Forget the last possession, for a second. Forget what you think of the design of the play, a dribble handoff intended to get the ball in the hands of Jimmy Butler for one last chance at avoiding a 117-115 loss. Forget what you think about the wisdom of the plan itself. More than anything, try to forget the image that many are now magnifying into a microcosm of the Sixers at their current juncture: Ben Simmons hanging in midair, his head on a frantic swivel, looking to do anything with the ball other than shoot it.
Instead, go back to the first quarter of Saturday’s game, and a possession near the six-minute mark, and a sequence of events that should serve as a reminder of all of the opportunities that Simmons' unique skill set opens up for the offense. The Sixers’ second unit had been on the court for all of a minute, and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook was looking like a shark who had achieved self-awareness. First, he’d picked Simmons’ pocket in the high post, poking the ball out of his grasp from the weak side and then coasting down to the other end of the court for an uncontested dunk that he punctuated with a scream. On the Thunder’s next trip down the court, a Simmons-Jonah Bolden switch had left Westbrook isolated on Bolden near the top of the key, which led to a backdoor pass through a distracted defense and an easy Jerami Grant bucket that gave the Thunder a 23-13 lead.
The Sixers were suddenly teetering on the brink, with a lineup that featured Bolden at the five and T.J. McConnell and Landry Shamet in the backcourt, with Butler also present. They had no answer for Westbrook, and they would not find one until the Thunder had built up a 31-15 lead, giving themselves just enough cushion to weather a spirited Sixers effort over the final three periods.
But the stretch in question also featured a possession that is worth remembering even in the wake of a frustrating loss. Simmons took a pass at the top of the set and immediately flashed into Alpha mode, lowering his shoulder as if he was going to split a pair of defenders at the foul line, then, after a slight hesitation, glided around a challenge from Westbrook before going hard with his left at Nerlens Noel and the rim. A deft Eurostep left him with a clean look despite the three orange jerseys that his penetration had pulled into the restricted area.
This was Simmons at his most destructive, singlehandedly obliterating an opposing defense and creating for the Sixers a multi-pronged scoring opportunity that simply would not have existed had he been a ball handler blessed with something less than his elite combination of size, speed, and spacetime awareness. A lot of these moments are easy to miss, because a meaningful portion of them end in the sort of pointless possessions that are an inevitable part of the growing process of a second-year player still finding his way. Indeed, that was the case in this particular instance, and that’s no small thing, as the final score would show. At the end of the drive, Simmons fell out of rhythm, and his right-hander from the block bounced off the backboard and the front of the side of the rim and ignited a transition opportunity the opposite way.
But it is also a significant fact that a bucket was there to be had in the first place. And the natural order of things says that the longer Simmons plays, the more of those buckets he’ll end up making, whether he does it with his own finishing ability or by spotting a wide-open shooter squaring up 20 feet to his front, as Shamet was on this possession.
None of that should invalidate the questions about the aptitude of this Sixers roster in the here and now. Saturday’s loss to the Thunder provided plenty of fodder for the skeptics. Butler spent much of the first half looking like a player still trying to get a feel for where his skill set fits. One possible answer is that it simply does not, and will not, at least not until Simmons adds a perimeter dimension to his game, thereby facilitating the spacing required to maximize Butler’s ability to create for himself in isolation. There is some friction between their games that, on Saturday, you did not see on the other side of the court, where Paul George’s pure three-point stroke and shooter’s mentality played wonderfully off of the mayhem created by Westbrook’s size, speed, and handle.
It was an interesting contrast to watch in real time. Embiid is the player this whole thing will be built around. He has left little doubt of that. By themselves, both Butler and Simmons can provide an ideal second prong. But there is an argument to be made that, for both players, the ideal third Musketeer is not the other, but an athlete of George’s ilk.
At the same time, a stronger argument might be the one that acknowledges that George plays somewhere else, and that an Embiid-Butler-Simmons triumvirate is as good as the Sixers can reasonably expect to do on the forthcoming trade and free-agent markets. Furthermore, that argument says that Saturday’s loss was an indication of how tantalizingly close this roster might be to counting itself among the NBA’s elite. Coupled with Thursday’s blowout win on the road over the Pacers, and the Sixers have begun their current gauntlet looking like a squad that really might be just a couple of rotational upgrades away from occupying that perch.