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January 03, 2020

The Sixers can't keep building as if Ben Simmons is just a point guard

Sixers NBA

When one of the first two building blocks of a roster is a 6'10" player with multi-faceted skills on both ends of the floor, you can shape a team in almost any manner you want. That was the promise of Ben Simmons, and that was why he was such a slam-dunk pick for the Sixers at No. 1 in 2016, college concerns aside.

It is true that you probably could not find a worse possible fit next to him among superstar players than Joel Embiid. They are at odds with each other (skillwise, for the record) every moment they are on the floor. One wants to run, the other would like to walk. One desires space, the other destroys all of it. This limits the ability to build a roster around full-tilt Simmons and vice versa, with the partnership uneasier than many would like for two remarkably talented young men.

Even using these shaky tentpoles, management has failed to recognize the needs at hand. Nearly every move has been an overreaction to a perceived problem and focused on very specific sets of circumstances, rather than changes that benefit the team and uplift their stars on a night-to-night basis.

That starts with a foundational truth that has been clear dating back to the days of Robert Covington and Dario Saric — the Sixers need more players who can dribble and shoot, not fewer. And moving in that direction means understanding that Simmons has to be more than a point guard for this team to get where it needs to go.

Simmons the screener

It should not surprise anyone that a player who was a power forward at LSU is a good screener. This has been true of Simmons for years, though sometimes it was a challenge to find spots where they could take advantage of it.

One way they always liked to flip sagging defenses against teams in years past? Handoffs with JJ Redick. Simmons' man is going to go under screens every time, and that put a lot of pressure on Redick's man to get around Simmons and contest Redick as he's turning a corner without a hand in his face. But the Sixers don't have anyone close to Redick in this year's team, as their best shooters are mostly stationary guys.

Looking for answers in the middle of a tough stretch, Philadelphia has decided to unleash Simmons as a screener in sets involving Josh Richardson. It has worked to tremendous effect.

Most of you probably tried to use the Men in Black mind eraser for the Pacers game, but before that one turned into a blowout, we saw a quick glimpse of the Richardson-Simmons combo they would feature heavily against Houston.

These plays are particularly advantageous for the Sixers when teams guard Simmons with non-bigs, which frankly is most of the time. A big man defending this look might be able to walk the line between stopping a Richardson drive and preventing entry to Simmons, but it's a different story when you ask guards and wings to do so. Malcolm Brogdon is cooked here.

But this is just one play in a game the Sixers got smoked in. The Houston game, on the other hand, is where the Sixers started cooking out of looks like these, with Simmons playing one of the best offensive games of his career against Houston.

This is not exactly mind-bending stuff. But that is sort of the point — the more the Sixers can simplify the game for their best players, the better. Being talented does not mean they should have to jump through hoops or work extra hard to score. These looks minimized the burden on Simmons and got the Sixers good looks around the basket.

Richardson is not a player I believe is capable of being the primary ballhandler out of these looks on a team with title aspirations, as the Miami Heat found out the hard way. But as a scorer/ballhandler, he provides a blueprint for what skills are theoretically valuable alongside Simmons and for this team in general.

Who do the Sixers have on hand to help?

If Simmons is not inclined to shoot, and all indications suggest that is the case, the Sixers have to put players on the floor who can make Simmons more valuable in a halfcourt setting, as his work in defense and in transition speaks for itself. Most of Philadelphia's lineups are filled to the brim with players who either need offense created for them or are only really capable of creating offense for themselves.

Tobias Harris, as an example, is someone I'd throw in the latter bucket. He gets a few assists per game playing unselfish team basketball, but he's a simple-read playmaker, not someone who is going to make tight-window, elite-level passes. 

The Sixers built a team as if they believe Simmons can be tasked with carrying the team creation burden (or point guard responsibilities, if you prefer that framing) on his own. It is okay for him to need help. It doesn't mean he can't live up to the value of his mega-deal, and it doesn't mean he can't be a key piece on a championship team. But it does necessitate a look at who the Sixers are putting on the floor around him.

The recent success of Trey Burke is instructive here, though not necessarily because it has had much to do with Simmons. Burke may be giving back a lot of the points he is producing, but he represents live ballhandling off of the bench and gives the Sixers more outs when the offense stalls out. If you give him a screen, he can get into the teeth of the defense, and he's not afraid of attacking zone defense, which as it turns out is a valuable trait on this team.

(To my great confusion, Brett Brown has avoided lineups with Burke and Simmons on the floor at the same time until recently, after beating his head into the wall with Simmons and T.J. McConnell in years past. That was a look I wrote extensively about as a disaster. Even when it was Raul Neto getting backup point guard minutes, I did not understand Brown's reluctance on this front.)

The problem, of course, is that the Sixers are making lose-lose choices every time they tinker with the rotation. Just look at Philly's bench — one guy can't dribble, another can't shoot, another can't defend, and so forth. If they didn't have flaws, they wouldn't be bench players, and this is the cost of a star-studded lineup. But the Sixers have an inordinate amount of players whose value when they aren't hitting shots is zero or less, and that's a problem.

What they need, frankly, is the equivalent of "a better Trey Burke," someone with a more explosive version of his game or better playmaking for teammates or more defensive steel. Those guys, though, aren't necessarily easy to find midseason and have to be organizational priorities in team-building. There are lots of playable guards, but the good ones get paid.

The Sixers have tried to acknowledge this before

The current situation is frustrating precisely because this was a known issue for Philadelphia dating back years. 

Before Simmons ever took the floor, the Sixers moved serious draft capital to move up for Markelle Fultz, who would have taken some creative burden off of Simmons if he didn't fall into a wormhole never to be seen again. Under the next GM, they responded to a playoff humbling in Boston by moving role players for Jimmy Butler, a capable pick-and-roll player who ended up taking a huge chunk of the ballhandling reps in the playoffs.

Getting Richardson in return for a departing Butler was commendable, but the decision to put all of last offseason's eggs in the Horford basket has come with consequences.

In specific scenarios, Horford may indeed be the player they need him to be. On Christmas Day against Milwaukee, he was one half of an excellent gameplan against Giannis Antetokounmpo, and with the Bucks looming as the big bad in the East you can understand why the Sixers would have valued him as a chip in that battle. He was to be an insurance plan for Embiid and a vast improvement on what they had at backup center last season.

There are several problems with that approach. Horford's arrival has cramped life for Embiid even more, and the big man is pretty obviously unhappy with the current situation, as he detailed to reporters in Houston on Friday night, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon:

"Losing four in a row sucks, and it doesn't feel like we're getting better," two-time All-Star center Joel Embiid said. "So it is frustrating. ... I care about winning. It's taking a toll on me. All I care about is winning. It sucks. We've got to find a way. I guess we've got to keep fighting."  [ESPN]

On a team with a normal-ish structure, Al Horford would be a solution to some of the creation issues mentioned above, albeit a bit of a retrograde solution. He is a good, at times great, playmaker for a big man. But it's difficult to take advantage of his passing on short rolls or out of the post when both those options mean sticking Simmons and Embiid in places where defenses are incentivized to ignore them, or at least encourage them to take shots. Unable to make a difference as a passer, Horford has not offered Philadelphia much on offense. It has been especially tough sledding since returning from a brief injury layoff.

Beyond that, there have also been effort issues with Horford that have flown under the radar, perhaps as a result of his reputation as a character guy. He has never been a particularly good rebounder for a big, but he is barely even trying at times right now. This is either a guy who can't move anymore or one who has no interest in grabbing this rebound (I lean toward the latter):

As a general rule, I do not count the money of players, but the Sixers spent a significant chunk of change on Horford that could have either been distributed to several more flexible parts or perhaps one that simply fits better with this group. They bet on him being the player he has been in the years prior, and they bet on leaps forward from Simmons, Embiid, or both to make up for the expected weaknesses we assumed this team would have.

From where we sit today, that looks like a bad bet, and there aren't many paths to recouping that money. Trading Horford would bring more instability for a team that has been plagued by it for years, and testing the market is not likely to inspire a lot of big trade bids even if that was a path they were interested in. 

They have one realistic path to winning a title — they will need to absolutely maul teams on defense and prove that flipping the switch might just be enough. That is sort of the shame of this exercise. Just a few short years ago, the Sixers were a team with two of the most coveted prospects in basketball and limitless flexibility with which to work.

The Sixers can't recoup the squandered assets and cap space, but they can reclaim some of that flexibility on the floor, and that starts with trying to lean into Simmons' versatility instead of running from it.

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