Every minute Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Al Horford shared the court this season, Philadelphia’s offense looked stuck in the mud, scoring less than a point per possession (0.98) and with all the spacing of a New York subway at rush hour.
For a few games in February, coach Brett Brown came upon a “this might save my job” solution — moving Horford to the bench to get more shooting on the floor. That lasted just three games before reality hit hard, first Simmons’ back pain had him out (meaning Horford was back in as a starter), then came the coronavirus and the interruption of the season.
In Orlando for the restart and with a fully healthy Simmons (something the 76ers would not have had if the playoffs started as scheduled in April) Brown is leaning into his February idea:
Ben Simmons has been practicing at the four, Shake Milton moved in as the starting point guard, and Al Horford has slid to the bench.
On paper, this looks like the kind of move that could unleash the sleeping giant that is the 76ers.
However, the reality is this new starting five — Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Simmons, and Embiid — has not played one minute together this season, and after just eight seeding games they are going to be asked to play important minutes together against quality teams.
It’s a move that has the league saying, “but if it works…”
Brown’s high risk/high reward play makes the Sixers the most interesting team to watch in Orlando.
If this comes together quickly, Philadelphia is a threat to Milwaukee to come out of the East. Or, the Sixers could continue to be an all defense, no offense team that finds itself leaving Florida after the first round of the playoffs.
Both outcomes feel legitimately possible. Throw in questions about how Philadelphia will deal with what is essentially the longest road trip of their lives — Philly was a dreadful 10-24 away from the Wells Fargo Center, but 29-2 in it — and there are even more unknowns.
Brown, an eternal optimist, likes what he sees in an Embiid and Simmons front line. Here is Brown after watching the new look for a few practices (via NBC Sports Philadelphia).
“Just a chemistry, a relationship in finding each other. Just with Ben playing sort of an interior position, more than being the primary ball carrier … you could see sort of like that big-big relationship, high-low duck-ins, Joel would be posted, Ben would play peekaboo at a low zone on the other side of the floor, come down and trail, we throw it to Jo and a rim run guy would duck in. And I felt the partnership, the relationship. The big-big mentality of finding each other was crazily obvious.”
“I feel like I have a very high IQ on the court and see things a lot differently and can pass the ball very well, so that’s a threat. But I love playing in that pick-and-roll situation, or pick and pop, whatever it is. it just gives us so many different options and is tough to guard.”
Moving Simmons off the ball opens up pick-and-roll options for the Sixers — Milton (or Harris) can have the ball as a playmaker and Simmons can set a screen then dive hard to the rim, or work on the short roll and distribute, taking advantage of his 6’10” frame and quickness. Simmons mentions pick-and-pop, other teams pray he tries it. (While there is a video floating around NBA Twitter of Simmons hitting threes in an empty gym with no defenders around him, don’t think for a second that means he will start taking them in games, let alone making them.)
With this lineup Embiid can become more of a post-up man where he is a beast scoring a league-best 1.12 points per possession (with at least 100 post-ups, via NBA.com stats). This is where Milton becomes a threat, he shot 44.2% on catch-and-shoot threes this season. Combine that with Harris and Richardson — both respectable from beyond the arc — and the Sixers have a starting five that looks to be a real threat. On paper.
Expect Simmons to get minutes as the primary ball-handler and shot-creator with the second unit, which also will have Horford, Matisse Thybulle (producer of the best content coming from the bubble), Furkan Korkmaz, and some combination of Harris and Richardson. Brown envisions that group playing fast.
“You’ve get Ben with the ball and you play downhill and you space everyone else out. There’s a lot of great things that happen from that, as simple as that sounds.”
Philadelphia’s championship aspirations are built on its defense — and that has been and should remain elite. The 76ers were sixth in the league overall on defense for the season, and while that slipped after the All-Star break it should be back in Orlando. The 76ers are long and disruptive, plus they have one of the game’s best rim protectors in Embiid. As his minutes go up in the playoffs, the defense should improve with it.
That defense will keep Philadelphia in games. A healthy and motivated Embiid makes them a threat. This is a team that came within a handful of bounces on the rim on a wild Kawhi Leonard shot from being in the NBA Finals a season ago. The defense can get them back to that spot.
Do they have enough offense to win those games? That is another question.
Their only hope to take a step forward was playing Simmons off the ball and limiting the painful Embiid/Horford combined minutes. With the season on the line Brett Brown if finally playing to the Sixers biggest strengths.
Whether that is enough will be answered in the heat of a Florida gym next month.