Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said Monday he has been playing All-Star Ben Simmons “exclusively” at power forward in practices inside the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World Resort and has been thrilled by what he’s seen.
“He’s so dynamic,” Brown said on a conference call with reporters. “Let’s just talk about running. There’s nobody faster in the NBA. So to always have the ball and dribble it up against five guys … to do that dilutes some of his potent weapons.
“So, watching him fly up the floor, watching him and Joel [Embiid] play off each other, has been a really good look. I think they’ve been fantastic together.”
The question of how to fit Simmons and Embiid together has been a constant one over the past three seasons, one that has been exacerbated this year by the addition of another All-Star big man: Al Horford. The fit between Horford and Embiid has been clunky at best … and often much worse than that.
But by playing Simmons at power forward, Horford — who was benched in February before Simmons hurt his back, allowing Horford to return to the starting lineup — will have to come off the bench again. It appears he would be replaced in the starting five by guard Shake Milton.
Milton was a revelation after injuries gave him an opportunity for playing time in mid-January. Milton — who was drafted in 2019 and spent last season on a two-way with Philadelphia before signing a multiyear deal in the offseason — became a fixture in Philadelphia’s rotation. He averaged 9.5 points and shot 45 percent from 3-point range in 32 games (16 starts) this season. He scored in double figures in the final seven games Philadelphia played before the season shut down, including a career-high 39 points in a loss in Los Angeles to the Clippers.
Embiid said Milton has been impressive starting there in practice.
“He’s been amazing,” Embiid said. “He’s been the starting point guard, and I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job and he’s running the team and we’re going to need him to knock down shots, which he did, before the league got shut down. He was on a roll so we’re going to need him to keep it going. But it’s great.”
Brown has said that his decision on the starting lineup is an evolving process — something he reiterated Monday. But he also spoke about Simmons playing off the ball, saying that the decision to play him at point guard was made because there was no one better to play it, and that Simmons has handled the situation exactly how Brown had hoped.
“You take somebody and say, ‘Here’s the ball.’ It’s not like Ben came in and we had Chris Paul on the team or Damian Lillard on the team,” Brown said. “We were young, and really not that good, so it was my decision, ‘You take the ball. We’re going to make you the point guard.’ It’s not like there was an established point guard that he had to bump out.
“[And] how has he responded to that? 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 that can be, I don’t know, just designed into a smooth thing’ … that is one of the pieces he has to offer.
“He’s been great accepting that, and really killing it in the environment that I just said.”
At 6-foot-10 with athleticism and ballhandling skills, Simmons has the ability to guard and play virtually every position on the court. And while his lack of a jump shot from the perimeter has been the topic of discussion since he was a rookie, playing him off the ball allows him to slip into a different role in the offense.
Specifically, it allows him to attack the basket on pick-and-rolls as the screen setter, rather than the ball handler, to take advantage of his size and quickness.
“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,” Simmons said recently. “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.”
The fit between Horford and Embiid has never gotten off the ground. The Sixers were outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions when the two big men were on the court together. But when Horford was on the court without Embiid, Philadelphia was 5.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents; when Embiid was out there without Horford, the Sixers were 8.9 points per 100 possessions better than the opposition.
When the topic has been broached, Embiid has tried to downplay it. He did so again recently, by pointing to the lack of shooting around them as the culprit.
“I don’t see any problems,” he said. “Man, I’m good. Basketball is a game. You need to figure out if something is going on, and I don’t believe it is a problem. I think it’s just a matter of everybody buying in and being able to play their role. I mean, the pairing with Al I feel like has been fine. At times it could be better, but then again, everybody on the court has a job, and with that type of pairing you have to have shooters around.
“You need to have people or guys being, like, wanting to take that shot, especially when you got two inside presence like me and Al. He can post up, I can post up, and then around you’ve got to be able to have guys that are willing to shoot and that are going to shoot the ball. I think that’s what needs to happen but I don’t think that’s a problem. I think we’re fine, and I like him. Great guy. So we just got to keep on working together and there’s no time. And like I said, we’re better suited for the playoffs. We’ve got about eight games to get back into it and get right into it, so I’m excited.”