Ben Simmons was expected at the 76ers’ practice facility Wednesday night for an individual workout, the next step on the way to a potential formal reunion with the team after holding out for nearly two weeks due to a trade demand.
Per the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, Simmons cannot practice or play with the rest of his teammates until Friday at the earliest. In the meantime, the Sixers will continue to march toward their final preseason game Friday at Detroit and next Wednesday’s season opener at New Orleans.
Coach Doc Rivers and veteran starters Danny Green and Seth Curry on Wednesday downplayed the strange situation in which the Sixers find themselves. They have been adamant throughout the preseason that they must work with the players who are in the building and on the court. Uncertainty continues to swirl about whether Simmons will actually end up playing for the Sixers at all.
But Rivers insists that, structurally and schematically, the Sixers will practice and prepare exactly the same, that there is not a Plan A for the current available roster and a Plan B for if and when Simmons rejoins the fold.
“It’s only a Plan A,” Rivers said. “What we run, you don’t change just because one guy comes on the floor.”
The Simmons saga, which took a drastic turn Monday when he arrived in Philadelphia and progressed Tuesday with a physical and meeting with key team personnel, has not been the Sixers’ only snag during the preseason.
The injury bug has hit them too, with star Tobias Harris (knee soreness) and key reserve Matisse Thybulle (shoulder soreness) missing practice time and games, and Tyrese Maxey (adductor tightness) and Shake Milton (sprained ankle), contending for starting point guard, missing Monday’s preseason victory over the Brooklyn Nets. That has made it challenging for outsiders to assess where the Sixers sit in the pecking order of an improved Eastern Conference heading into the season.
Yet the Sixers also have the benefit of continuity in Rivers’ second season. Should Simmons return, their full starting lineup with Green, Curry, Harris, and MVP contender Joe Embiid will be intact from a team that finished first in the Eastern Conference standings in 2020-21. Thybulle, Maxey, Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz are also back.
That has allowed Rivers to focus less time in practice and film sessions on teaching, and more on sharpening details like cutting. That leads to crisper ball movement, an element the Sixers have been pleased with during the preseason.
Curry said they are calling fewers sets than last season while mixing in a bit more pick-and-roll, and that “whoever was here last year should be pretty comfortable with the things we’re trying to do on the floor.”
Added Rivers: “This would be a lot different if this was the first year here and we didn’t know how to use [Simmons] and what we wanted to do. But it’s not. We’re pretty much organized. We know exactly how to do it.”
Still, Rivers and players have hinted throughout camp at how they have prepared to play differently without Simmons. If the All-Star guard re-enters the group, that will likely ignite a combination of the Sixers going back to ways that highlight Simmons’ strengths and Simmons catching up to any new tweaks.
The point-guard void has been the most obvious preseason difference, given Simmons’ ability to push the pace, get to the basket and make plays for others. On the first day of training camp, Rivers said he trusted Harris and Korkmaz to immediately bring the ball up off a rebound to initiate the offense. Last season, the Sixers typically looked to get the ball to Simmons.
“Obviously, spacing is going to change with Ben out there,” Curry said. “But we know how to adjust. Everybody knows how to play basketball. It’s not too different from the stuff we did last year. It’s just trying to execute stuff better.”
Defensively, the Sixers had been exploring new ways to match up against opponents without the luxury of automatically putting the 6-foot-10 Simmons — who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season — on the best offensive weapon at any position but center.
NBA players are used to constantly adapting throughout the course of an 82-game season. Short- and long-term absences can shift starting lineups and rotations for one night or an extended period. “Next man up” is a cliché because it’s true. Preparing for Simmons’ possible return could be compared to when a key player is nearing the end of injury rehab.
If and when it is time to reintegrate Simmons, Green said the Sixers will be ready. Until then, not much will change with their daily approach.
“We’ve been practicing and playing as if he’s been here or is going to show up,” Green said. “We expect it. He’s a part of our group. He’s a part of our team. When and if he does show up, he’ll fit right in and do the same things we were doing last year.
”We were very effective at it last year. We expect to do that this year again as well. We’re just waiting for that time to come.”