Ben Simmons is still undergoing further testing for his back and is currently out for an undetermined amount of time. It’s rough news for the Philadelphia 76ers and Simmons, just as he was taking a step forward. He’d been more aggressive than ever in recent weeks with increased assertiveness to get to the rim and play through contact to up his free throw rate. Now all he can focus on is getting healthy.
Meanwhile, the Sixers need to adjust however they can.
First and foremost, this is a time for Joel Embiid to continue the kind of energized play he first showed out of the All-Star break against Brooklyn. Before he had a rough shooting night (5-of-18 for 17 points) against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, he scored 39 points against the Nets to go along with 16 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks. He was a force at both ends of the floor, and displayed a level of engaged dominance that he hasn’t as often this season. Embiid bounced back in terrific fashion on Monday against the Atlanta Hawks as well, scoring a career-high 49 points. The Sixers will inevitably play slower without Simmons, and they’ll absolutely need Embiid to be this version of himself on a consistent basis.
But when it comes to how to adjust from a ball handling and playmaking standpoint, the Sixers aren’t built well whatsoever to cope without Simmons for an extended period.
Josh Richardson has struggled for the most part when running the point this season. He lacks the decision-making and passing ability to lead an offense. It was evident entering the season after his efficiency dropped in Miami when he was overworked as a lead option, and his performance for the Sixers has only confirmed his limitations in this area.
The situation isn’t exactly any brighter when looking to the bench. Raul Neto’s playing time has been up and down this season and he didn’t even play against the Hawks. He’s done what should have been expected of him when on the floor, though. His defense has mostly been fine, he’s shot 36.9 percent from three, he’s added a touch of extra pick-and-roll play, and he’s provided some bursts of offensive energy at point. Promoting him to a starting role or anything significant is when his limited creation/ball handling gets stretched.
Shake Milton has been a surprising bright spot this year. He was given another start against the Hawks, and has shown how he can contribute offensively when given a chance in recent weeks. He's played most of his minutes for the season since entering the rotation 13 games ago, and has averaged 9.2 points (46.7 percent shooting, including 43.5 percent from three) and 2.5 assists to just 1.1 turnovers in this stretch. He’s demonstrated generally poised decision-making; some driving ability out of dribble hand-offs, a few pick-and-rolls and against closeouts; and a quick trigger as a shooter. Unlike many others on the team, Milton doesn't hesitate to fire from deep when he's a couple of steps beyond the arc or a defender is closing out to him. The issue is that he’s often a liability on defense against stronger, more explosive players, and still lacks the burst and advanced passing acumen to be a lead guard offensively.
Alec Burks is similar when it comes to trying to lead an offense. He can help address some of the Sixers’ offensive weaknesses with his pull-up shooting, pick-and-roll ball handling, free throw rate, and ability to penetrate and get to the rim. He’s not too bad on defense, either, with reasonable effort, size at 6’6”, and quickness. The issue is that his decision-making is questionable at times, from shot selection to passing. He simply isn’t a very good playmaker, which restricts him when handling the ball off the bench.
Burks and Richardson, given their experience and size to better match up defensively, will likely take most of the backup guard minutes in the playoffs. However, none of these three guards can be expected to consistently break down a defense and create for others.
This is where the Sixers can make some tweaks to Al Horford’s role to help the team’s playmaking situation somewhat in Simmons' absence.
Of course, the main adjustment that needed to happen was moving Horford to the bench. The terrible offensive fit of the starters has been discussed plenty already, so I won’t go in depth here — it’s not exactly rocket science to say that reducing lineups that play like the worst offense in the league is a good idea.
Brett Brown went back to his old starting five on Monday against the Hawks’ dual big starting lineup, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see Horford shift back to the bench against smaller opponents. At least, that should be the case. The Sixers have only played lineups featuring Horford and Embiid without Simmons for 89 minutes this season, so the sample size is tiny. How much they play together and their success while Simmons is sidelined is something to monitor. Their skill sets and lacking shooting/spacing don't complement one another offensively, though, and removing Simmons as a negative spacer next to them can only help so much. Staggering Horford and Embiid is still important.
Horford’s individual performance has been disappointing this season, from his cold shooting to some defensive decline, but the biggest issue was him being forced to play at the 4 next to Simmons and Embiid. Changing this should help get Horford get back on track. Now, without Simmons to serve as the team's top playmaker and a roll man with other guards, tapping into more of what Horford can do as a passer is key. This is far easier to do when Horford is at his best position at center, surrounded by four shooters with room to operate.
Horford's basic assist numbers are similar to last season when he was with the Celtics — his assists per game are down just 0.4 to 3.8 (to only 1 turnover) and his assist percentage is down slightly from 21.2 to 18.2. He can clearly do a bit more, though. Besides operating out of the elbows and post as a passer, Horford can do far more as a short roll passer if given the opportunity. In his last season in Boston, Horford was used as a roll man 4 times per game. This season in Philly, this number has almost been cut in half to 2.3.
Again, he's been in a terrible position to showcase this with the Sixers. Operating as the starting power forward on a team with low pick-and-roll usage that lacks perimeter creators and spacing is far from a recipe for success in this area.
If Horford is deployed more as a general passing hub and a roll man with Richardson, Milton and Burks, he'll have a chance to produce more plays like the following, making sharp reads on the move to find shooters:
Embiid led the way against the Hawks on Monday with his career-high 49 points, but Horford got to do a little more playmaking.
Here, as Horford comes up for a ball screen, John Collins immediately pressures Milton. This gives Horford an opening to slip back down the lane, draw help from the strong-side corner with Collins away from the rim, and kick to Furkan Korkmaz in space:
Horford is a smart, accurate and decisive passer in these scenarios. To try and address the playmaking void without Simmons, it’s time to get Horford going as a passer and roll man, especially when he’s in non-Embiid groups. After adding Burks and Glenn Robinson III, the Sixers have more wing-heavy lineup options with improved three-point shooting at their disposal.
Of course, injuries happen. You can never completely cover for the loss of a player of Simmons’ caliber either. The Sixers also have scheduling on their side at least. Based on the combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents, they have the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule (per Tankathon). But what matters most right now is the status of Ben Simmons. Because small adjustments and strength of schedule aside, the Sixers aren’t going far — in the regular season standings and potentially the playoffs, depending on how much time he misses — without him.
Ultimately, the Sixers not having more shooters and perimeter creators to complement their two young stars and better equip the team to cope without Simmons comes back to the front office. You can look to poor asset management, such as the high price they paid in the Tobias Harris deal (maybe Landry Shamet, a valuable role player, could have been kept when considering how much less other players, like Otto Porter, went for in trades at the time). In last year’s draft, the Sixers failed to make the most of their second-round picks and made it so obvious that they were set on Matisse Thybulle that the Boston Celtics were able to pry away extra picks in Philly's trade to move up. As good as Thybulle is as a prospect, they shouldn’t have needed to pay extra to get him. With few assets and trade-able players on moveable contracts left, the Sixers were also unable to make a significant upgrade at the trade deadline this month.
Then there's how the Sixers handled last summer's free agency. Rather than replacing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick with other perimeter creators, they signed an ageing center who, despite being able to address issues such as non-Embiid minutes, doesn't fit with Simmons and Embiid on offense. We can't be sure whether affordable players like Bojan Bogdanovic were real possibilities or how interested they would have been in coming to Philly. However, Sixers’ offense would be much better off if they pursued a guard or wing (or spent the money used to sign Horford on a few useful, yet cheaper players) rather than inserting a second center into their starting lineup. Another perimeter threat would also give them somewhere else to turn to without Simmons.
Now, with uncertainty over Simmons' return and a roster poorly equipped to perform without him, all the Sixers can do is make the best of a tough situation. Their decision making in all areas, from free agency, to trades, to the management of their stars (it’s pretty clear that Simmons shouldn't have been rushed back against the Bucks), has only made matters worse.