johnson screen for a pull-up three at the top of the key. It’s the sort of “hunting for his own offense” play one doesn’t generally associate with Redick, but something the Sixers need when both Simmons and Embiid are out.
With Simmons questionable with the back injury for Tuesday’s game in Detroit, the Sixers may once again need someone else to step up when Embiid rests. Even if Simmons plays, there are going to be times this season when the supporting cast has to step up in the absence of the team’s two stars. JJ Redick isn’t going to hit eight three-pointers every time out, but maybe “Washington Markelle” eventually finds his way to the NBA stage. Or Dario Saric could put up numbers like the second half of his rookie season when Embiid was injured. The Philadelphia debuts of Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, and, eventually, Zhaire Smith will also help the rotational depth.
Ideally, Brett Brown won’t have to see a Sixers lineup on the court without one of the two franchise pillars. However, if one of those pillars does sit out (as could be the case this week with Simmons), it could be a good test to see how to best go about keeping the house standing.