The Loss of Ben Simmons and How That Impacts the 76ers
The news of Ben Simmons‘ injury has rightly dominated the news cycle over the past week, a devastating blow to a fan base that was just starting to see the reward for their patience.
While the news of Simmons’ absence for the first few months of the season is an understandable disappointment for 76ers fans (fans who still have the much-anticipated NBA debuts of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric to get excited over), the injury, and playing time it opened up, does carry with it opportunity for other players to take advantage of.
With the preseason schedule set to tip off tonight against the Boston Celtics, we look at five ways the Simmons injury impacts the roles of his teammates.
1) Dario Saric will get more time, and opportunity
The first beneficiary of Ben Simmons being out of the lineup is Dario Saric, who called the fact that he gets to start “stupid” because of its pyrrhic nature.
For now, Saric will be the starter at the power forward spot, sliding into a similar role Simmons would have filled. Saric will be asked to use his creativity in transition, with his rare ability to grab a rebound and push the ball himself to create opportunities for his teammates. He will be asked to make shots from the perimeter to open things up for Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor in the post, and he’ll hustle. If there’s one thing you can always count on the 22-year-old Saric for, it’s hustle. Nerlens Noel called him a potential X-Factor during training camp.
Whether or not Brett Brown sticks with Saric in the starting lineup will be interesting to watch as the season unfolds. Saric presents Brown with perhaps his best chance of having a functional NBA lineup, with his passing and perimeter shooting such a perfect fit next to Embiid, especially in a modern NBA that values floor spacing so highly, if Saric does have initial success moving him out of the lineup would be difficult. He also has an amount of creativity that the Sixers’ starting lineup now sorely lacks, as Embiid is the only other real shot creator among the expected starting lineup of Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, and Robert Covington, and Embiid hasn’t played organized basketball in over two years.
2) More two-big lineups
On the other hand, Brown has been dealt a tough hand in trying to keep all of Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor happy with their playing time and role. While the two-big lineup was disastrous last season, using the vacuum created by Ben Simmons’ absence to get Noel and Okafor more playing time, even if it comes out of position and in a role not necessarily conducive to success, could help keep the troops in line.
This will, of course, largely depend on how everything shakes out. If Saric is making shots and creating for others it will be hard to take him out of the starting lineup. If Saric struggles with the athleticism of the NBA game and takes some time adjusting to the NBA three-point line, then Brown might have a decision on his hands. Regardless of whether Brown eventually returns to the two-big starting lineup, they’re still going to see time on the court together anyway, and how they play in those short bursts could determine whether Brown changes up his starting lineup. As Brown said over the weekend, everything is fluid.
While Nerlens Noel struggled to defend the power forward spot last year, he still has the physical tools to be successful defensively in such a role — if he can retrain a lifetime worth of instincts to collapse the paint and alter shots at the rim. Likewise, it would be interesting to watch Embiid and Jahlil Okafor force teams out of their small-ball lineups with their size and post scoring aptitude, even if the defensive side of the court would be adventurous, to say the least.
Regardless of whether Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor make a return to the starting lineup, getting each of them some playing time alongside Embiid to gauge whether either has a real chance of being a frontcourt partner down the line has some benefit, and the Sixers have more of an opportunity to do so with Simmons out of the lineup.
3) Could Sergio Rodriguez start?
Much of what the Sixers were looking to do offensively was designed around Ben Simmons, right down to the point guard the team went out and signed to start alongside of him.
When the Sixers signed Jerryd Bayless to a three-year, $27 million contract over the offseason, it wasn’t for his ability to create shots for his teammates, as Bayless has assisted on just 22.1 percent of his teammate’s made field goals while he has been on the court over the course of his career. Chris Paul (47.2 percent assist rate) he is not.
What Bayless can do, however, is stretch the floor, as Bayless ranked as one of the most efficient high-volume catch and shoot players in the NBA last season. That was a perfect fit alongside Simmons, who was going to create much of the team’s half-court offense.
But with Simmons out of the lineup for the next few months the Sixers are going to need more shot-creation out of the point guard spot. Enter Sergio Rodriguez. While the Spaniard has his own question marks (Specifically: defensively, defensively, and defensively), one thing Rodriguez can do is pass the ball. He’s a maestro on the pick and roll and has the kind of quick-passing, non-ball-dominant game that can really reward players, both perimeter and post, who move off the ball.
“His ability to run a pick and roll and figure out how teams are playing it, and where they’re rotating from, he’s very gifted in that environment,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said about his new point guard last week while at training camp at Stockton University. “He has a bounce to his game and a pace to his game that he will be absorbed in how I want to play.”
This is a question that may not have to be answered in the short term, as Bayless has been limited with a sore left wrist over the last week and won’t play in tonight’s preseason opener, giving Brown the chance to see how the team will play off of Rodriguez (9.1 assists per 36 minutes last season for Real Madrid in combined Euroleague/ACB play). While Brown seemed to be favoring Bayless as the starter prior to Simmons going down, and may very well go back to Bayless once he returns from his wrist injury, it would be surprising if Rodriguez’s creativity and experience didn’t eventually earn him another chance at starting.
4) Jahlil Okafor being featured offensively
With Simmons no longer there to create offense for others, Jahlil Okafor’s ability to create his own offense will once again get an opportunity to be featured.
Okafor can score in the NBA. That much is known. What he now needs to show is the ability to create scoring for others, something that he showed potential to become while at Duke, but which abandoned him last season.
This is where the talent around Okafor likely had the biggest impact on his overall effectiveness, and one that should be improved upon this year. With Bayless, Rodriguez, and Henderson on the perimeter Okafor has far more options to kick out to, not to mention another potential floor spacer and cutter in Dario Saric at the power forward spot. There’s going to be more room for Okafor to operate than there was last year, and more passing opportunities to be exploited if teams do double team him.
In order for Okafor to make the transition from talented offensive player to impact offensive player, he has to do a better job of recognizing, and reacting to, the double teams thrown his way. With Ben Simmons out of the lineup for the next few months, he’ll have more opportunity to do so.
5) Less open shots on the perimeter
While the absence of Simmons creates opportunity for some of his frontcourt mates, it no doubt hurts perimeter shooters who require quality looks to be effective.
It’s not only Simmons’ passing in the half-court which is going to hurt this group, but also his ability to push the ball in transition at breakneck speeds, get the opposition in cross-matches the Sixers can exploit, and generate looks for his teammates before the opposition has a chance to get set. Dario Saric will provide some of this, but not to the level Simmons would have.
In the past we’ve documented how a high-volume three-point shooter like Robert Covington has struggled to get open shots over the last two seasons with the Sixers lack of a true shot creator. And, while Simmons being out could open up some time for Covington at the power forward spot, it’s more likely to lead to increased playing time at the four for Jerami Grant (and, conversely, less playing time for Grant at the three, thankfully) and Richaun Holmes than it is to see a significant uptick in power forward minutes for Covington.
This struggle to get open shots is something that could happen with Jerryd Bayless as well. With over 70 percent of Bayless’ three-point shots coming with at least 4 feet of space between him and the defender, whether or not Bayless can retain his efficiency while taking shots with a higher degree of difficulty will be interesting to watch for a player who has been very streaky from the outside over his career.