It is easy and it is fashionable to bash Brett Brown as he struggles against the Celtics for the second time in his third career playoff excursion, but it’s not fair. Brown is not playing with a full deck.
The Sixers blew a second-half lead Monday and seemed to stay in the locker room for the second half Wednesday, both issues that could be squarely pinned on the seventh-year head coach ... if he’d had his best player. He did not. This fact somehow is being diminished, if not ignored.
Ben Simmons has a knee injury. He’s out for the foreseeable future. Without him, Jayson Tatum is cooking the Sixers. Without him, there is no offensive identity. Without him, there is no leader. Brown said “we make our money” through Joel Embiid, and Embiid calls himself The Process, but it’s never been clearer how valuable Simmons is. Trademark aside, it’s Ben’s team, for better or worse. With him, it might not always thrive. Without him, it dies.
Simmons’ critics -- critics such as me, occasionally -- often focus on his weaknesses: his refusal to shoot from the perimeter, his turnovers, his limited offensive repertoire. It becomes easy to dismiss his unique gifts: the speed, the size, the defensive instinct, the passing. He might be incomplete, but he still is magnificent, and Brown recognizes that every minute he strategizes against the Celtics, whom the Sixers play in Game 3 of the first round Friday. Everyone else should recognize it, too.
“I think about it all the time,” said Brown.
Of course he does. He designed his schemes around Simmons’ gifts.
“There is no secret he is our best perimeter defensive player. He was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate -- you look at deflections, steals, versatility to guard [point guards] through [centers],” Brown said. “His ability to defensive rebound stands out.”
We tend to underappreciate Simmons’ ability to rebound and immediately start a fast break, going rim-to-rim with a few power dribbles like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Shake Milton, Al Horford, and Matisse Thybulle, who are sharing Simmons’ minutes, cannot do that.
“There is a pace aspect that stands out... Our transition opportunities have been minimized,” Brown said, not to mention Simmons’ synergy with the big fella: “Go find Jo.”
Getting the ball to a 7-foot-2, 250-pound center sounds simple, but it has been a problem for the rest of the Sixers.
Still, Brown insists: “There is enough talent. There is enough character.”
Is there, really?
Consider: Even after all of the offseason roster manipulation -- $180 million for Tobias Harris, $97 million for Al Horford, the sign-and-trade that landed Josh Richardson but cost them Jimmy Butler -- the single biggest offseason variable concerned Ben Simmons’ jump shot. He’s that important. His absence explains most of the issues the Sixers cannot overcome.
Can’t get the ball inside to Embiiid against the Celtics? No Ben Simmons. He led the team with 8.0 assists, which ranked sixth in the NBA.
Can’t force turnovers? No Ben Simmons. He led the league with 2.1 steals. His presence would surely pressure the Celtics, whose 13 total turnovers in two games is less than their per-game average in the regular season (13.2),
Can’t stop Tatum? No Ben Simmons. In the teams’ four regular-season games Simmons checked Tatum almost exclusively. Tatum shot 31.3 percent against Simmons, about 14 percent worse than his average. He’s shooting 53.7 percent in the series against the Sixers.
The team can’t run? Rebounding down? Team’s flat?
It is impossible to overstate the hole Simmons leaves. Depending on the stage of the season he was the Sixers’ point guard, point forward, or backup point guard. Regardless of the time of season he was the best perimeter defender, the best penetrator, and the best finisher. Replacing him would be like trying to replacing LeBron James, James Harden, or Luka Doncic. If any of those players were absent, and if their teams were trailing, 2-0, their absences would dominate the discussion.
Simmons is not as complete a player as any of them but he’s as much a focal point as any. Simmons touched the ball 90.5 times per game, which was fifth in the league, and he possessed the ball for 7.0 minutes per game, which ranked eighth. LeBron was third and sixth; the Beard was ninth and fourth; Luka was second and second.
You can love Ben Simmons, which we all have, or you can hate him, which we all do, sometimes. But this Sixers team can’t win without him.
There have been plenty of reasons to roast Brett Brown the past three years: Late-game decisions, locker room disharmony; lack of accountability; that terrible beard.