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The Ben Simmons Injury Ripple Effect

How does the rookie’s broken foot impact Dario Saric, Nerlens Noel, and the Sixers’ playbook?

Getty Images
Getty Images

“We can finally see all the talent coming together. It’s happening all at once and it’s an exciting time to be a Sixers fan.” That might sound like something Sixers president Bryan Colangelo would say, but it was actually my Uber driver Charles, a large man with a scruffy gray beard who was driving me to Philadelphia International Airport. “We’re finally past the ‘trust the process’ era. It’s real now.”

That conversation happened days before Ben Simmons broke a bone in his right foot on Friday, before it felt like the Sixers were actually cursed, before it felt like the process would never end. Simmons will reportedly miss at least three months, and I’m sure Charles’s beard has gone a few more shades of gray since the news broke. When will the heartbreak finally be over for Sixers fans?

With Simmons sidelined, 2016 will be the fifth year in a row the Sixers’ top acquisition will miss at least part of his first season with the franchise: Andrew Bynum never played a game for the Sixers, Nerlens Noel missed his entire rookie campaign, we all know the Joel Embiid saga, and Jahlil Okafor played only 53 games last year. “There is nobody, sadly, that’s had more experience dealing with injured draft picks than we have,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown said Sunday. “Over the course of time, you learn how to best deal with it. I have seen this every year I’ve been here.”

This could be a lengthy absence for Simmons if the Sixers are conservative, which Colangelo hinted will be the case. “In no way, shape or form are we going to rush him back,” he said Sunday. Regardless of how much time Simmons misses, the ripple effects of the injury are significant.

How It Will Affect Dario Saric

Philly lost one 6-foot-10 point forward, but it can replace him with another: Dario Saric, the Croatian Ben Simmons. Saric lacks Simmons’s dynamic athleticism, lightning-quick coast-to-coast speed, and muscular frame, but he is a glitzy passer. There aren’t many forwards who can grab boards, push the pace, and then exhibit the necessary court vision to make plays, but the Sixers have two in Simmons and Saric.

Saric won’t necessarily run the offense as frequently as Simmons would have, but in Simmons’s absence he should see an uptick in ballhandling reps in transition and the pick-and-roll. Saric grew up playing point guard and his passing is his most translatable skill to the pros, but it’s essential for him to get live reps to adjust to the speed of the game. Saric said on Sunday that he’s 70 percent ready for the NBA. He’s going to need to find that last 30 percent between now and October 26, when the Thunder come to town, because his role just got bigger.

How It Will Affect the Sixers Playbook

Before playing a single NBA game, Simmons was Philly’s most creative playmaker. His injury alters Brown’s tactical vision for the team. One of Philly’s most efficient play types last season, surprisingly, was the pick-and-pop involving Robert Covington. Per Synergy, Covington scored 1.35 points per possession when he was the on-ball screener last season, which ranks near the top of the league. It came on a small sample size (51 possessions), but it theoretically would’ve been hard for defenses to stop a Simmons-Covington pick-and-pop attack.

Here’s what that play looked like last season:

“It’s hard for teams to defend whether they switch or hedge. It’s a lot of confusion because they don’t know how we’re gonna play it,” Covington said on media day. “But now [that] we have a ball handler like Ben, it’ll be a lot easier, and make not only me better, but create open looks for everyone else.”

Brown’s plans for running the offense through Simmons have been shelved, so that play will have to wait. But the Sixers could run similar sets with Saric. Defenses might go under screens, hoping to bait the Croatian into a jumper off the dribble, but that’ll only leave Covington space to launch an open spot-up 3.

How It Will Affect the Sixers Big-Man Logjam

Without Simmons, the Sixers are still four-deep at big (with Noel, Okafor, Embiid, and Richaun Holmes). Chances are we’ll see more small-ball lineups from Brown, with Covington playing stretch 4. That’s something he’s very comfortable with. “You don’t want to get too clogged up in the paint with two bigs. It’s beneficial either way, because the bigs you have, you draw attention with double-teams and easy kickouts. But with a small-ball 4, we can really move the ball and get up and down the court.”

As I mentioned last month, Covington’s production could be boosted by playing more small-ball 4 because of the better floor spacing. That could be what the team ends up doing, considering Colangelo’s history with the Suns. During his tenure with Phoenix (1994–2006), he assembled many of the prominent pieces from the Seven Seconds or Less era. That team’s philosophy was built on small ball, and most of the current league’s best teams resemble those Suns, but the Sixers are built to play bully ball.

How It Will Affect Possible Noel and Okafor Trades

I wrote last week that the Sixers are biding their time in the trade market, and that stance hasn’t changed as a result of Simmons’s injury. While the frontcourt logjam has been relieved, Noel and Okafor are still on the table. The Sixers are willing to pull the trigger on the right deal, which simply hasn’t come along yet.

The Sixers coveted Kris Dunn before the draft, and there were draft-night rumors that they were trying to position themselves to acquire the Providence point guard. Even when Simmons was healthy, point guard was an area of need for Philly. It acquired Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless, but those guys are merely veteran stopgaps, providing stability for a developing roster, not long-term fixtures. So keep an eye on blossoming young point guards this preseason, since Noel or Okafor could be used as a trading chip. Teams like the Nuggets, Celtics, and Suns have a surplus of guards.

The decision to draft Simmons was an easy one for Colangelo. Simmons’s injury and the evolving Noel situation will be his first big tests as Sixers president. There’s still no rush to make a deal — just like there’s no rush to get Simmons back on the court.