It’s impossible to put into the words just how disappointing Ben Simmons’ knee injury is for himself (obviously), his team, and for this fan base. Finals expectations hang in the balance, Brett Brown’s job likely hangs in the balance, and our collective sanity hangs in the balance.
While entertaining the idea of the team still contending without Simmons feels ludicrous, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make sense of the roster and pending rotation in his absence. These are the three players set to see their minutes rise with Ben out for the foreseeable future:
1. Alec Burks
We’ll start with the obvious. In the absence of our lead ball-handler, a team that was already light on ball-handling will need all the help they can get in this department. The reason Burks gets the nod over Neto is two-fold—he can create his own shot, and his size is needed on the wing (at 6’1” Neto just doesn’t supplement the loss of Ben on defense).
While Burks’ brand of microwave scoring wasn’t necessarily what the Sixers needed off the bench when they were fully healthy, it seems like a pretty appealing option right now. Without Simmons, ball movement is sure to suffer, and while Burks isn’t going to emphasize that on the court, he should be able to replace some of the offense Ben generated with his own individual scoring ability.
Offensively, this team will shift to a much more spaced four-out look around Embiid, and Burks is a fine spot-up shooter (though so is Neto). Defensively, Burks isn’t much of an asset beyond a body on the wing, but considering Ben ate up close to 40 minutes of wing defense, and GRIII is the only player in tow to replace those, the Sixers will need Burks to spend more time manning 3s and switching onto 4s than he would like.
2. Glenn Robinson III
GRIII was in line to get rotation minutes as it was, the only question was how many? 6-8? 16-20? It was hard to say with his nagging hip injury, but now with the absence of Simmons it’s clear they’ll need to lean on Robinson at least 16-20 minutes a night.
In terms of defensive matchup, it’s been well-advertised that Ben spent more time on the opposing team’s top player (often a wing) than any other player this season. Part of that is because he’s an elite defender, but part of that also came out of necessity. The Sixers simply didn’t have other wings to put on top perimeter players—this is the main reason the front office went out and added GRIII. While Robinson isn’t someone who’s going to lock you up, he’s one of the more capable wing defenders in the league, and Golden State routinely matched him up with the opposing team’s top wing before he was traded.
It’s not an exaggeration to say GRIII is the only other true wing-defender on the entire roster outside of Ben. Tobias Harris—who’s obviously a better fit defending 4s (or even chasing 2s)—is going to be asked to supplement some of that role as he figures to move back from the 4 to the 3 primarily; I already mentioned Burks, though the 3 is still somewhat out of position for him; and then there’s Thybulle, who’s mainly been a point-of-attack defender, but has been asked to step up onto bigger wings recently in GRIII’s absence.
None of that is ideal, and if GRIII is capable of connecting from three at a decent rate and finding peripheral ways to score the basketball (attack closeouts, aggressive in transition) then it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Brett doesn’t end up playing him 25+ minutes a night. Again, he was always in line for minutes in this rotation, but the injury to Ben makes GRIII vital to any success this team hopes to have moving forward.
3. Al Horford
The continued Horford slander is pretty comical, and we can use it as a good indicator of who knows basketball and who simply doesn’t. If you rush to the “points” column of a box score to gauge the value of Horford you’re sorely missing the point—in fact, if you rush to any single section of the box score to gauge any player’s value I think you should be flogged in the streets (or at the very least, publicly shamed)
If you watch the Sixers past few games, it’s really not hard to see the impact Al has on the floor.
His decisive and accurate passing stimulates ball movement, and his efficient screens create easy buckets for cutting teammates—we ought to start tracing both “hockey assists” and “screen assists” in the box score. While plays of that nature aren’t hard to follow when watching an NBA game (i.e.: there shouldn’t be a need to tabulate them) the fan base clearly needs that statistical aid to help formulate their opinion.
Snarky comments aside, Horford will certainly see more minutes in the absence of Ben Simmons. He was already sharing time on the floor with Embiid at the end of first and third quarters, and with Ben out of the equation any spacing issues obviously become less of a concern.
The main question we need to ask in regard to Ben’s absence is how can the Sixers supplement his defense. With the team already struggling to prevent penetration even with a healthy Simmons, the Sixers would be smart to add more size and length at the rim, and Horford provides this. Yes, he’s taken a clear step back in certain areas of individual defense, but Big Al is still long, mobile, and plays with the sort of high-IQ defense that can help supplement for Simmons’ D as much as anyone on this list.
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