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There was plenty of wild NBA news yesterday — quarantine protocols broken and Russell Westbrook testing positive for COVID-19 — but the most interesting on-court nugget came from the 76ers. In a media availability by phone, head coach Brett Brown mentioned that he had been playing Ben Simmons “exclusively” as a 4 during practices and that Shake Milton would likely take over as the starting point guard.
A week ago, Joel Embiid (who hasn’t always had the smoothest on or off-court chemistry with Simmons) was talking about how the 76ers offense needed to run through him. And Embiid certainly sounded excited about Simmons’ position change yesterday after it was announced.
Keeping Embiid happy and engaged is certainly a meaningful goal for the 76ers but does this move actually make them a better team on the court?
Does moving Ben Simmons to power forward actually help the 76ers?
One of the most important things to consider here is that the move is primarily an offensive one. Simmons was already one of the most effective and versatile defenders in the league. According to Krishna Narsu’s defensive versatility metrics, even playing as a point guard Simmons spent more than half his defensive possessions this season matched up with wings and nearly a quarter on 4s and 5s. He’ll probably spend slightly more time defending bigs now but there was already part of his role and his versatility is important enough that Brown can continue to leverage it depending on the matchup.
On offense, some of the value-added will come from moving Al Horford back to the bench and reducing overlap between him and Embiid. The 76ers were outscored by an average of 1.3 points per 100 possessions when they were on the floor together, the only two-man combination the team used for at least 400 minutes this season that had a negative point differential.
Getting Shake Milton more minutes should also help an offense that’s woefully short on outside shooting. He had played just 611 minutes before the season was suspended but Milton was averaging 17.9 points, 4.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals per 36 minutes, shooting 45.3 percent on 3-pointers.
In terms of how Simmons is used at power forward, Brown’s comments (per ESPN) implied that he’ll still have plenty of chances to handle the ball:
“He’s so dynamic. 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.”
Simmons is such an adept passer, particularly at his size, and it’s the primary driver of his offensive value. Moving him off the ball could give the 76ers opportunities to leverage the same skill in different ways and from different areas of the floor. Simmons finished just 33 possessions this season as the screener in the pick-and-roll. Even in those actions, he’s probably more valuable as a passer than a scorer, catching the ball in the middle of the floor against a scrambling defense, but it’s just something the 76ers haven’t experimented with much.
In a piece from last year’s playoffs, Todd Whitehead charted Simmons’ assist locations and noted that a large portion of his assists were either passing from the perimeter to the paint, over the top of the defense, or dribble hand-offs around the 3-point line. Moving Simmons to the 4 theoretically gives him more touches in the middle of the floor and more opportunities to direct assists out to the 3-point line. For example, he averaged just 2.8 elbow touches per game this season, about the same as Aron Baynes, Ian Mahinmi and Ivica Zubac.
It may seem wild to be instituting such fundamental system changes on short notice but the 76ers aren’t exactly tinkering with a high-functioning machine. They ranked 18th in offensive efficiency this season and, as of today, have just a three percent chance of making the NBA Finals, per FiveThirtyEight’s Elo Forecast. Simply put, the Simmons-Embiid pairing has not been working as well as it could and if the 76ers are going to be forced into a decision about trading one of their stars down the road, it behooves them to throw some more stuff at the wall before their backs are against it.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have a young backcourt that doesn’t seem to fit well together. How about a game of Max/Bench/Trade to see if we can untangle it?
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