The Philadelphia 76ers have entered the Orlando bubble with a healthy roster as they look to make a deep playoff run, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid recovering from nagging injuries during the season suspension.
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The 2019-20 season has been a rocky one for the 76ers, who struggled to live up to pre-season expectations, largely due to chemistry issues, trying to accommodate Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid in a crowded frontcourt.
With just three weeks until the regular season resumes, the 76ers are set to introduce one more key player to their interior....point guard Ben Simmons.
Head coach Brett Brown told reporters today that he as been 'exclusively' playing Simmons as a four man in practice, in the hopes that the versatile Aussie can unlock the full potential of the roster.
"He's so dynamic," Brown said on a conference call. "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."
At 6'10", Simmons' athleticism and versatility allows him to cover ground like few point guards, creating a positional mismatch for his opponents, while being able to guard virtually 1 through 5, emerging as one of the best defenders in the league and an outside chance of winning Defensive Player of the Year.
While Simmons' defence speaks for itself, sliding him to the power forward position opens up a whole lot for the 76ers, who have experimented with him both in the dunker spot and as a roll man in the pick-and-roll, an adjustment the Aussie is ready to embrace.
Although the sample size is small, Simmons ranks second on the 76ers behind Tobias Harris points per possession as the roll man (1.06) and with his elite playmaking and finishing ability, the 76ers can generate a variety of looks from Simmons being the focal point of their pick-and-roll actions.
"I feel like I have a very high IQ on the court and see things a lot differently. I'm able to pass the ball very well, so that's always a threat," Simmons said recently.
"But I love playing the pick-and-roll, situational pick-and-pop, whatever it is. It just gives us so many different options. It's tough to guard… Wherever you put me or whatever situation it is, I feel like my IQ is high enough to make plays."
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Simmons produced one of his best performances of the season in January against the Brooklyn Nets, where he played predominantly as the roll man in the absence of Joel Embiid, showing how damaging he can be without the ball in his hands.
Bullying opponents with his size and attacking the rim with his speed, Simmons piled up 34 points on 12-of-14 shooting, adding 12 rebounds 12 assists, five steals and two blocks, making the most of the space afforded to him in the paint.
🇦🇺 @BenSimmons25 stuffed the stat sheet in the @sixers' 117-111 win over the @BrooklynNets #PhilaUnite- NBA Australia (@NBA_AU) January 20, 2020
📊: 34 PTS | 12 AST | 12 REB | 5 STL pic.twitter.com/zJoM3mZp1a
As the 76ers look to find new ways to maximise their potential, Brown praised Simmons' positive attitude to making the switch.
"Like a star," Brown said of Simmons accepting his new role. "Just a mature, 'whatever it's gonna take' to get this team to be the best it can be with the pieces we have."
"He's been great accepting that, and really killing it in the environment that I just said."
The combination of Horford and Embiid alongside each other in the frontcourt has proved to be a clunky fit, with Horford likely to be moved to the bench to make way for Simmons at the four.
The mid-season emergence of guard Shake Milton has made Brown's offensive tinkering possible, with the second-year man seizing his opportunity at point guard following Simmons' back injury.
In their final seven games before the season suspension, Milton, as a starter, averaged 19.4 points, 4.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, on a sizzling 58.5 percent from the field and 60.5 percent from beyond the arc, including a career-high 39-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Shake Milton (39 PTS & 7 3PM) was dialed in from deep for Philly! ♨️ pic.twitter.com/ifqf8BIJZN- NBA TV (@NBATV) March 1, 2020
"He's been amazing," Embiid said of Milton on the practice court in Orlando. "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."
Milton provides the 76ers with additional shooting from the perimeter, something they have been sorely missing this season since the departure of JJ Redick in the off-season and with Simmons as the screener in the pick-and-roll, teams can no longer sag off the Aussie on defence, opening up more space on the perimeter for the likes of Harris, Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson to let it fly from deep.
The 76ers are very much still a work in progress, but Brett Brown's chess moves could go a long way to speeding up that process as they look to make noise in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.