July 01, 2020
They are not a perfect pairing, nor do they come without their individual warts, but Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are reasons 1A and 1B for the Sixers being relevant. In a call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, head coach Brett Brown offered his strongest possible endorsements of his star pupils and their readiness for the Orlando restart.
"Let's start with the respect and applause I give him for putting in time. There is nobody on our team that has put in more time than Joel Embiid," Brown said Wednesday. "Forget what he has actually done in the gym for a minute, just go to the man-hours and consecutive days and the amount of days he has put in over the past few months. I'm proud of him, I respect him. He needed to do it, we understand the impact he can have on our team."
Embiid did not go into quarantine with the same concerns as Simmons, who was dealing with a back injury and in jeopardy of missing the beginning of the playoffs if not for the COVID-19 interruption. But Embiid's conditioning and preparedness for NBA games has always been something of a sore spot for Philadelphia's franchise center, first because of his limited minutes and games played, and later due to outside questions about his approach to the game.
Conditioning is always at the forefront of Brown's mind. A Rick Pitino pupil, Brown stressed the importance of fitness from his very first season in charge, and the team has ramped up efforts to track the health of their players in the years since. The expectation for all of his players heading into midsummer training camp, he says, is for the group to be at least a "B or B+" on the conditioning front, with the hope being they're all at an A-level before restarting the season in Orlando.
Who better to lead the way than Embiid? The Sixers have studied data throughout quarantine on the rash of injuries that usually follow NBA lockouts, and are aware that they have to protect their players from harm by getting them back into fighting shape. From Brown's perspective, everything is on the up and up, and with increased practice time afforded to them over the next month, he sees a unique opportunity to get everyone in the gym together before the grind of the schedule begins.
"We've got a three-week runway to deliver him to the regular season, I'm looking for Joel to come in in as good of shape as he's been in since I have coached him. I think the three weeks we have together is an inverted sort of luxury we haven't had," Brown said. "I'm excited for Jo to get back into this and show what he has been doing the last few months."
On the other side of the coin is Simmons, whose rehab has been met with positive messaging throughout the process and who Brown himself said was in a good place when reporters spoke with the head coach in mid-May. The only blip came in the form of another interview Brown gave in June, where he shed doubt on Simmons' availability in an interview with Sports Illustrated:
My opinion, and this is not confirmed yet, is that we are goin to be able to inch him back into this. Is he going to be 100%, I don't expect that. But I think he is going to be available.
Brown sang a much different tune on Wednesday afternoon, insisting that when the Sixers take the floor and really begin to ramp things up, Simmons will be just like any other player on the roster.
"You're going to treat Ben like you're going to treat Shake [Milton] or Matisse [Thybulle], he's good to go. He's put in a tremendous amount of work for me to be able to confidently say that. When you search for silver linings with this pandemic and the way things have shaken out, it would be hard-pressed for me find something more obvious than this. It has enabled Ben to reclaim his health...we look forward to watching him with what I'm told is effectively 100 percent health."
How the Sixers use Simmons and Embiid, it's worth noting, is another matter entirely. Without putting a hard minutes limit on anyone, Brown acknowledged the reality of his players being off for several months in a manner unprecedented for most of them. Though the time layoff is similar to an NBA offseason, players aren't usually kept out of gyms and away from games during their downtime in the summer, and many end up congregating in big cities for regular pickup games with other NBA players. Not so recently — although there have been rumors of "underground" games on both coasts.
Brown, who noted during the call that he's excited to move Simmons around the floor depending on lineup configuration, remains optimistic in the construction of their team and their ability to figure things out between now and early August. That optimism rests at least in part on the way Simmons and Embiid have combined in specific games this season, most recently in a statement victory over the Clippers on their home floor, the first game Al Horford was removed from the starting lineup.
All of that might add up to something Sixers fans have wanted to see more of for some time: pick-and-rolls involving their two best players. Brown stopped short of committing to major offensive changes and noted all five guys on the floor matter for offensive playcalling, but at the end of his hour-long chat, he departed with an encouraging note.
"It's deeper than let's just put them in this pick-and-roll," Brown said. "But it was significantly run in the Clipper game, I do believe it helped us, and I am excited to continue to grow that part of those two players' world. I think you're going to see more of it in the regular season, and based on the success, see more of it in the playoffs."
The Sixers will need as much of Embiid and Simmons as they can get in any capacity once the calendar turns to August.
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