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November 09, 2018

Sixers mailbag: How long will the Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz experiment last?

The Sixers' start to the year has been mildly disappointing, but there are positive signs all over the place for a young basketball team. Their franchise center is playing like an MVP candidate and will find himself at the heart of that conversation if the team starts playing better. Robert Covington's two-way play has been tremendous out of the gate, Landry Shamet has been a nice rookie surprise, and the team picked up a nice road win on national television Wednesday night.

However, the focus is still squarely on the team's hypothetical backcourt of the future, which looks less like a future partnership and more like a pair of players that must be separate to succeed at this point. It is early, no doubt, but that dynamic has triggered all sorts of questions about whether the partnership will last.

That's where we will start this week's mailbag, and we'll combine a couple reader questions into one idea.

The truth of the matter is no one really knows how long this starting lineup experiment will last. Brett Brown has alluded to this over and over again during his media availability sessions, telling reporters most of his thinking on the Fultz-Simmons partnership is driven by gut feel.

I do think more positive signs are popping up lately, with Wednesday's win over Indiana featuring the best start to a game the Sixers have had with this group all season. Philadelphia absolutely blitzed the Pacers out of the gate, and they showed later in the game that they can toy with some smaller lineups and succeed with Fultz and Simmons on the court together. That's an encouraging development.

Here's the bottom line though: if one of these guys does not turn into at least a respectable shooter from deep, the pairing is never going to be optimal long-term. And while that's often just discussed in terms of whether they can play together, it's really about whether they can play together and augment the talents of Joel Embiid.

Embiid is the singular talent around which the franchise should be built, and the experimentation around him can only last so long before the Sixers need to get serious about putting the best possible fits and talent around him. On some nights, he's operating out of space in the post smaller than a phone booth, and goes long stretches of the game without a credible pick-and-roll partner to get him easy buckets.

Simmons' high-end upside is more attainable at this point than Fultz's, with the former's size and experience building his game around a lack of a jumper aiding him in the quest for stardom. Fultz is having to figure out on the fly how to rework his game at the NBA level with a totally different jump shot and obvious confidence issues that have him playing differently than he did at the amateur level. If something gives short term, it will be him/his role.

The Sixers have treated Simmons as one half of their foundation and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It may be necessary to rethink that at some point if Simmons never becomes a credible enough shooter to serve as the best fit next to Embiid, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

While we're on the Simmons topic...

I think Simmons' back is definitely bothering him — did you see him come out of the mummy wrap before checking into the game against Indy? — but not to a level that it's an excuse for any struggles he has had this year. I don't think what we've seen is indicative of a health issue, rather a reflection of his current limitations.

We've seen Simmons struggle with a lot of the same things that bit him last year, particularly late in the year once teams got more and more tape of him. They're cutting him off at the foul line in transition, walling off the paint, and taking more advantage of his propensity to leave himself stuck in midair, trying to make a decision.

The good news: he's getting to the free-throw line more, rebounding more, and creating looks for his teammates at a high level despite playing a couple less minutes per game than last season so far. Even during games where he couldn't get shots to drop, there have been flashes of agressiveness that he failed to show in tough outings last year that I think are noteworthy.

Still, he has not yet hit the levels he was hitting last year and needs to start taking more shots within the flow of the offense. The vast majority of his jumpers have come on off-balance fades or leaners, and that's a poor way to go about it for a player who struggles to shoot anyway. The complete lack of progress as a shooter is disheartening.

This is certainly one of the pettiest and most ridiculous things that happens on NBA courts every night, and I absolutely love it. The refusal to let an opponent see his shot go in even after the whistle is tremendous.

However, let's be clear that this is definitely not anything Mr. Covington started. It has been an NBA staple for as long as I can remember, with guys like Kevin Garnett taking great pleasure in blocking dead-ball attempts. From a Philly perspective, it even led to one of the stranger Allen Iverson highlights in memory, when he tossed a ball high into the air to avoid the reach of Dwight Howard:

Sign me up for anything that can make sports more entertaining without causing anyone harm. This definitely fits the bill.

I got a lot of similar questions to this one, stemming from what appears to be a claim from Colin Cowherd on his radio show about the issue. Where I would start here is to say Cowherd is not a reporter, is a professional troll who consistently baits people from Philadelphia (who in turn refuse to ignore him), and is on a general level not someone who should be taken seriously.

That said, people should absolutely monitor the relationship between Simmons and Embiid. There doesn't need to be a current rift between them for it to be a long-term concern. They are two guys with wildly different personalities, wildly different styles of play, and not a ton of overlap in their lives away from basketball. You absolutely don't need to be best friends away from the game to succeed with another athlete, but it would certainly help the Sixers' primary duo get through the trials and tribulations that are looming in their future.

What this really comes down to is what we spoke about to start the mailbag. If these guys don't fit well enough to win in the playoffs, the rubber is going to meet the road eventually. They are prideful, talented young men who have people around them who will weigh in with their thoughts on how their careers would be best served. 

Let's just create a hypothetical. If we reach a point where it's clear the Sixers have prioritized accommodating Embiid over Simmons, whether that's through roster construction or style of play, there will be no shortage of people (Simmons included) who could feel he'd be better off trying to be the man on his own team. We saw at the end of last season that Simmons can be devastating with the ability to constantly run and hit shooters on the break, not worrying about getting a big man enough touches in the post. 

Simmons and Embiid ultimately say and do the right things when it comes to working together to build a future, but think of how many people are around to offer their thoughts on what they should do. Sneaker companies, family members, friends, significant others, retired NBA veterans who respect their talents, all with various opinions and motivations. There have already been (silly) public arguments in the media about which player is better/has a higher upside moving forward, and all these things can combine to cloud your head.

When fans are considering questions about their relationship, I think the scope of what is discussed is far too narrow. Players are mini-corporations these days, and this is never as simple as looking at their Instagram feeds to see if they act cordial.

I think all this will be moot if Simmons grows his game enough to look like a clean fit with his running mate. Success quiets a lot of chatter. But do not discount the potential clash of egos in any scenario — Simmons was the No. 1 player in his class all through high school and college, and now is pretty clearly No. 2 in the pecking order of his own team despite a tremendous, near All-NBA rookie season. He is deservedly prideful, as is Embiid, and there's no way to predict how that manifests over time.

The free agency and trade options are both clear as day to me: if you can get Klay Thompson this summer, you do it without thinking twice. There seems to be almost zero chance he's leaving Golden State, though, so don't get your hopes up.

Bradley Beal is also the clear-cut guy in my eyes when it comes to trade options, and there may be a case where he's actually a superior option to Thompson if we remove trade cost from the equation. Thompson can be a souped-up, younger version of JJ Redick who actually defends, and that has tremendous value on this team. But Beal's offensive versatility might be more important on this Sixers team, and his ability to crush as both an off-ball shooter and pick-and-roll scorer would solve a lot of their current problems.

Beal is also several years younger than Thompson, though he comes with more health concerns attached. These two guys aren't likely going to end up here and more realistic options will probably have to be considered, but the Sixers would be over the moon if they could get either one.

I wouldn't make this step yet, and the option I'd like to see right now involves a different move with the starting lineup: Dario Saric to the bench in exchange for Redick. There have been some nice flashes from Fultz and Simmons when they've had more reliable shooting around them, and I think that group would have a more realistic avenue to success.

Shamet's emergence also makes up for some of what you'd lose on the bench with Redick in the starting lineup, with Brown able to run "Mini JJ" through a lot of the same action as the veteran on offense. Having another bench shooter has been huge for the Sixers, and unlike Marco Belinelli, this one actually competes on the defensive end.

While we're here...

Some of this will come down to opportunity — I don't think the Sixers are going to prioritize getting reps for Shamet as a creator, particularly in the short term. Those developmental opportunities are going to go to the guys who they drafted for their ability to do so, namely Fultz and Simmons, for obvious reasons. Until the Fultz experiment is over, he is going to dominate bench reps on this front.

That said, it would not be a bad idea to tap into Shamet's past as a point guard, even if he's more limited at this level than he was playing at Wichita State. You'd hear no argument from me if they wanted to give him a couple pick-and-roll opportunities with Embiid per game, so long as he looks like a credible shooter off-the-dribble. And he has so far, shooting 47.1 percent on pull-ups this season according to the NBA's stats database, albeit on limited attempts.

He doesn't need to be a high-octane, three-level scorer to impact the game in a mini role as a creator. I think it's more important that he consistently delivers as a shooter right now, but something to toy with against bad teams in the short term.

Let's take another multi-part question...

On this Sixers team, Smith's shot at stardom (and his role this year) will come down almost exclusively to his shooting. He will not be able to get on the floor let alone turn into a star if he isn't an outside threat, and his performance at Summer League suggests he's a long way from that.

I was pretty bullish on Smith as a prospect in general, but he was already going to be a weird fit in the NBA out of the gate regardless of his situation. He's a wing prospect who played a good deal of power forward in college, and his ability to separate with his handle remains in question moving forward. It would have been nice to see him play in the preseason this year because we still have only seen him play in a cramped Summer League setting, which does him no favors.

On the positive side, he's going to be one of the Sixers' best cutters away from the ball from the moment he steps on the floor, and defensively he has the tools and drive to make an impact on the team. Who he supplants in the rotation really depends on which direction Brown heads in with this group once they're healthy. You can't remove Shamet's shooting if they're continuing to develop Fultz, and the better case may be to have him compete with Wilson Chandler for backup forward minutes.

I said it in my predictions column before the season, but it's an uphill battle for him to find his footing (no pun intended) in Philadelphia this season, especially with the injury layoff and assumed midseason return. He has a lot of talent and a good head on his shoulders, and the shots he does get from deep will likely be pretty open. I think everyone should remain in wait-and-see mode here until we can see him play in real games, frankly.

And now, we'll end on a lighter note...

I'm going to assume Mr. Seltzer meant historically because gifts don't tend to come in bunches when you hit your late 20's (the big 3-0 looms next November 8th).

I think the answer here is quite easily when my parents (and grandparents) surprised me with a car when I turned 16. It was pretty far from a dream car — lots of mileage on it, weird color, tape deck only, the speakers warbled when it got cold out, the list goes on. But it was mine, and it got me through the rest of high school and most of college before it gave out on me, and I know I was very fortunate to have one of my own instead of having to constantly borrow or share one.

I'm not someone who really loves celebrating my own birthday in general, though. I much prefer other people be the center of attention, which feels like a profoundly weird thing to say for someone who makes a living writing and trying to grow an audience. But life contains multitudes, I suppose, and I appreciate y'all for coming along for the ride with me in any case.

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