Philadelphia 76ers

Who has stepped up in Ben Simmons' absence? 76ers are finding a new identity

Taking a three-time All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year runner up and the engine to a team's offence out of the lineup would be a safe bet to derail most teams, but the Philadelphia 76ers have somewhat weathered the storm, taking on a new identity that has them sitting at an 8-7 record.

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With Simmons yet to suit up this season as he and the organization remain at odds regarding his playing future, the tumultuous off-court drama has dominated the headlines. But on the court, it's been a different story.

After starting the season 8-2, the 76ers have now lost five games in a row, bringing them back down to earth somewhat, largely due to the absence of Joel Embiid, who is currently sidelined due to COVID-19.

Let's dive into the keys behind their new-look identity to start the season.

MORE: Rich Paul believes fines, suspension by 76ers worsening Simmons' mental health situation

The Tyrese Maxey experience

The second-year point guard has slotted straight into Simmons' starting role this season and he's more than delivered with averages of 17.5 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.7 rebounds while making 51.8 percent of his field goals and 42.0 percent of his 3-pointers. His minutes have also doubled from last season, up from 15.3 to 35.8 a game.

With each outing, the 21-year-old is growing in confidence in his role, highlighted by back-to-back 30-point performances against the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, becoming the youngest player in 76ers history to do so.

Without Simmons in the lineup, the 76ers transition game has all but evaporated, plummeting from 12th in pace last season to ranking dead last in pace to start this season. Maxey has been the lone bright spark getting up and down the floor with his lightning-quick speed catching opposing guards out - something head coach Doc Rivers wants to see more of.

"I just like how he's attacking," said Rivers. "I hate when he walks the ball up the floor."

As he comfortably assumes his role as the third option on offence behind Embiid and Tobias Harris, Maxey has been scoring the ball efficiently and while he isn't close to the playmaker Simmons is, he's had his moments, especially in transition.

In the clip below, Maxey is giving some Simmons-like flair to his dimes.

"He's been good," Seth Curry said of Maxey's playmaking. "He's been getting better every game, especially as a point guard handling the ball, getting into sets, and getting specific people the ball in their spots, and picking his time to attack and get to the rim and create for himself."

MORE: Would a Ben Simmons-Jaylen Brown trade make sense for 76ers and Celtics?

In the offseason, Maxey's name was bundled into Simmons trade talks, but given the way he's started the season, his potential to make that position his own gives the 76ers some flexibility in how they approach any trades. The priority of getting an All-Star level point guard in return is no longer necessarily a must if they believe Maxey can continue this trajectory.

The sample size is small, but Maxey is giving the 76ers something to think about.

Seth Curry's continued improvement

Speaking of Curry, the 76ers shooting guard is having a career year and he's letting it fly at a scorching rate, connecting on 46.5 percent of his triples.

So much so, he's the only member of the 50-40-90 club this season, connecting on 52 percent from the field and 93.1 percent at the free throw line as well.

While his shooting stands out, his growth as a ball-handler and facilitator, running pick-and-rolls and creating scoring opportunities, has added a new wrinkle to the 76ers offence in Simmons' absence, with Rivers running more plays for the veteran guard.

"It's the style of play we're playing," Curry said. "We're starting to run more pick-and-roll, the ball's been in my hands a little bit more to make plays, and that's just a product of the style of play that we're playing. It's not really anything I'm doing different."

This play against the Raptors had the timeline on fire - just one example of Curry initiating the offence and making opponents pay with his savvy off-ball movement.

"We saw him as a starter because of his shooting," Rivers said. "You play him with Joel Embiid and we just thought that combination was a good combination. JJ Redick was a great starter with Joel so when you put a shooter like that next to Joel, you become a great shooter."

Bench production

Not much was made of the 76ers offseason moves, but they've been getting some surprising production from two free-agent signings making a combined $5.7 million this season in Georges Niang and Andre Drummond.

After being glued to the Utah Jazz's bench last season, Niang is seeing 23.6 minutes per game and providing elite floor spacing with the second unit, knocking down 39.3 percent of his 3-pointers (5.6 attempts) and putting up 11.7 points a night, which puts him as the 17th-highest scorer off the bench in the league this season.

Meanwhile, Drummond has been the team's leading rebounder despite coming off the bench, hauling in 11.1 boards a night. His production gives the 76ers a security blanket for Embiid, who is prone to missing stretches of the regular season with injuries and is currently sidelined with COVID-19. When called into the starting lineup, Drummond has been a force, putting up 11.0 points, 15.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 blocks over six starts.

The "next man up" mentality of the second unit has seen Furkan Korkmaz (11.4 points) and Shake Milton (11.9 points) chip in on a nightly basis, but with a string of COVID-19 protocol absences, is their roster starting to wear thin?

Despite their increased production from their role players, the 76ers have now lost five games in a row, with their defence looking particularly ineffective, especially without Embiid and Matisse Thybulle available.

It's these games where Simmons' absence is especially felt on both sides of the floor. During the five-game skid, the 76ers hold the third-worst defensive rating in the league, giving up 117.9 points per 100 possessions.

Despite their lack of lineup consistency, the 76ers are still sitting above .500 even without their second-most important player. With Simmons having no return date on the horizon, Philadelphia will have to find answers sooner rather than later to stop this skid.

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