The start of the 2021-22 NBA season has arrived. And in typical fashion, the Sixers won’t be beginning their new campaign free of drama, either.
Ben Simmons was thrown out of Tuesday’s practice by Doc Rivers and has been suspended for one game due to “conduct detrimental to the team.” Simmons was disinterested and refused to take part in some of the practice drills, he’s been fined for various absences since his surprise return to Philadelphia on October 11, and hasn’t earned any money since coming back. So, as the Sixers begin their new season on Wednesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, Simmons will be well and truly out of the picture.
Apart from Simmons, Shake Milton (ankle sprain) and Grant Riller (recovering from surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee) are both listed as out. Meanwhile, Matisse Thybulle and Tobias Harris aren’t on the latest injury report — their return will be extremely helpful as the Sixers work on polishing their chemistry after both players missed some time in preseason.
This would have been an incredibly fun matchup to look forward to if the Pelicans had their star available. Unfortunately, Zion Williamson is out as he continues recovering from a foot injury he suffered in the offseason. There’s no exact timetable for his return.
There are still some new players on the Pelicans’ roster that will be interesting to watch, though.
Jonas Valanciunas, who New Orleans acquired in their three-team trade with Charlotte and Memphis, is one of the most underrated centers in the NBA. He’s a reliable drop defender, a monster rebounder (particularly on the offensive glass), and a tough interior scorer and finisher. He’ll bully opponents, hit the occasional triple when he pops out to the arc, and be a significant part of the Pelicans this year.
Devonte’ Graham is another important addition from the same trade, giving the Pelicans a welcome boost of playmaking and high-volume three-point shooting off the bounce. When paired with Zion in pick-and-rolls, the two should form quite a duo with Graham’s pull-up threat and Zion flying downhill. Graham vs. Tyrese Maxey should be one of Wednesday’s best matchups to follow.
Rookie wing Trey Murphy III is also someone to keep an eye on. He’s an excellent three-point shooter and versatile defender, who should be able to help fit what the team needs at both ends — especially around Zion when he returns. Third-year guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker also has real upside to take another jump this season.
For the Simmons-less Sixers, the main focuses are similar to preseason. For one, looking at the new players in meaningful action.
Andre Drummond is an upgrade from Dwight Howard, and we already saw preseason flashes of how Drummond can offer more offensively with his passing and use out of dribble hand-off actions. Can he keep up his generally strong performance from preseason? Valanciunas will be a tricky, physical assignment for Drummond whenever they’re matched up on Wednesday, while Jaxson Hayes will be a bouncy rim roller for him to try to keep up with.
Georges Niang is also off to a good start in Philly so far. He’s capitalizing with quick threes when he’s left open, finding space off the ball, and providing some effective play moving off the team’s other shooters. Niang gives the Sixers a real upgrade at the backup 4 spot, and should be a valuable part of the rotation this year.
Good stuff from Isaiah Joe and Georges Niang here.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) October 15, 2021
Joe takes the ball off the DHO and briefly attracts the attention of the second defender on Niang (Olynyk). Niang pops to the corner with more space and fires the 3 immediately. Gravity and quick-trigger shooting working well. pic.twitter.com/43iq8v8EWd
Tyrese Maxey was always going to be set for a larger role this season, and with both Simmons and Milton not playing for now, there’ll be even more pressure on Maxey to lead the way at point guard. He had some terrific stretches of play in preseason, and monitoring how well he continues to move the ball and utilize his pull-up jumper will be key.
Of course, it won’t be easy for Maxey to take on full-time point guard duties in just his second NBA season at 20 years old. He isn’t an overly advanced passer, at least not yet. But given how much he improved in all areas of his game over the last couple of months of his rookie year, his impressive play in Summer League and preseason, and work ethic to keep improving, it’s hard to see that Maxey won’t make some kind of leap this season.
Exactly the kind of shot that Tyrese Maxey needs to keep taking.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) October 15, 2021
Defender drops under the screen, Maxey hits the open 3. pic.twitter.com/mJuAt4lvgj
Beyond just Maxey, the absence of Simmons and Milton means more minutes for Isaiah Joe as well. From the promise he showed as a rookie, to his Summer League play and stellar preseason, Joe has made it clear that he deserves a spot in the rotation. He’s a stellar shooter and provides valuable shot-making off movement, a smart and competitive defender, and has continued to look more comfortable attacking off the dribble and making complementary passing reads in the build-up to this season.
By taking a few minutes here and there from other wings and taking some minutes from Milton, it should be easy enough to find a spot for Joe. He deserves it. With a shorthanded backcourt against the Pelicans, Doc Rivers should give Joe a decent amount of run on Wednesday.
For all the frustration many fans feel when it comes to Simmons, it’s still important to remember just how good he is in the regular season. The Sixers’ point guard situation is shaky right now (behind Maxey in the starting unit, Milton has struggled to consistently handle the ball and distribute effectively), and Simmons’ playmaking and transition game will be missed. He’s also one of the very best defenders in the NBA, and his combination of size, speed, and versatility across all positions is unmatched. That can’t be replaced.
The bright side is that the Sixers’ spacing will improve and leaning into more shooting around Joel Embiid will be a plus at least. And while a defensive decline is unavoidable without Simmons, the Sixers should remain fairly solid at that end. Embiid manning the paint has always had the biggest impact on making Philly’s defense a strong one, while wings like Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle in particular will help round out some sound defensive groups.
The Simmons situation isn’t concluding any time soon. So for now, let’s just focus on basketball when possible and enjoy the NBA’s return.
The Sixers still have a competitive team. With an MVP-level Joel Embiid leading the way and some young talent on the rise, there are plenty of storylines to follow as the new season gets underway.
When: 8:00 pm ET, October 20, 2021
Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans, LA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic