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October 18, 2021

Practice notes: What will Sixers do if Ben Simmons is not ready for season opener?

Two days away from their opener against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Sixers are unsure (at least publicly) about Ben Simmons' availability.

"He played more today for sure, and we're just going to take our time and keep building," Doc Rivers said Monday. "Honestly, I haven't even thought about [his timeline] much. When it comes, I'll make the decision, but I'm just going to wait and see and watch. The spirit has been so good, so we're just going to keep going.

"We've been together for three weeks, so we've established a good rhythm. So the more he's in, the more he does, especially when we were working on our offensive stuff earlier. We've built from last year, but we tweaked a lot of stuff. But it's easy to pick up, and that's a good thing, especially for him."

From the small bit of practice reporters saw on Monday, Simmons was mixed across different groups, but when it was time to go through some defensive concepts for the New Orleans matchup (e.g. defending Brandon Ingram cuts), Simmons was off in a corner by himself while a presumed starting group of Embiid-Harris-Green-Curry-Maxey worked against a scout team, and then made way for the second unit of Drummond-Niang-Thybulle-Korkmaz-Joe. 

There's not much more they can see or learn in the next 48 hours to tilt their decision one way or another, save for Simmons putting his hand up and declaring publicly that he's ready to go. And with that low odds possibility aside, it leaves the Sixers in need of a plan for if/when he sits the game out.

Plan B is complicated by the absence of Shake Milton, whose injury timeline is still a bit murky after tweaking an ankle in practice last week. Milton put work in after practice with skill development coach Tyler Lashbrook, but Rivers has made clear he's not close to being ready yet. Behind Tyrese Maxey, that puts the responsibility on a committee of guys to effectively run the offense. Even aside from potential halfcourt issues, simply getting the ball up the floor could be a challenge against pressure defense, but the head coach doesn't seem concerned right now.

"We've had Furk [Furkan Korkmaz] and Isaiah [Joe], we've gone big lineups where we've taken one of our guards off of the floor and we've taken a bigger guy and put Tyrese with the second group, there's a lot of ways we can go with it," Rivers said Monday. "[Beating full-court pressure is] tough when you have one ballhandler. When you have two and three ballhandlers, just throw it to the other guy."

"Most of the time, teams that pressure have one guy to pressure. You rarely see two guys pressuring, you never see three guys. The great part about our team is our one can bring it up the floor, the two can bring it up, the three can bring it up, the four, and in our starting lineup, Joel can bring it up. So that's not a concern."

The worry at this point is less about playing the young guys — Maxey and Joe have proven they can get better even as their roles fluctuated week-to-week last season — and more about asking them to do things that are slightly outside of their scope. Maxey said recently that the challenge of becoming a "point guard" took him somewhat out of his own groove, and has vowed to never lose sight of what got him here in the first place.

Democratizing the offense and the point guard reps will have some interesting ripple effects. The half-court offense becomes even more about Joel Embiid than it already was, putting more pressure on Embiid to read doubles quickly and take the next step as a passer. Post spacing, a point of emphasis since the start of training camp this year (and really, since the start of Rivers' tenure), changes depending on who is on the floor. With no Simmons in the dunker spot, the Sixers acknowledge, everybody else's assignments and reads change.

"With Ben being out, you have to see the floor spacing and how we're going to operate," Danny Green said Monday. "Ben and Tyrese, two different guys, Shake [and Ben], two different guys. You're not going to play those guys in the dunker as much. Just figuring that out, post spacing Joel with those guys, how we're going to slash-cut, when to slash-cut, when guys space, just small little things here and there, and guys learning and reading differently."

Striking that balance and getting guys to buy into the change has been something Rivers has discussed at length throughout the preseason. Even an outside marksman like Seth Curry, for example, is someone who might occasionally have the responsibility to cut into space in the paint this year. Frankly, an uptick in cutting might be to the benefit of some guys further down the roster — Matisse Thybulle was empowered to cut off ball frequently during his stint with Team Australia this summer, and weaponizing his athleticism while minimizing his dribbling could help get him closer to useful on the offensive end of the floor.

On opening night, against a Pelicans team missing Zion Williamson, a little bit of uncertainty at the guard spots shouldn't be all that devastating for Philadelphia. But going point guard by committee is one of those things that could get quite dicey over time, and might hurt as soon as Friday night, when the presumed title favorite Nets waltz into town. There's plenty to sort out and not much time to do it.

Other notes

A little self-awareness goes a long way for role players at this level, and Georges Niang has the early candidate for Self Awareness Quote of the Year on this team. Asked if he has a strong sense of his role after a month with the team, Niang delivered the message crystal clear:

"Make sure my guy doesn't get in Joel's way so Joel can go score," Niang said. "Obviously, my job is to space the floor, and when my guy takes away my three-point shot, create for others." 

If Mr. Niang can deliver on that, he and Embiid will have a beautiful relationship, I can tell you that much.

The focus from a lot of reporters has been on the "vibes" or the "awkwardness" of this situation regarding Simmons, and I don't think that's an especially bad place to start. The group has said all the right things about keeping it professional, but it's natural to wonder what level of tension (if any) there is in the gym as the NBA's biggest current story hangs over the team (Kyrie Irving's shenanigans notwithstanding).

It does leave us all in a position where you have to try to read small moments at a level deeper than perhaps they deserve to be looked at. At Monday's practice, for example, Embiid and Harris spent time between defensive drills visibly laughing and chatting with other teammates on the baseline, very much looking the part of co-stars ready to begin the season and lead the team. By contrast, Simmons didn't interact with basically anyone, remaining stone-faced and isolated in the opposite corner when he wasn't on the floor getting reps.

That's the sort of scene most will look at and use as an example of why this isn't going to work. End-of-practice defensive drills, the likes of which we don't get to see much once the season begins, are being picked apart on Twitter as we speak, as everyone tries to get a sense of where Simmons' head is at. But it should be noted that Simmons' stoicism has been a constant throughout the years. JJ Redick loved to refer to him as a player and person who lived behind a glass wall, observing everyone else from the other side. Maybe this thing is on the verge of blowing up once he speaks publicly or finally plays for the Sixers, or maybe this is just another case of Ben being Ben.

If this space has been focused a lot recently on reminding people how much we don't know, it's because there's still plenty the team (and perhaps even Simmons) doesn't know about his short-to-medium term availability. This is a strange, developing situation that will almost certainly have twists and turns in the days and weeks to come. Pay attention to the details, just don't become consumed by them. 

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