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In The Vacuum Of A Star
How are the 76ers holding up without Ben Simmons, and where do they go from here?
I know we’re all tired of talking about the Ben Simmons / Philadelphia standoff, but it’s had some really interesting effects on the way the team plays, both good and bad. Today we’ll look at how the Philadelphia 76ers have changed without their giant, jumper-averse point guard and what they can do to improve from here.
To recap, the 76ers are a misleading 3-2. They’ve crushed a terrible Pelicans team missing Zion, narrowly lost to the Nets without Kyrie, beaten an abstract nightmare of a Thunder team, lost thoroughly to a good Knicks squad, and nearly allowed a Pistons team bereft of #1 overall pick Cade Cunningham to come back and steal one (although the Sixers held on in the end).
All-World center Joel Embiid, jack-of-all-trades wing Tobias Harris, sniper Seth Curry, and the rest have had strong offensive numbers so far against a collection of the league’s worst defenses. But their own defense has struggled. Last year’s team with Ben Simmons was average on offense but a defensive juggernaut. This year’s squad has flipped that1:
It’s worth remembering, again, that the 76ers have played against a wet-toilet-paper schedule.
Why is this happening? Per Cleaning the Glass, Simmons was only in the 40th percentile for usage rate (the rate a player shot, assisted, or turned it over) for point guards, but he didn’t exactly display typical point guard shooting characteristics. With the amount of screaming that people do about his lack of a jumper, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that the 76ers scored 3.3 more points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the court than off last year (and that was generally true even when Joel Embiid was on the floor without Simmons).
Simmons’s skills are passing, getting out in transition (11th in the league in fast-break points per game) and finishing at the rim (20th in paint points per game). His weakness is well-known: he can’t and/or won’t shoot from further than ten feet, which is a problem when the team’s best player (unfortunately, not Simmons) makes hay around the basket.
As a total offensive package, he isn’t bad. He just has very exaggerated strengths and deficiencies. The real problem for the Sixers is that his combination of offensive skills doesn’t exist elsewhere on the roster.
Second-year player Tyrese Maxey, who’s soaking up almost all of Simmons’s point guard minutes, looks overmatched as a starting point guard at this point in his career. He’s only averaging 3.6 assists and is shooting 29% from three, so he isn’t playmaking or providing much more spacing than Simmons. Maxey is a quick, bouncy, score-first guard who’s been getting to the rim and finishing at a solid clip, but he doesn’t draw many fouls, and he’s tied for second in the league in, uh, getting blocked:
Embiid can’t do it all, and he’s already playing with an injury. Tobias Harris has been a bright spot and is setting a career high in assists with 4.2 per game, but he’s not someone who can be expected to run an offense at this point (just one assist in Thursday night’s win over Detroit). Combo guard Shake Milton has been hurt, is more of a scorer than distributor, and runs hot-and-cold at the best of times.
Furkan Korkmaz is crafty, and he has done a surprisingly nice job as the backup point guard. He’s demonstrated more passing prowess than in past seasons. But GOATmaz isn’t a starter-level playmaker, and he’s best used as an off-ball threat.
There isn’t one person on the 76ers roster outside of Simmons and Embiid who is an above-average playmaker for his position or who can get into the teeth of the defense to make strong finishes at the rim and draw fouls. All that said, the hope is that replacing Simmons with a more egalitarian point guard approach (hopefully with guys who will at least attempt a three) will suffice. So far, that seems to have been more or less accurate (although scoring just 99 points against the Knicks, the only good defense they’ve played, might be a red flag).
The real concern coming into this season was defense.
Here, there’s been a clear drop-off. Simmons typically guarded the opposing team’s best player, and yet he still held opponents to just 40.9% shooting, five full percentage points lower than they would typically shoot, for 32 minutes per game. He came in second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year. That sort of alpha-stopper defense is extremely difficult to replace.
Matisse Thybulle is typically getting these assignments now, and he’s elite against guards and smaller wings. However, he’s still only playing 21 minutes per game, just one more than last year, because he’s an offensive non-entity (although his passing vision has improved, he touches the ball so rarely that it doesn’t matter). He also can’t guard bigger wings or forwards as well as Simmons, although very few can.
Tobias Harris has improved on the defensive end, but can’t be counted on to stop the Luka Doncic’s or Giannis’s of the world, particularly while carrying such a heavy offensive burden. Georges Niang might be an honest-to-god turtle (at least he can shoot).
I wonder what a 76ers 1-2-2 or even 2-3 zone would look like with Matisse Thybulle wreaking havoc in the passing lanes up top and Embiid anchoring the paint. Coach Doc Rivers ran zone rarely last season, but it sure was tasty. Watch Thybulle, at the top of a 2-3 zone in a game from last season, use his giraffe-neck arms to poke away what should’ve been a simple pass:
More of that, please.
Right now, Philly’s path forward is unclear. Simmons has no timetable to return, and GM Darryl Morey has made it clear he’s not trading Ben for peanuts. This team as currently constructed is fine, but not a contender; that much is obvious. The Sixers may need to take their lumps and let the young bucks like Maxey, Thybulle, and Isaiah Joe (a shooting guard who’s shown some intriguing shooting and ball-on-the-floor ability in limited minutes) stretch their wings.
When (not if) a trade does happen, the 76ers may return to the ranks of contenders. At this point, though, Philly’s young players need to be allowed to try things they can’t really do yet, make mistakes, and still get minutes.
Offensive Rating: points scored per 100 possessions; Defensive Rating: points allowed per 100 possessions. Numbers from Cleaning The Glass.