It all started with a period of vibes, joy and delirium. Now, we’re at the other end of the fun spectrum.
The Philadelphia 76ers had several role players absolutely smashing. Tyrese Maxey was (and still is) a revelation, a cooling balm applied to scorched souls seeking a combo-guard for longer than television pundits claim “The Process” endured.
The team rattled off six wins in a row, and sat in sole possession of first place in the East through ten games. Some fans at the time dared suggest the team did not miss Ben Simmons (not yet mentally ready to play, seeking trade). Others took it a step further and said that with improved spacing and chemistry, the team was actually better. Many could at least agree things were more fun without a disgruntled, non-shooting point-forward, a paint-clogging reminder of last season’s agonizing finish.
Those guys are all willing to shoot, they all want to be there, they’re built for whatever we fans give them, they can handle Philadelphia. Unlike someone else....
The hot start was a bit of validation for those who have and continue to argue Simmons is a terrible fit alongside MVP candidate Joel Embiid.
Then came the unfair rash of breakthrough COVID cases injuries, and other vibe-crushing decimation. The most important news is that it appears most of the Sixers who were sick and injured avoided the worst and can begin rounding back into shape. That may not happen overnight; although, they’re trending up physically.
But now 11-11, we should all at least be able to admit one thing: holy mackerel does this team miss Ben Simmons. It’s at once patently obvious and yet, feels like it needs to be said based on much of the swirling sentiment.
The Sixers fielded one of the best starting fives in the entire NBA in three of the previous four regular seasons. Whether we replace names like Dario Saric and Robert Covington (2017-2019) with Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris (2018-2019), or Danny Green and Seth Curry (2021), Philadelphia’s five man unit always filtered to the top. That’s not going to continue the way things are looking.
One thing fans may have come to take for granted over the years: having two legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates in one lineup. I watched the great “Untold: Malice at the Palace” movie on Netflix about the brawl in Detroit. I forgot just how good that 2004 Indiana Pacers team was. They had arguably the best rim protector in the game in Jermaine O’Neal, and arguably the best perimeter defender Ron Artest. The 2021 Sixers had their own version of that with Embiid and Simmons, holding teams to 107 points per 100 possessions, second in the league only to the Los Angeles Lakers.
All they needed was a Reggie Miller running around bombing triples.
This year’s Sixers allow 108.3 points per 100, which ranks 19th in defensive rating. The number itself doesn’t represent a huge discrepancy from last season, but after we account for scoring overall being down due to new rule changes, it’s a pretty big dip. The drop from second to 19th reflects it.
A lineup featuring Maxey and Seth Curry has an uphill battle defensively. Danny Green is dealing with some soft-tissue injuries and isn’t at full strength. That makes Embiid’s job of protecting the rim far more difficult than it has been in the past. Look at some of these no-win decisions he has to make, the same kind he faced in the Bubble when the team, missing Simmons to injury, was unceremoniously swept by the rival Boston Celtics.
Tatum to Rob for the lob pic.twitter.com/MFSzoL3xvo— Guy Boston Sports (@GuyBostonSports) December 2, 2021
This was a point further emphasized by watching D’Angelo Russell sizzle at Wells Fargo recently, a player Simmons has historically put the clamps on.
Ben Simmons was a mad man defensively in Game 2, particularly against D'Angelo Russell. Here's a compilation of his absurdly good defense: pic.twitter.com/a3cchjbqR4— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 17, 2019
But whatever benefits there are offensively to not having Simmons in the fold (and there are at least some), they don’t feel reliable enough to make up for the clear slide defensively.
The team ranks 16th in effective field goal percentage, a measure of their shooting profile. That rank was much higher before Embiid got sick, so it may rise again. This year’s team plays very slowly, they avoid turnovers (they now have the third-fewest turnovers per game, much better than last season’s 19th) and they take good shots.
Philadelphia ranks 29th out of 30 teams in pace, down from 12th in pace last year. That in and of itself isn’t terrible. But it’s costing them some of the lowest-hanging fruit the NBA offers in golden transition opportunities. Without Simmons helping create live-ball turnovers, and forcing misses, the Sixers are running less than they have in the past. Their 95.8 total possessions per game doesn’t allow them to jack up a ton of shots and some of those shots used to come via fast break.
In 2021, they were tied for eighth in frequency of a transition possession. The 2022 team is now on the other end of that list, ranking 27th overall with just 13.2 percent of its possessions coming in transition.
That’s a pretty big dip. And the fast-break points have suffered because of it. This year, the Sixers are 15th in fast-break points, scoring 12.3 points per game. Last year, they were third overall, dropping 15 points per game on the break.
Last season, they ranked 12th in offensive efficiency ( 110.8). This year they rank 11th (107.9). Again, this team has been decimated with illness and injury. and that ranking may rise. But to what level? In order to make up for how much worse they are defensively without Simmons, they need to be significantly better offensively. I’m skeptical they can get there without a massive trade, one that doesn’t feel imminent.
According to Cleaningtheglass.com, these Sixers are headed for that 46.5-win range, relegating them to play-in tourney status, or thereabouts.
Perhaps, we might be more optimistic than the algorithm devised by Ben Falk, a former Sam Hinkie Lieutenant, the site’s founder. After all, the machine doesn’t know how many games Embiid or Harris have missed. It knows point totals, differentials and net ratings. It’s “punishing” them in its forecast based on games they had no starters available for. So, maybe, we might be more bullish than the machine.
But then, there’s the eye-test. The Sixers are not passing that. They’re relying on some spot-up shooters to create off the dribble. They’re having a great deal of trouble making entry passes to Embiid when he has a mismatch.
They have players who are extremely reluctant to take triples, preferring to bob-and-weave their way into a difficult midrange shot. They used to take the third-highest amount of free throws per game and now they’re down to just 15th.
You might still hate the team’s ceiling and title odds with Simmons in the fold. You may have decided that because he and Embiid have struggled in their first three playoff runs together, that more of the same is inevitable, despite historical trends. You may prefer any one of Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine, Buddy Hield or Harrison Barnes to Simmons. We can agree or disagree on a number of those points tomorrow.
But one thing should be clear through 22 games: the Sixers would be a lot better off right now with Simmons back in the lineup. I’ve heard a few opposing fan bases troll the Sixers by chanting, “where’s Ben Simmons?” But if I was in that stadium, I might have joined in with the chant, just as a Sixers fan.