July 13, 2020
Brett Brown was coy about his potential rotations and lineup decisions before the team departed for Orlando, suggesting there would be an open battle for spots on the floor once they began their mid-summer training camp. It appears one big decision has already been made: Ben Simmons is moving up the lineup to the forward spot, with second-year guard Shake Milton sliding into the starting lineup for the Sixers.
"The last few days I played [Ben Simmons] exclusively as a four-man," Brown said. "To always have Ben have to have the ball and dribble it up against five guys after made baskets especially...to do that I think dilutes some of his potent weapons, speed."
Some people will receive this with a level of frustration. How could it have taken Brown (and Simmons, for that matter) this long to make the transition? Simmons was a point-forward/power forward all of his life, as Brown has readily admitted on many occasions. Knowing that even drove some of Philadelphia's personnel moves with Simmons out injured during his first year with the team — the subtext of trading up for Markelle Fultz was their need for a scoring/playmaking type alongside Simmons, and their eventual acquisition of Jimmy Butler was in search of a similar skill set.
Brown says now that the initial decision to play Simmons at point was part necessity, part recognition of his multi-faceted skills.
"It's not like Ben came in and we had Chris Paul on the team or Damian Lillard on the team. We were young and really not that good," Brown said Monday. "So it was my decision, you take the ball, we're going to make you the point guard. It's not like he came in and there was an established point guard you had to bump out. There are zero regrets on doing that, but it's important to understand the segue into where he was and now where he is.
"Now, it's not like you're looking over your shoulder and there's Damian Lillard or Chris Paul, that's not where I'm going, but you realize the value he has in many other areas. So now, how does he give up that torch so to speak?... Watching Joel [Embiid] and him play off each other has been a really good look — I think they've been fantastic together."
That clears up something about Simmons and how the head coach envisions using him in the playoffs, but naturally, it creates another question: how does that change the starting lineup? Thankfully, Joel Embiid was kind enough to offer some insight on one Shake Milton, whose importance to the team he was asked about during his own availability session on Monday.
"He's been the starting point guard and I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can," Embiid said. "He's been doing an amazing job, just running the team and we're going to need him to knock down open shots, which he did before the league basically got shut down. He was on a roll, so we're going to need him to keep it going. But he's been great."
Nothing more to interpret, then. Back to the bench goes Al Horford, last year's big free-agent acquisition, and in steps Milton, who was thrust into the national spotlight with a string of blistering performances in February and early March.
It was not always clear this is the direction Brown would go for multiple reasons, namely that after he pulled this card in a big win against the Clippers earlier this season, there were injuries that forced a series of lineup alterations, quickly thrusting Horford back into the starting lineup. Promoting Milton as a mid-season experiment is one thing, but committing to it as a playoff-centric approach is different.
And Brown even seemed to cast doubt on this during other recent interviews, praising Milton for his contributions while stopping short of proclaiming him a starter.
"I'm counting on him to continue on. I don't believe that what we saw is that much of an outlier," Brown said in early July. "To think he's going to perform at that consistent level prior to the pandemic would be sort of ambitious, [but] I do think if he can capture the large majority of the form offensively and defensively...he really has a chance to come in and play a significant role in a rotation capacity in the playoffs.
"I always get nervous about relying on young guys for the NBA playoffs. Shake is no different, it's no disrespect to Shake, it's just my 20-year history in the league that it ends up a man's world, and a veteran type of environment, which he just doesn't have the luxury of years to put next to his name yet. But I'm going into this excited, I think some of the performances he had on a consistent basis can't be that far out of reach, where maybe he can produce a large portion of that again."
Those initial reservations may end up being well-founded, but for now, it seems Brown is willing to live with that concern to see what he has with this group. A starting five of Milton-Richardson-Harris-Simmons-Embiid has a lot of versatility and makes much more sense on paper than the version with Horford in the lineup, even if it's less star-studded.
And while it's anyone's guess how this will play out on the court, buy-in from the players is where it all begins. So how, then, has Simmons handled being moved out of the point guard position to accommodate the lineup change?
"Like a star. Just a mature, whatever it's going to take to get this team to be the best it can be with the pieces that we have," Brown said. "That's one of the pieces he has to offer, and I think he has been great accepting that, and really killing it in practice in the environment I just said."
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