The Philadelphia 76ers aren't contenders without Joel Embiid. He’s their leading scorer and best defender, an anchor they can rely on to raise their ceiling at both ends of the floor. But if there’s one positive side to Embiid’s recent stretch on the sidelines due to knee tendinitis, it’s that Brett Brown has been forced to shake up his team a little.
Naturally, embracing smaller lineups has been at the forefront of this change. Without Embiid, Boban Marjanovic and even Jonah Bolden against Orlando on Tuesday, Brown has emphasized speed over size far more often. In eight games since Embiid’s injury, the Sixers’ second-most used lineup has been JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, and Mike Scott with 38 minutes played.
In this tiny sample, the early numbers aren’t too pretty. Despite having a terrific plus-12 net rating, the offense has struggled to the tune of a 97.8 rating (not helped by painfully cold spells against Chicago), while the defense has been unsustainably stingy with a rating of 85.9. In time, as a reasonable sample builds, the offensive and defensive numbers should normalize due to the skill sets involved. And while there are clear limitations, there are signs of real promise, too.
Run and gun
It isn’t news that Simmons is at his absolute best playing fast, something he can’t always maximize when sharing the court with Embiid. Surrounding Simmons with four shooters is the best way to achieve that, and now he has more weapons to work with.
Tobias Harris joins Redick as Philly’s second elite shooter. Harris is burying a career-high 42.7 percent of his 3s this season, and ranks in the 98th percentile on spot-ups since joining the Sixers. Mike Scott — a 41 percent 3-point shooter over the last two seasons — can’t be overlooked, either. Through 12 games for the Sixers, he’s making 2.1 3s a night at a 43.1 percent clip.
Simmons simply has more room to thrive when he’s playing as the only non-shooter on the floor. Letting him push the pace in transition, drive and pull in the defense, and fling the ball around with shooters setting up at the arc is a smart, simple way to utilize him.
The Sixers’ narrow 120-117 loss to the Golden State Warriors provided some perfect examples. They exploited DeMarcus Cousins’ lacking mobility, riding Scott’s hot hand for 22 points as he went 6-for-9 from 3.
Here, a Spain pick-and-roll (LB’s Jackson Frank looked at a recent increase of these here), with Harris flaring to the wing and Scott popping out to the arc after his initial screen, creates an open look in a flash:
Watching Cousins struggle to close out in these situations was reminiscent of how the Sixers would attack slower centers last season (such as Hassan Whiteside in the first round of the playoffs) with lineups featuring Ersan Ilyasova at the five.
Executing crafty inbounds plays like this are easier when Brett Brown can run out four shooters as well. Redick’s flare screen catches Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry off guard, letting Harris fly off for an open 3:
Jonah Bolden’s ability to give the Sixers a little skill and shooting while maintaining more shot-blocking flair at center shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Sure, he has lots to learn in terms of foul avoidance and overall fundamentals. But his athletic skill set needs to be ready for the playoffs whenever Boban is too sluggish to use, and Bolden has been coming along rather nicely on offense.
He’s quietly up to 35.4 percent from deep for the season (albeit on just 65 attempts), including 43.8 percent since the start of January. And he isn’t just a clunky spot-up guy at the perimeter. While raw offensively, he’s flashed some fluidity and feel when beating closeouts, using his agility to nip past slower centers and adjust in traffic at the rim:
When Simmons is leading the way with three quality shooters, Bolden has promise as the fifth guy.
There’s no way to fully escape all spacing concerns when Ben Simmons is on the floor. That’s what happens when your point guard can’t shoot. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done to counteract it.
Simmons’ pick-and-roll has picked up a little lately with him spending more time in a point-center role offensively. To reduce his time waiting in the dunker’s spot or watching from the perimeter, using Simmons as a screener raises his value whenever he isn’t attacking.
The Sixers went from having no ball handlers who could dribble and pull-up off the bounce at the start of the season to two excellent ones in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The latter is an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Simmons, with his superior accuracy to fire from deep or mid-range when using a screen. Harris continues to thrive in every area offensively with the Sixers, and freely attacking off screens from Simmons is no exception:
The following play is something we rarely see from the Sixers, but it’s the kind of creative use of Simmons as a roll man that Brett Brown needs to develop.
Redick is able to find room as the ball handler when Simmons’ screen holds up Stephen Curry, forcing Draymond Green (who was sagging off Simmons) to help up the lane to prevent a shot from the elbow. With all the attention on him, Redick has no trouble sending a neat bounce pass to Simmons, who promptly hits Butler for the uncontested dunk after forcing DeMarcus Cousins to leap across the paint to help:
Quick, decisive passes, with Simmons playmaking off a short roll — it’s not much to ask for. But it’s another option that’s well worth honing for the playoffs to counter teams trying to sag off Simmons with no consequences.
Beyond Simmons pick-and-rolls, this is an essential way to alleviate some spacing concerns. Similar to the Warriors' use of Draymond Green, dribble hand-offs can be an immediate way for non-shooters to create space for others.
Thankfully, Simmons is set apart from other interior-based point guards with his 6-foot-10, 230-pound frame. If Simmons’ defender sags off, he just needs his screen to connect to free up a teammate to dribble into space for an open shot. When used, Redick is normally the beneficiary:
The Sixers should utilize this more with Simmons whenever Embiid, Redick’s dribble hand-off partner, is off the floor. Pushing some of those created 18-20 footers beyond the arc, and even running more with Harris, would help as well.
Now, for the other end of the floor...
This is where there can be plenty of variance for the Sixers depending on matchups. For stretches against smaller teams, a Scott-Simmons frontcourt can get by defensively. Overall, Scott has been solid at this end of the floor. When he locks in, he can use his size and motor to put together possessions like this:
The weakness for these lineups is rim protection. In the same game, Boogie produced offensively by making his mark inside. Even though he isn’t as nimble this season, he’s still strong. He had no trouble laying down his authority in the post, or fighting over smaller defenders for offensive rebounds:
It’s not just the Warriors, though. Orlando displayed a similar mindset to make the most of mismatches, forcing switches when possible to put Nikola Vucevic on Scott in the post.
Another example of these defensive shortcomings cost Philly in their painful 108-107 loss to Chicago. As has been the case all season, Philly couldn’t handle a dynamic scoring guard. The Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense was torn to pieces by Zach LaVine through the end of the fourth quarter.
This is nothing new. But small lineups with Scott at center remained, and with no real rim protection to deter LaVine from scoring inside, he had his way with 13 fourth quarter points on 6-for-8 shooting:
The final, inexcusable blown switch from Scott and Butler put the final nail in the coffin. Before that error occurred, though, there’s only so frustrated you can be with Scott. He can only be the nominal center in small lineups next to Simmons to put emphasis on offense for controlled bursts. Scott can’t provide size or instincts as a defensive center, because he isn’t one.
This is where Brett Brown needs to be held accountable, and I say that as a long-time Brett defender. In this instance, even with limited options at center (Amir Johnson and the foul-happy Jonah Bolden), staying small wasn’t the right option. There was no resilience in the paint, or to Robin Lopez on the boards (he had three offensive rebounds in the final four-and -a-half minutes).
The loss to Chicago left Philly and their small-ball lineups looking flat. But when deployed in the right situations — which will be easier when the Sixers actually have a few options at center again — there’s clearly upside to some of their new offensive wrinkles, with added shooting and some tweaks for Simmons.