There are 26 games remaining in the Sixers’ regular season. They hold a slim half-game lead in the standings over the Brooklyn Nets, and a 3 game lead over the Bucks, before a precipitous drop to the respective four and five seeds, the Hornets and Knicks, sitting 8.5 games back. And now comes a time that’s difficult for a head coach for many reasons. Doc Rivers and team President Daryl Morey have to do some real calculus here. If they feel they have not fully tapped their team’s potential, they’ll want to continue to tinker with their lineups, which will include the addition of playoff-tested point guard George Hill. But the more experimental they get, (after all, they've gotten this far and find themselves in first place) the more they risk dropping a seed or two in the standings.
Get too inventive and you could lose a game that costs home-court advantage. The Sixers boast the NBA’s second-best home record behind the Utah Jazz (20-2) at 19-4. They do not want to cost themselves the chance to host the second round or Conference Finals if avoidable. But if they don’t experiment enough, they could lose a series because of something relatively predictable (shout out Boban and Greg Monroe).
So herein lies the question lots of startup companies ask themselves at some point: do we continue on the path that we’re on, and do all we can to meet our annual goal over the last fiscal quarter? Or is there a way to search for new, untapped revenue streams, perhaps even low-hanging fruit, and potentially even blow our competition out of the water? How successful can we be and how much are we willing to innovate along the way to find out?
Simmons and spacing
I'm w/@bdetrick's Doc Rivers takes. BB was an excellent coach who was handed a ziti pizza.— Andrew Kuo (@earlboykins) March 28, 2021
Doc seems like a wonderful guy and this roster is fantastic, but the rotations and refusal to play small or use a stretch 5 is odd.
They've had to fight hard against .500 teams w/out Jo.
Pop quiz hot shot! What were the circumstances surrounding Ben Simmons’ best career offensive games?
- February 15th in a loss to Utah, with Joel Embiid a late scratch dealing with back tightness, Simmons rose to the occasion and kept the team in the game against the league’s best group in their own gym, dropping a career-high 42 points, 12 dimes, 9 boards.
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2020, in Brooklyn, with Embiid nursing a torn finger, Ben Simmons went ballistic on the Nets. Dropping 34 points, 12 boards, 12 dimes, 5 steals and 2 blocks he had the Nets in a vice on both ends of the floor and propelled Philly to a huge road win.
- In a pivotal playoff game, with the chance to reacquire home court from the Nets back in April 2019, while Embiid was out nursing left knee tendinitis, Simmons was spectacular posting 31 points, 9 dimes, 4 boards, 3 blocks, 2 steals, 11-13 from the field in a win.
- In a 2018 game with the 3 seed on the line, and none other then LeBron James in town, with Embiid out nursing an orbital fracture, Simmons just a rookie held down the fort in style. With 27 points, 13 dimes, 15 boards, 4 steals and a block, home court was maintained.
Of course, there are other monster games he’s had. But off the top of my head, there’s a pretty clear theme here: when Joel Embiid is out of the lineup, and it’s a huge game, Ben is liable to go nuclear and hint at a level of play that far exceeds his typical All-Star performances; at least if a couple of key conditions are met....
Pop quiz hot shot! What are the perfect conditions for a Ben Simmons nuclear game?
Embiid is out and the Sixers play a fair amount of a floor-spacing big/s in his place!
Joel Embiid is a stretch big now. He’s shooting over 42 percent from deep on nearly 3 triples per game. However, he is such a dominant presence in the half-court that I think Simmons often defers to the big fella.
But historically, if Embiid is out, then it’s been players like Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Scott, Al Horford, Jonah Bolden, occasionally Wilson Chandler or Mike Muscala, who have helped spread the floor for Simmons in these no-Jo-so-Ben-you-go moments.
Pop quiz hot shot! What types of bigs don’t appear to accentuate Simmons’ game?
Non floor spacing bigs like Boban Marjanović, Greg Monroe, Trevor Booker, Norvel Pelle, Kyle O’Quinn, Amir Johnson, Dwight Howard, Tony Bradley, etc. you get the gist.
In the 281 minutes this season Simmons and Howard have shared the floor they’re a woeful -40 plus-minus. All too often, Howard’s man is capable of double-teaming Simmons without paying the consequences.
The team may get away with this stuff during the regular season, but it would surprise literally nobody if they failed to score during a critical stretch of a big playoff game because the spacing was just not there.
Enter Daryl Morey
Morey was fresh off a smallball experiment in Houston before he came here and he knows the value of shooters better than any Team Prez in the sport. Many fans expected upon his arrival that the team might finally “let Ben cook” by surrounding him with a brigade of snipers anytime Embiid was out of the game.
After all, Joel Embiid should be sitting out every 3-5 games for load management like Kawhi Leonard has for his last several championship-caliber seasons. That’s how he’s always so fresh and ready for the stretch run. And with the right personnel around Simmons, we know he’s more than capable of picking up the slack, allowing the big fella to keep fresh for a playoff run himself.
But we really haven’t seen any of these fun lineups much this season. And it’s perhaps been most glaring since Embiid got hurt in mid March.
Back in November when the Sixers signed Dwight Howard, we got a clue about what Morey was thinking. Per The Athletic’s Sixers writer Rich Hofmann:
“After Al Horford was traded to Oklahoma City in a deal that still isn’t official, the Sixers’ most important need in free agency became a center to play behind Joel Embiid. After the draft, Daryl Morey discussed the “optionality” of the backup center position, expressing a desire to play with small-ball looks as well as traditional big men when the matchup calls for it. The latter scenarios will be where Howard comes into play.
“There’s a chance to play like really unique, uptempo, sort of spacing, shooting lineups (around Simmons),” Morey said. “But I also like adding a big just so Doc has all of the sort of tools to basically attack who we are playing in different ways.”
That sounded great! Dwight will be here for emergencies when there’s a behemoth in town, and he can clean the glass when Doc Rivers “needs that tool.”
But we’re finally going to see lots of what we’ve always dreamt of: unique, uptempo, spacing, shooting, smallball lineups with the backup center minutes. Amazing!
But over the first half of the season, we really didn’t see much of that, did we?
Per CleaningtheGlass.com the Sixers have only had 125 possessions where Simmons was on the floor and none of Joel Embiid, Dwight Howard, and Tony Bradley were on the floor. Keep in mind, Embiid has been injured, and Howard was ejected from the last two games and Tony Bradley has been traded. So some of these possessions have clearly come recently.
Daryl Morey spoke about the possibility of addressing the backup big spot last week. Per Ky Carlin, Editor of the SixersWire:
“The buyout market is often a conversation about opportunity and role,” said Morey. “We probably have more opportunity at that big spot so I expect to buyout would probably be more big, if we do any at all. We need more big.”
“We feel good with Joel and Dwight,” Morey added. “Doc, if he chooses, can put unique lineups on the floor with Ben and Tobias and Mike Scott so we feel good about where we’re at, but if a buyout comes along, it’s more likely big.”
So just like before the season, Daryl is again discussing the possibility of Doc Rivers utilizing lineups without a big who doesn't space the floor. He continues to indicate that it’s ultimately Rivers’ decision. So what has Rivers decided so far?
Per FantasyLabs.com, a look at some of the minutes when none of Embiid, Howard, Bradley or Poirier were on the floor:
Since Tony Bradley was traded, none of Simmons’ minutes were shared with Howard. So remember how Morey said before the year Doc might have some unique smallball lineups with shooters for certain matchups and Howard for other matchups? And remember how around the trade deadline he said if Doc chooses, he can use some unique Scott, Harris, Simmons lineups? We really haven’t seen Doc experiment with this stuff until he was absolutely forced to by both a trade and back-to-back ejections.
Of the 68 total minutes this season that a trio of Scott, Harris, and Simmons have shared the floor 41 of those came over the last two games! It seems a little odd, doesn’t it? One would think that if the Sixers found themselves in a huge road playoff spot, and needed to buy Joel Embiid a few minutes of rest, that they would want at least their next two best players in Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris out there.
And any fan over the last few years could tell Doc that Ben thrives when there is a floor-spacing big and is limited when paired with the opposite.
Tony Bradley's player just standing there waiting for Simmons with no defensive rotation pic.twitter.com/IE9kCunSI4— Alex (@ADC_PHL) March 24, 2021
Trouble finding ways to tread water when Joel Embiid is out (whether that's for a full game of load management or injury or just a few minutes at a time within a game) is certainly not new to Philadelphia. Spacing issues are not either.
Per The Athletic’s Senior Writer Derek Bodner, back in 2019:
“When all was said and done, the Sixers used a 19-10 run with their small lineup to wrestle back control of the game. But last night provided strong examples of both the benefits and drawbacks of such a lineup. Still, even with pronounced weaknesses to overcome, I think it’s something the Sixers should look to build on, even when Embiid returns. With Embiid playing 34 minutes a night and Marjanovic now in the regular rotation, my concern is that this look will fall by the wayside, used as little more than an occasional gimmick. But given Marjanovic’s questionable fit in the playoffs and the potential of this lineup being almost impossible to defend, the Sixers should consistently run it out there so the defensive communication and rotations can be ironed out well in advance of the playoffs.
It might only be used as a change of pace, and maybe only for short stretches, but it could prove crucial in the postseason, when teams tend to run traditional, paint-bound centers off the floor (and because in Bolden the Sixers have a rookie “mobile center” who occasionally makes rookie mistakes). It’s important for the Sixers to get repetitions for this lineup, so it’s running on all cylinders on both ends by the playoffs. This shouldn’t be relegated to a gimmick, even once Embiid’s back.”
Here we can switch Boban’s defensive flaws with Howard’s offensive flaws. Howard, a superior athlete, is probably not someone a defense will go out of their way to target. But we can reasonably predict, that if Howard is inserted into a massive moment of a crucial ballgame, the offensive spacing will give Simmons and the Sixers some challenges.
This is why fans had their eye on players like Mike Muscala, Nemanja Bjelica, P.J. Tucker, Luke Kornet or other potential “stretch bigs.” Per the same Carlin post referenced above, this quote from Morey:
“I feel pretty good that someone who coach Rivers thinks will help us will be available but it is very early to really give too much details on that, but we feel good about the buyout market right now.”
But with LaMarcus Aldridge choosing Brooklyn and Gorgui Dieng choosing San Antonio, the Sixers are pretty much left with free agents or their own current roster. Might they kick the tires on Dewayne Dedmon who could shoot reasonably well once upon a time? Does Anthony Tolliver have anything left in his tank? Would DeMarcus Cousins, who shot over 33 percent in Houston this year, be someone they might consider? Omari Spellman? What about G League rookie of the year and MVP Paul Reed? Might he see more action with a possible audition for a playoff role?
Bodner in the piece cited above discussed the need to vie for seeding, while also experimenting with more playoff-viable rotations. Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers now find themselves in basically the same situation. I’m hoping they come up with a creative solution. Because finding ways to more routinely “let Ben cook” could give this team a ceiling they haven’t yet tapped. People have debated ad nauseam the fit between Simmons and Embiid. It seems clear to me, that they can coexist well together, in the right lineups. But we have yet to see the team consistently find a way to unlock Simmons when Joel rests or sits one out. That could be the key to locking up home court over a 26 game span, or it could be the key to winning 9 critical minutes the big man sits during a game seven.
 That +7.8 net rating featuring a four-man combo of Simmons, Harris, Green, and Scott seems especially playoff viable. I wonder if adding George Hill to the mix might lend even more of a turbo boost to it.