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September 10, 2021

The biggest Sixers questions if Ben Simmons decides to hold out

The Sixers want a big return for Ben Simmons. The player himself wants to get out of town on the next plane leaving and has threatened to hold out if necessary. And the closer we get to the 2021-22 NBA season, the more we have to consider the reality where both sides remain dug in, waiting for the right moment to part ways.

So why not use this dead time in the offseason to think about it? If we assume Simmons lives up to his word and holds out until the Sixers get a deal done, and that the Sixers just carry on into the season rather than trading him because of that holdout, there are some important basketball (and semi-basketball) questions to answer fairly quickly. Let's look at the (theoretical) landscape.

Is their culture built to withstand this?

There are concrete, on-court questions for Philadelphia to answer that we'll get to in a moment. But we have to start with a broader, murkier subject — how the hell will the Sixers manage what has become the biggest story of the NBA offseason?

The Simmons saga has lasted so long and invites so many loud opinions that a move as big as Russell Westbrook to the Lakers has basically faded from view. Philadelphia is at the center of every remaining offseason discussion, and it hasn't always (or even often) been productive for their purposes. It's fair to question whether the dueling leaks from organizations around the league actually matter or impact Simmons' trade value, but you can bet the Sixers did not want to head into mid-September with Klutch putting public pressure on them to make a move.

In our final sitdown with Doc Rivers of the 2020-21 season, one day after his now-infamous Game 7 presser, Rivers noted that he still felt there was a long way to go to make the Sixers the sort of organization they need to be to win a title together.

"Those are some of the things that we have to fix still, the culture of this team and around this team," Rivers said in late June. "The teaching of not just the players, but even off the floor staff on driving this entire organization, like everybody has to be in. To me, that's what we have to keep trying to improve, and the more we improve around them, the more they'll do it themselves...I will say that we've made a huge jump this year in that department, but we have to get better and we will." 

Zoom out a bit and think about what that means in this instance. Standing at the center of the story that is likely to dominate headlines until it is resolved, everybody in the organization needs to be aligned and focused on weathering scrutiny and performing as if nothing is happening. You can be sure that there won't be 100 percent consensus even amongst the players, some of whom probably value Simmons as a player/teammate more than others, but that fact has to remain an internal issue. They can't afford on-the-record quotes with guys going rogue, leaks to the media about who Simmons is or isn't as a teammate, or really anything beyond a consistent PR-driven answer to move past the subject. That's even more true from the employees who aren't public-facing, each of whom has a different level of responsibility and loyalty to the organization. You won't be shocked to learn this, but people love to gossip in the NBA just as much as they do in any other workplace, perhaps more so in some instances. 

And then there's the on-court product, which will be impacted by Simmons' absence in obvious ways but also in ways we can't necessarily quantify even as we watch it play out. Broadly speaking, I think most "distractions" people suggest are problematic for team culture are wildly overrated and easy enough for players to roll their eyes at and move on. And frankly, so does Philadelphia's lead basketball executive — there may not be anyone in the league more willing to sit through an ugly start to the year than Daryl Morey, who is going to hold out until he feels he can get the right value back for Simmons.

Still, if Simmons' on-court absence derails the Sixers early, you run the risk of irritation spreading throughout the team. It's one thing to absorb pressure from media and fans outside of the organization, and another if your players start getting pissed off that you're forcing them to play down a major piece with moves on the table to be made. No one is more important on that front than Joel Embiid, whose body language has betrayed his dissatisfaction with roster situations in the past.

Win and none of this matters. But that could be easier said than done.

How do they incorporate Tyrese Maxey? 

Save for an erroneous offseason report on his future with the team, Maxey has had the best offseason of any Sixers player, at least publicly. He dominated during a brief stretch at Summer League, has said all the right things to suggest he will continue growing and improving, and was already riding high after a surprisingly effective playoff run. But there's still the matter of figuring out where he fits best with the group as is.

The "Start Maxey!" movement has gained a lot of disciples this summer, though there are numerous questions stemming from such a move, namely who is guarding top assignments on the other team. If we assume the Embiid-Harris-Green-Curry quartet is left as is, that leaves the Sixers with a small and potentially defensively challenged backcourt (Maxey's competitiveness notwithstanding) and one of Green or Harris guarding an opponent's best wing/forward type. But if you opt not to play Maxey and go with someone like Matisse Thybulle instead, there's a lack of on-ball dynamism missing in the team's top unit. Remove Curry to make way for the second-year guard and Thybulle, and your best and most reliable shooter (not to mention the best offensive partner Embiid had in the postseason) is out of the lineup. And taking out Green in the same scenario is self-defeating in your defensive goals.

That all adds up to Maxey potentially taking a super-sub role, albeit a larger and more consistent one than he had last season. And that's just fine to open the year — letting Maxey (hopefully) dominate opposing second units with a year of experience under his belt will help a bench unit that would need to be even better with the starting unit almost certainly taking a hit with Simmons away from the team. Leaving a player on the bench who can help lift everybody else up through his own self-creation makes plenty of sense on paper, and it's where I assume Rivers' mind will drift out of the gate if there's no resolution in this situation.

But this feels like it's going to take some tinkering to figure out, both at the start and end of games. We could end up seeing a lot of offense-defense substitutions, toggling between the likes of Maxey and Thybulle in order to get the most appropriate five-man group on the floor. 

How do you manage Embiid's workload?

In the best of times with a full roster, the Sixers have to keep Embiid's long-term health at the front of their minds. Whether they've always done so is an open question, but they'll face a big test out of the chute if they soldier on without Simmons and without a trade.

Games without Embiid have never been especially kind to Philadelphia, but the Sixers have basically always had a floor-setting player in Simmons to help hold the fort when the big guy is gone. That option appears to be gone (though there's certainly still time left for things to change) and the Sixers will have to figure out a plan that leverages the talents of their franchise player without overextending him.  

Here's the good news: they don't have their first back-to-back until November 3rd/4th, nearly two months after this article is being written and with plenty of time between now and then to get a Simmons deal done. Unfortunately, they do begin to pick up after that, with a back-to-back against New York and Milwaukee less than a week later and a grueling West Coast trip eating up almost all of the month that follows. 

In an ideal world, the Sixers would have until this year's deadline to get maximum value in return for Simmons, it's just unlikely they'll be able to wait that long and keep the team in the hunt for a higher seed in the Eastern Conference. But if they choose to let this linger, Philadelphia is going to have to lean on Embiid harder than they have at any point since his debut season, betting on him to carry the team on both ends while they try to find suitable long-term partners for him on the trade market. That's not exactly how you want the start of the season to go for a guy whose minutes need to be monitored with an eye toward the playoffs, and whose own aggression and style of play can sometimes get the best of him. It's more likely that Embiid would view this as a reason to dial it up even further rather than tone it down and think about what it means for games months down the line.

All the questions about the team simply get louder when you're missing Simmons with no replacement(s). Can you make up for all-bench lineups (or even bench-heavy lineups) when the starters are not as dominant without one of their best two-way players? Can you come up with defensive curveballs without your most versatile defender? Staring down issues like these, there will be a temptation to solve the problems by slamming the, "More Embiid" button, and the Sixers have to be cautious about how and when to do that.

Walking the line is going to be tricky, and will require some tough conversations between Embiid and Rivers, to say nothing of the involvement of front office and medical personnel. The title can't be won in October and November, but your chances can certainly be lost if you get reckless.

How is Tobias Harris featured?

Harris was a revelation out of the gate last season, enjoying his best stretch of basketball since leaving Rivers' Clippers in a 2019 trade to Philadelphia. As time wore on, though, some of Harris' old habits returned, with quick decisions fading into a lot of mid-post work.

If the Sixers are going to survive any sort of funky period to open the year, a lot of it will come down to Harris' ability to serve as a No. 2 option, picking up the slack in Simmons' absence. That doesn't mean simply scoring more points. Harris will have to initiate more offense as the ballhandler, lead Philadelphia in transition, create for teammates as a passer, and so forth. Some of those goals are more realistic than others — he's always been a strong grab-and-go player on the break, has shown the ability to score out of pick-and-rolls, and there were flashes of improved playmaking last season. But doing those things when they're a bonus vs. when your team absolutely must have them is a huge difference.

Frankly, one of the most important things Rivers needs to get out of Harris is a quicker trigger from deep. Harris shot fewer threes per game last season than he had in any full season since 2015-16, when the outside shot was still a developing piece of his game. There's no excuse for him to be a low-to-mid volume outside shooter at this stage of his career, and the team has to emphasize that to Harris, whose ability now far outstrips his willingness to let it fly.

And of course, there's the added defensive burden Harris must carry as the Sixers prepare to move on without a big, versatile player like Simmons. He's not going to check guards like Simmons often does, and he's not going to play himself into DPOY conversations, but he will often be their first line of defense against the league's top wings, if for no other reason than being their closest like-for-like match physically. Harris is a competitor on defense who has improved in recent years, but becoming more of a stopper while also helping to buoy the offense is a big ask. Time will tell if he can live up to it.

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