The question that Sixers fans hate most—do Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid work together?—has been replaced by something much darker: Do the Sixers work without Simmons? Philadelphia won’t have its point guard for the indefinite future, after tests showed on Tuesday that Simmons suffered a nerve impingement on his lower back. He’ll be reevaluated in two weeks, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that there is little chance Simmons will return by then.
Back pain has stymied Simmons all week. He missed Thursday’s game against the Nets because of back tightness, and played four minutes in the Sixers’ loss to the Bucks on Saturday for the same reason. (Some reports say “tightness” while others go with “soreness,” and while I’m not sure there’s much difference between the two, I know the Venn diagram of how painful they are is a circle.) At first, Sixers PR said that Simmons would be leaving for periodic treatments throughout the Milwaukee game. Eventually it was revealed that he wasn’t returning, and on Monday against the Hawks, he sat again.
That Simmons would get “periodic treatments” during the Bucks game sounded bizarre from the start. There wasn’t any news on the specifics or the severity, just that he felt pain while going up for a rebound in practice last Wednesday. Even “nerve impingement” doesn’t tell us much. Kyle Neubeck from PhillyVoice points out that there is a wide range of potential injuries at play—it could be something as serious as a herniated disc. In Wojnarowski’s report, he wrote, “Doctors are hopeful that treatment can treat the nerve impingement over time.” Basically, no one knows what his recovery timetable will be—“over time” is as nonspecific as you can get with a timeline. For now, all we know is that Simmons is being treated daily.
Reporters asked head coach Brett Brown about a timeline after Simmons’s premature exit on Saturday. “I don’t know,” Brown said. “It’s really, like, how long is a piece of string? Who knows?” Totally understandable metaphor and normal answer.
String length aside, all Philadelphia knows is that they’ll have to manage without Simmons for the time being. The 36-22 Sixers are in the fifth spot in the East. They’re trailing the Heat by half a game, but have gotten back on track after a four-game losing streak that carried over into February. Philly has won five of its past six, and Embiid dropped 39 points and 49 points in the two games Simmons missed.
Managing without Simmons in the backcourt will have to be a collaborative effort. Josh Richardson can handle more ball-handling opportunities, but beside and behind him is some combination of Alec Burks, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and Raul Neto. (Against the Hawks, Brown started Milton.)
Brown’s lineups have already been unconventional lately due to injuries and to Al Horford having a down season. Horford was taken out of the starting lineup for three games in February, a change that was supposed to become semi-permanent. Yet Brown backtracked on Monday and made Horford a starter once again. This could be the norm until Simmons returns. Horford hasn’t been a positive for the Sixers, but he’ll be one of the more trustworthy veterans on the roster if he can return to the Horford he was before Philly signed him this summer.
Whether the team can hang on depends on Embiid. The Sixers will face a couple of cupcakes while Simmons is out—the Cavs and Knicks are up next, and they’ll later face the Kings, Warriors, and Pistons—but they’ll also go up again both Los Angeles teams. Going at the Clippers and Lakers is difficult even at full strength; beating both in a row short a superstar seems impossible. Embiid does seem to be finally bouncing back from his funk, though: “I said before the All-Star break I was going to have a different mind-set, be aggressive,” Embiid said. “I said I was going to get back to having fun. Having fun comes in different forms.” Scoring 40 or more per game to keep good playoff positioning alive without your most talented teammate, for example.