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Examining the Ben Simmons-Al Horford pairing and the Sixers’ latest proposed secondary unit

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Because new savior Shake Milton can’t do everything

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

While we all await future Finals MVP Shake Milton revolutionizing this Philadelphia 76ers team via his inclusion in the starting lineup, the unfortunate reality is Milton can’t shake and bake his way to the cup for a full 48 minutes. According to Brett Brown’s Zoom conference call with media yesterday, the backup point guard when Shake hits the bench will be former starting point guard Ben Simmons.

Therefore, it appears the “Ben Simmons is a power forward” notion is more of a relational shift based upon the proposed starting unit, rather than a complete shift in identity for the Aussie star. This thought aligns with what Ben said himself in his media interview earlier this week:

“I’m a basketball player at the end of the day. You know me, if you put me on the floor, I’ll make anything happen. Whether it’s plays, buckets, stops, I’ll guard anybody 1 through 5, I run the floor, I can get to the rim, I can score the ball, and I make plays happen. So, wherever you put me — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — it’s gonna happen. I don’t really look at it as, like, a title or position. That’s mainly for you guys to put down in your articles.”

Alright, so Ben is going to continue to play across different positions. Honestly, seems fine! Basketball is trending towards being a positionless game and there is plenty of truth in Simmons’ remark about positional designations mainly representing something for us to discuss as media, fans, etc.

Now, let’s take a look at that secondary unit Brett went out of his way to mention on the call. While it would appear that he is going to do his level best moving forward to minimize on-court minutes featuring all three of Simmons, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid, the reality of the roster is that the Sixers will likely have two of that trio playing together throughout the vast majority of the game.

Lineups featuring Simmons and Horford have fared well in their 1,349 minutes together this season, sporting a 108.3 offensive rating and 103.9 defensive rating (plus-4.4 net rating). If we consider that 429 of those minutes also included Embiid, during which the team’s net rating plummeted to minus-0.8, then the Simmons-Horford minutes exclusive of Embiid have actually been extremely successful, particularly on the offensive end.

It makes sense that Simmons-and-Horford-but-not-Embiid units would have success. One of the low post impediments has been removed, affording more space for Ben’s forays to the rim, and Big Al’s floor-stretching ability works much better as a center than as a power forward. I don’t have the data to support or refute this idea, but if you’re looking purely at a 5-out offense with Simmons operating in a drive-and-kick fashion, Horford might fit better than Embiid. Despite Joel shooting better from 3 this season, Al has the better career numbers and reputation as an outside shooter, which might offer more gravity, despite the occasional egregious bite at an Embiid pump fake.

If we’re operating in a Simmons-and-Horford 5-out offensive environment, using Tobias Harris, Furkan Korkmaz, and Matisse Thybulle to round out the group makes a lot of sense. Tobi and Furk were the team’s highest-volume 3-point shooters this season, each firing 5.0 long-range attempts per game. While extremely streaky in his rookie season, Matisse proved capable from distance, shooting 35.2 percent on 2.5 attempts per game, so opponents can’t ignore him in catch-and-shoot situations. As a whole, this 5-man unit struggled to a minus-0.9 net rating in 156 minutes this season, but all the pieces seem to fit, and I understand Brett’s thinking in giving it some extended run as a secondary lineup.

Regardless, it’s clear Brett Brown used the pandemic-forced layoff to do some hard thinking about what lineups and rotations would work best for this Sixers roster. Philadelphia is giving a completely fresh starting group a look, and Brett put a hard line around this secondary group for some runway as well. With a week until the team retakes the court, Brett and all of us at home will finally get to see these ideas tested in the unforgiving make-or-miss reality of NBA game action.