Early on when speaking to media at today’s Philadelphia 76ers practice, Brett Brown hinted at some of the things he’s been experimenting with. He mentioned some changes which he described as “high-level stuff,” such as using Ben Simmons more off the ball, rotations, and who’s going to be starting. It didn’t take long for a big takeaway to emerge as Brown and players continued to speak.
The Sixers have been using Shake Milton at point guard and Simmons at power forward during their practices in Orlando.
Brown has spoken about using Simmons more off the ball already, and he expressed again that it’s been on his mind a lot recently. “The last few days I’ve played [Simmons] exclusively as a 4 man,” Brown said. “He’s so dynamic.”
“To always have Ben have to have the ball and dribble it up against five guys after made baskets especially... to do that I think dilutes some of his potent weapons, speed. And so watching him fly up the floor, watching Joel [Embiid] and him play off each other, has been a really good look. I think that they’ve been fantastic together.”
When explaining how Simmons has responded to playing more off-ball, Brown said Simmons has done so, “like a star. Just a mature, ‘whatever it’s going to take to get this team to be the best that it can be’ [attitude], with the pieces that we have that can be, I don’t know, just designed into a smooth thing, something that’s not clunky. That is one of the pieces that he has to offer, and I think he’s been great accepting that and really killing it in practice.”
The talk of adjusted roles went a step further when Embiid said that Shake Milton has been playing as the Sixers’ starting point guard in practices.
“[Shake has] been amazing,” Embiid said when asked about how Milton has been performing in practice. “He’s been the starting point guard, and I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job and he’s running the team and we’re going to need him to knock down shots, which he did, before the league got shut down. He was on a roll, so we’re going to need him to keep it going. But it’s great.”
Of course, these are just practices. Brown will still be experimenting. While Milton impressing as a lead guard — both late in the season and now in Orlando — is important, it’s also fair to expect that he won’t be dominating the ball when real games return and will share ball handling duties with Simmons. Nevertheless, it looks like the Sixers, at least for now, are making a clear shift to putting Milton into the starting lineup and moving Simmons to the 4, which in turn will send Al Horford into a backup role again.
Embiid also said that he think it’s, “going to be great,” when asked about Simmons being used more off-ball as a point forward.
“I feel like this role [for Simmons] is actually going to be even better than being the starting point guard,” Embiid said. “Because he’s so great defensively, and offensively, you know, when he has a chance, is probably one of the fastest guys in the league, so just getting rebounds and pushing in transition and finding shooters.
“And then, you know, in half-court play, we can use him in a lot of ways — pick-and-roll, or me and him we can play out of that pick-and-roll too, out of the post. So, I think we’re going to be great.”
In a call with reporters before the team headed to Orlando, Simmons himself spoke positively about being used more as a screener and roll man. “I feel like I have a very high IQ on the court and see things a lot differently. I’m able to pass the ball very well, so that’s always a threat. But I love playing the pick-and-roll, situational pick-and-pop, whatever it is. It just gives us so many different options. It’s tough to guard.”
There are plenty of positives when using Simmons this way, and it sounds like Brown is making a clear decision to embrace them. Simmons’ physical gifts and short-roll passing can be unleashed as a roll man. His screening also improved this season, as did his aggressiveness to attack the rim and roll down the lane with purpose.
He can also be used more often in creative actions with Embiid, like their snug pick-and-rolls near the basket.
I won’t go too deep into all of the benefits of using Simmons more off-ball, though — I just wrote about this in depth earlier this month, so feel free to read more here.
Brown finished his time talking to reporters by reiterating how happy he is with the health and conditioning of the team.
“The health of our team is excellent. The fitness base is the most surprising. They responded completely to the challenge I gave them about, ‘we need a B’ [fitness grade]. I can take a B and make it an A, I can’t take a C and make it an A. And the guys have been great in that regard.”
Simmons in particular has benefited from the time off to fully recover from the nerve impingement he suffered in his lower back. Now he’s ready to play, and Brown is using him in a role that taps into other areas of his skillset.
Simmons may not be fully maximized on a roster that doesn’t surround him with loads of shooters or a more fast-paced style, but he can still do more in an adjusted role. By playing more off ball, benefiting from the help of another ballhandler in Shake Milton, and continuing the strong play he displayed this season as a screener and roller, there’s no doubt Simmons — and the Sixers — can improve.