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February 24, 2020

Without Ben Simmons, Sixers are in a hole they dug for themselves

The starting point guard remains sidelined with a back injury, and Philly is completely unprepared to deal with a long-term absence

Ben Simmons is still undergoing treatment and evaluation on his back as of Monday evening, a Sixers spokesman told a group of reporters assembled at the Wells Fargo Center, and the team is still working on a detailed evaluation with Simmons’ management team, which they expect to have within the next 24 hours. There is no timetable for his return as of this moment, and Sixers head coach Brett Brown offered no further clarity during his media availability that followed.

"It really is kinda like, how long is a piece of string?" Brown said Monday. "Who knows?"

With that hanging over the Sixers as they prepare for the Atlanta Hawks, the mind drifts immediately to rotation changes and replacement options. The pitfall of building a top-heavy NBA team is that it is damn near impossible to replicate star-level production and star-level skill sets if one of your best players happens to go down. Remove LeBron James from the Lakers' rotation tomorrow, and you have a team not all that dissimilar to the Pelicans teams Anthony Davis failed to win with in New Orleans, short on creators and flexibility.

The Sixers, however, are uniquely unprepared to deal with the loss of Ben Simmons precisely because they tried to prepare for the potential absence(s) of one of his teammates, Joel Embiid. Philadelphia's systemic and years-long neglect of creative talent has finally come home to roost, and they will have to live with the consequences for as long as Simmons is out.

On his own, Al Horford has underwhelmed expectations by a lot this season. He is averaging more "wide-open" threes this year than he has in any season since the NBA made tracking data available in 2013-14, and his overall catch-and-shoot numbers are the worst they have been since 2014-15 when he was still a low-volume outside shooter with the Atlanta Hawks. Horford's jump-shooting numbers are worse from every area of the floor, with significant drops from 3-10 feet (14 percent drop), 10-16 feet (8.6 percent drop), 16-3pt. line (10.2 percent drop), and from three (four percent drop) compared to last season.

This would be painful for any player the Sixers committed a potential nine-figure salary to, but the Horford signing has been especially painful for two reasons:

  1. The expected fit with Joel Embiid has been worse than anyone could have imagined
  2. Philadelphia's ability to adapt and play out of different styles is basically zero 

The first point has been discussed to death, but the second point is the critical flaw with this team and the reason there are so many constant questions about the ability to fit Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid next to one another. By using a significant chunk of their cap space on a player who is now a backup center, the Sixers capped their ability to invest in the skills Philadelphia's best players actually need around them to reach their potential. 

This may be an obvious thing to say but centers are the least flexible players in the league by nature, particularly in a league going smaller and smaller. Even the best ones fulfill specific defensive responsibilities with minimal switchability and offer a smaller package of skills on the offensive end, where they are largely reliant on others to initiate the plays for them to score in the first place. 

Horford, it's fair to point out, is one of the more versatile players at the position, but every assessment of his skill set comes with positional caveats. He's a great passer for a center. He's a good shooter for a center. There is a monumental difference between being good at that position and just good, period, and he is offering a watered-down version of skills players offer at other positions, often for less money. Add on that they have an outright better player at the position, and you run into a situation where to beat the Brooklyn Nets with a shorthanded roster, you have to demote Horford to a role where he plays less than 20 total minutes in an overtime victory.

Signing Horford was a reaction to two legitimate problems the Sixers had: failing whenever Joel Embiid hit the bench and staring down future matchups with the likely back-to-back MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. A contingent of Sixers fans may dismiss Milwaukee as a regular-season team who the Sixers match up relatively well against, but the fear/respect of the Greek Freak is real for the franchise, and it should be, with the Sixers 2-4 against the Bucks over the last two seasons.

In their attempt to future-proof themselves against one specific matchup (and judging by the results they haven't even done that), the Sixers failed to prepare for basically every other scenario, and any scenario in which they aren't fully healthy. Even if we can find wisdom in their Milwaukee-specific plan — and Horford's current state suggests that's a stretch — the Sixers' front office ignored their own previous (and logical) attempts to best build around Simmons and Embiid.

Say what you will about the failure of Markelle Fultz in Philadelphia, about the clash of personalities and disagreements between Jimmy Butler and the franchise, but the motive behind their acquisitions made sense. The front office recognized the need to find potential three-level scorers who could run pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid, a ballhandler who could take the pressure off of Ben Simmons as a lead creator, an oversized guard who could fit into their long, athletic defensive vision.

Without a player like that, the Sixers' viability as a contender this season hinged almost entirely on Simmons taking a monumental step forward offensively. A failure to develop by Simmons will likely doom this project regardless, but the Sixers didn't offer themselves any outs if he didn't come back a changed man. 

While the Sixers did well to get back Josh Richardson in the Butler sign-and-trade once that marriage was dead, if they viewed him as the potential savior on this front, they couldn't have paid much attention to Richardson's pre-Philly career. Miami's offense floundered when they asked Richardson to step into a heavy creation role, and Sixers fans have come to learn that his quality of play swings wildly on a night-to-night basis. They have largely ignored guards in the draft, and the rest have come through minimum signings in free agency. All due respect to Raul Neto and Trey Burke, but there's a reason the latter was cut and still hasn't received any interest from another NBA team. 

Malcolm Brogdon has been floated as a potential alternative the Sixers could have turned to instead of Horford last summer, but this is the right place to make an important point — the right guy (or guys, plural) does not have to be the name guy. The Pelicans acquired Derrick Favors last summer for a pair of second-round picks and until Zion Williamson got healthy, his presence on the court was basically the difference between New Orleans being a fringe playoff team and an unwatchable disaster. A better, more well-rounded Sixers team could have been built without breaking the bank for one specific player in free agency.

But the Sixers have paid at or above sticker price for almost every rotation player who has been acquired since Jerry Colangelo arrived in 2015. You can trace that back to the very first transaction when the Hinkie/Colangelo front office ponied up two second-round picks for Ish Smith, a guy who had played for nine different teams in the five years leading up to the moment they traded for him. 

It has been death by a thousand cuts for management. No one has bristled too much at any individual move, but each has set them back in some way, whether the issue is financial flexibility, asset management, or player evaluation. Another example: under Bryan Colangelo, they paid a combined $17 million to Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless for the 2016-17 season, when guys like Seth Curry (two years, $6 million) were available who fit the same needs, came at a lower AAV, and were younger.

It would be easy to write those off as sins of the past if almost the entire front office wasn't still in place. The Colangelo scandal was an opportunity for the franchise to hit the reset button, but they stayed the course and bumped up Elton Brand, a man with no GM experience, into the lead chair for a team expected to contend, flanked by Colangelo's former front office mates. And so the pattern has continued, through overpays for Tobias Harris in trade and free agency.

The best front offices in the league consistently create surplus value. The Sixers get their wins from time to time, only to have to sacrifice those wins in order to overcome previous mistakes, leaving themselves in a position where they have to connect on big swings to get things right. For example:

  1. The Sixers traded what was perhaps the best contract they've given out (Robert Covington) in order to get Butler at a discount price
  2. The Sixers foolishly sacrificed Landry Shamet as part of a huge package to get Harris, despite the fact that L.A. was clearly creating space for a big free agent and could have been haggled with on the particulars
  3. Their pre-draft interest in Matisse Thybulle was so telegraphed that it was an open secret by draft night, reported on by several draft reporters in the know, forcing them to execute a trade with a hated rival to get him

And even with Thybulle, an obvious success story, ask yourself this: does he actually answer any questions for Philly? He is an amplifier rather than a solution to any problems, dependent on others to create his shots and prone to wild swings back and forth as a shooter. Even when they come through on the player evaluation front, they are undercut by mistakes or misreads elsewhere.

The Sixers remain in a holding pattern with Simmons and his health, as they revealed to reporters on Monday night, and the longer time passes, the worse the mood becomes around the team. Surely we can't all be waiting around for good news on his back.

And if the issue is better than expected, it will be because they got lucky, having initially excused away Simmons' issue as insignificant despite preparing an in-game treatment plan for him to play against Milwaukee. What's even worse is that the Sixers stared down this potential disaster with Simmons and then watched Tobias Harris land awkwardly in the same Bucks game, left him in to play the rest of the game, and then made him available for Monday's game against a bad Hawks team after calling him doubtful 24 hours prior with a knee contusion.

I'm not a doctor or a professional scout, but it seems hard to improve at the things you're bad at if you continue to make the same mistakes that left you in a poor position to start with. 

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