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Dwight Howard and Ben Simmons are not a compatible duo...and Doc Rivers has finally acknowledged it

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Philadelphia 76ers v New York Knicks Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

After the rout of the Cavs last night, Sixers Head Coach Doc Rivers said something I found very intriguing. Per Noah Levick, of NBCSPhilly, Rivers discussed that his reserve center, Dwight Howard, both by the numbers and the eye test is better with his second unit, and that is why we didn’t see a ton of his minutes married with Ben Simmons’ last night. Indeed, the duo of Howard and Simmons only shared the court for 6 minutes. That number is down a shade, from the 7.6 minutes per contest they’ve shared the floor this season. And down significantly from the 10.6 mpg they’ve shared the floor since Embiid’s scary looking left knee hyperextension and bone bruise the MVP candidate suffered on March 12th.

So does this mean we’ll continue to see less of Simmons-Howard pairings moving forwards?

Simmons has always played better hoops when he’s paired with a stretch big. Players like Boban Marjanović, Amir Johnson, Greg Monroe, often make life more difficult on Simmons by clogging the paint and allowing their defender to double team Ben when he drives. It sure sounded like Daryl Morey understood this well when he signed his former player with the Rockets, Howard last November. Here is what Morey had to say, per Rich Hofmann of The Athletic:

“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.”

This made it sound like there would be lots of uptempo lineups while Howard would be somewhat of a specialist for Philly, not necessarily a full-time backup five. But for all intents and purposes, Rivers has used Dwight as more of a standard backup five. And that choice has been most curious since Embiid went down.

On March 26th, Morey again discussed the option Rivers has to play Ben without Howard, when Embiid is out of the lineup. Per Ky Carlin of SixersWire:

“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.”

If I were reading the tea leaves, I would venture that Morey expected a bit more small ball lineups during times Embiid was out, and a bit less Howard than he has seen from Rivers’ rotations thus far. But I think Morey is content, for now, to defer to a championship-winning coach, who has largely exceeded expectation thus far. And to be fair, Dwight is darn good at what he does. This is not an anti-Dwight piece. He has been a very fun player to watch this year. He’s one of the few best rim protectors in the entire NBA, he’s as well-conditioned an athlete as there is in the league, he’s a champion, a Hall-of-Famer, and an emotional leader for this team. They’re having a lot more fun than last season and Dwight is a huge part of why.

But Rivers’ comments, explaining why Dwight and Ben didn’t play much together yesterday seem to represent a shift in philosophy from the head coach.

Ben and Dwight by the numbers

Simmons has played 1,344 minutes this year. He has played 587 minutes without Embiid. Of those, 303 were shared with Howard for a net rating of -11.6, and 141 were shared with former (non-stretch five) Tony Bradley.

Of Simmons’ total minutes, only 143 (about 10.6 percent) have come without a traditional center on the floor. We’ve seen very little of those exciting “unique, uptempo, shooting lineups” Morey tempted us with before the season and reminded us were options for Doc around the trade deadline.

What Rivers said last night is spot on. The numbers tell you that Dwight probably isn’t very compatible with Simmons. A look at the duo when sharing the floor, per some date ranges:

Here are some three-player lineups for the full season, courtesy of NBA.com:

I know this type of data can be noisy. Who else was on the floor? Who was the opponent? So I took the trouble to look a little more deeply, by also checking how some of these lineups did against better competition. [1]

Generally speaking, the trends held consistent when facing stiffer comp:

Here’s what stands out to me....

Intuitively, as the playoffs get closer we would expect to see fewer lineups where both Simmons and Embiid are off the floor.

It’s simply too risky to face a team like Milwaukee or Brooklyn and hope to tread water without either superstar in the game. Therefore the Sixers should be relying on lineups featuring Simmons and Harris (and likely Green as well) when Embiid is not in the lineup. And almost all of the information we have today suggests that Howard may not enhance those lineups. Oh and don’t forget, George Hill is on the way as well.

Almost fascinatingly, the two signature wins which came against the Lakers and Jazz did not feature a single minute of the Howard-Harris-Simmons trio, which Ben Detrick has noted on Twitter, performed poorly thus far. Is Doc Zen Mastering us all?

A peek at how crowded the paint can get when Howard is in the dunker spot. Some of Ben’s worst habits become exacerbated:

The rocky road ahead

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are not the most compatible duo in NBA history. We can acknowledge that they’ve played some great ball with Covington and Saric, Butler and Redick, Harris and Green. But the fit isn’t always perfect.

One way that the Sixers might be able to milk more compatibility out of their star duo, is to lean into a stagger. Implement a diligent load management program for Embiid. Rest him every 4-6 games, like Kawhi Leonard, keep his regular-season per-game minutes low, while letting Ben absolutely cook anytime Jo is sitting or skipping a game.

The truth is, as we often get reminders of, some of Simmons’ best games come when Embiid is not in the lineup. And Simmons is sacrificing for the betterment of the team. He might have more fun and the Sixers might reach a new level allowing him to play in that type of uptempo style Morey mentioned throughout the year. Doc acknowledging as much last night is extremely encouraging. If you kept Embiid at 35 minutes per regular-season night, with the occasional night off, there’s plenty of time for Super Ben.

There is great news ahead. Embiid is scheduled to return to the Sixers lineup, perhaps as early as this Saturday. Everything else Sixers-related pales in comparison to that monster update.

But the team can’t just plug him in and expect him to go full throttle from his first minutes back. The Sixers have 24 games left to be played over the course of 44 days, including 6 (!) back-to-backs. They have to thread a slim needle. Win as many games as possible to preserve their monster home-court advantage. But frantically iterate to see which lineups without either of Joel and Howard work. Does this mean 30 minutes per game for Matisse Thybulle, who has been playing great ball? Does this mean more Mike Scott? There’s a lot to figure out in a little amount of time. But it sounds like Rivers may have seen what he needed to see on the Ben plus Dwight pairing, and we may be about to see some of the uptempo experimental small ball lineups many of us imaged when Daryl Morey first came aboard.

footnote

[1] What constituted this sample? Any game where Ben Simmons was active when facing division opponent’s, current playoff teams (if the playoffs started today) Western Conference teams over .500 and the Golden State Warriors (out of sheer respect because, honestly, I couldn’t deem the Knicks as a high impact game and then ignore a recent dynasty right?)

Here’s the full list:

NYK, TOR, CHA, BK, MIA, BOS, LAL, IND, POR, PHX, UTAH, DAL, SAS, MIL, LAC, GSW