What will the Sixers look like when they return to play on August 2nd?
Does Brett Brown try to re-establish the starting lineup with Al Horford on the floor?
Or does he continue with the short-lived experiment of putting the 34-year-old veteran on the bench and working Shake Milton into the starting five instead?
That’s been the key on-court question for the fully healthy Sixers as they begin training inside the Orlando bubble. Horford’s winter benching was cut short by injuries to other players, and we never really got enough of a sample size to determine his best role moving forward. However, in a lengthy answer given today, Brown told reporters that he’s been playing Simmons “exclusively” at power forward over the past several days.
It is so on my mind in a few ways. You take somebody and say ‘here’s the ball,’ and it’s not like Ben came in and we had Chris Paul on the team or Damian Lillard, we were young and really not that good, so it was my decision (for him to) take the ball (as a rookie). We’re gonna make you the point guard. It’s not like he came in and there was an established point guard that you had to bump out. There are zero regrets on doing that, but it’s important to understand the segue from where he was into where he now is. Now, you fast forward, you’re looking over your shoulder and there’s no Lillard or Paul. You realize the value (Ben) has in many other areas. So now how does he give up that torch, so to speak?
The last few days I’ve played him exclusively as a four man. He’s so dynamic. Running, there’s nobody faster in the NBA. So to always have him with the ball and dribble it up against five guys, after made baskets especially, to do that I think dilutes some of his potent weapons. Watching him fly up the floor, watching him and Joel play off each other has been a really good look. I think they’ve been fantastic together.
He’s (responded) like a star. Mature, whatever it’s gonna take to make this team the best it can be with the pieces we have that can be designed into a smooth thing, something that’s not clunky. That’s one of the pieces he has to offer. He’s been great accepting that and really killing it in practice in the environment I just set.
This is the question we’ve been asking of Ben Simmons since the very beginning. Is he even a point guard? Now it’s evolved into a question of whether he fits better on this team as an off-ball guy with Shake Milton running point and Horford on the bench. Joel Embiid, who did his media availability after Brown, says Milton has been starting at PG in practice.
Some thoughts, in no real order:
- Brown mentions made baskets, and that’s an important topic that sometimes gets glossed over. Most of Ben’s elite floor running comes off missed baskets, where he can collect rebounds, turn up the floor, and simply blow by defenders in the open court. Obviously trying to do that off made buckets, when defenses can get set, negates that, through he’s still able to drive the slot and peel off screens and brush cuts in the half court because he’s so athletic.
- Ben is an elite passer and hypothetically if the ball is not in his hands, you’d think some of that playmaking is lost. Maybe, maybe not. He can still use his elite court vision from the elbow or the low block if he’s regularly finding the ball in these half court sets. I could honestly see him doing some Nikola Jokic kind of things, which we’ve seen at times when he’s used a small ball five in specific sets.
- He’s still not a shooter, so you can’t have Milton with the ball in his hands while Simmons stands in the weakside corner. It’s dunker spot, blocks, or elbow for Ben, which is still going to displace Embiid.
- Having Horford on the bench allows you to better stagger his minutes at the five, which addresses the issue that killed the Sixers in the playoffs last year (huge drop off at center with Embiid out of the lineup).
If anything, I think Simmons will still have the ball a vast majority of the time. In transition, he’s the guy, while Milton can do more half court stuff. My guess is that they’re just trying to build on a screening and rolling game that has improved this year while rounding out Ben’s game a little bit more and looking for ways to have him and Milton function on the floor together. If Simmons does power forward stuff, you can keep Tobias Harris at the 3 and Josh Richardson at the 2 instead of bumping everybody down a position and throwing off their roles. Ben’s certainly big enough to defend opposing fours.
I went through some video clips of the past three years looking for anything I could with Ben at power forward, and you might recall some of the T.J. McConnell lineups from 2017 and 2018.
Here’s a simple pistol exchange with Simmons posting up Horford in the playoffs:
And I found two more from the 2018 Lakers game where Jimmy Butler was handling the ball and they ran Simmons off these short little flare/Iverson-looking cuts, which started a two-man short game with him and Embiid.
Some good, some bad. Mostly old material, so maybe I can find some time to look at Ben off-ball stuff from earlier this season, pre-back injury.
It’s hard to say what a Simmons/Milton tandem ball handler unit would look like. Likely it’s just gonna be Ben screening or given license to do some LeBron type of point-forward things. He’s too good to be played in the Draymond Green role, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case here.
For what it’s worth, NBA stats says Simmons and Milton have been on the floor together for 223 minutes this year with a -4.4 net rating. It’s not much of a sample size, and it doesn’t include the portion of the year when Shake was cooking as the starting point guard during Ben’s injury absence. I don’t think there’s much we can realistically draw from that data.
More than anything, I don’t think they’re sitting Simmons under the rim to be a bystander. He’s going to have the ball in his hands one way or another, and until he becomes a legitimate shooting threat, the Embiid spacing issue is always going to manifest itself in some way, shape, or form. This might be better than the Embiid/Horford pairing, but we’ll have to wait a few more weeks to find out.