Anybody who thinks the Sixers’ point guard problems can be easily solved should consider the following: Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey played a grand total of 66 minutes together last season. There’s a reason for that, because in those 66 minutes, opponents posted an offensive rating of 114.7 and outscored the Sixers by an average of seven points per 100 possessions.
Therein lies a conundrum for anyone who thinks that replacing Ben Simmons in the starting lineup will be as simple as putting the ball in Maxey’s hands and telling him to create scoring opportunities. Given the defensive limitations of a lineup that features such a backcourt, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Doc Rivers turns in a different direction on most nights. With the Sixers facing the prospect of needing to replace Simmons on a more permanent basis, let’s take a look back at how they handled his absences last season and ponder a few of the pressing questions Rivers will be weighing as he cobbles together a new rotation.
1) Last season, the starting lineup’s scoring numbers were nearly identical without Simmons as they were with him.
Joel Embiid was speaking the truth on Thursday afternoon when he repeatedly pointed out that the Sixers are a better team with Simmons in uniform. But as obvious and indisputable as that observation may be, it’s worth noting that the Sixers’ starting lineup was just as productive without Simmons as it was with him last season. Granted, we’re talking about a sample of minutes that is way too small to conclude anything actionable about the erstwhile point guard’s impact on the group. Still, it’s an interesting place to start the conversation about Rivers’ options for filling the void.
According to Basketball-Reference.com’s lineup data, the foursome of Embiid, Curry, Danny Green, and Tobias Harris played a total of 129.5 minutes with somebody other than Simmons as the fifth wheel. Combined, the Simmons-less starters outscored opponents by an average of 119.4-105.1 every 100 possessions. That’s a Net Rating of plus-14.3, which is actually slightly better than the plus-13.9 mark that the starters posted with Simmons in the lineup. On the season, Simmons and the starters outscored opponents 119.7-105.8 every 100 possessions. This, in 655.3 minutes of action.
2) Matisse Thybulle and Curry were Rivers’ most dependable replacements for Simmons.
On the handful of occasions when Simmons was in street clothes last season, Curry was Rivers’ first choice to fill in at the point. The Sixers played four games in which Simmons was out of the lineup and the other four starters were in the lineup. They went 2-2 in those games, with losses to the Bucks and the Blazers and wins over the Wizards and Rockets.
In those wins over the Rockets and Wizards, Rivers went with a starting lineup that replaced Simmons with Thybulle. Over the course of the season, that five-man unit logged 72 minutes of court time with results that mirrored those of the normal starting unit.
Replacing Simmons with Thybulle is an interesting possibility to consider because it would solve one of the biggest conundrums facing Rivers: How do you replace Simmons’ offensive responsibilities without taking a huge step backwards on the defensive end of the court? One option is to swap in a wing defender like Thybulle and ask Curry to handle the ball. The move paid dividends in the seven games that Rivers tried it last season. The unit outscored opponents 183-165 during the regular season, generating an offensive rating that was actually 1.5 points better than the starting lineup with Simmons and a defensive rating that was only 1.3 points worse. Small sample size, yes, but the end result was a plus-14.0 net rating that was slightly better than the starting unit’s plus-13.8 (albeit in 600 fewer minutes of court time).
3) Georges Niang could be the key to getting Maxey in the starting lineup
At media day last week, Rivers pointed to Niang as an offseason addition who could end up playing a much more important role than people assume. The big question is whether the Sixers are willing to break up the Curry-Embiid pairing that was so wildly successful last season. One way they might be able to justify it, particularly against bigger lineups, is by starting Niang at the four and using him to replace Curry’s floor-spacing ability. Over the last two seasons, Niang has shot 41.4% from three-point range on a prolific 12.1 attempts per 100 possessions. Against bigger lineups, the Sixers could start Niang at the four, Harris at the three, Thybulle or Green at the two and Maxey at point, which would keep two 40% three-point shooters on the court while putting the ball in Maxey’s hands.
All of this assumes Simmons has not been traded by the time the season starts. Presumably, any deal would be likely to include the addition of another ballhandling option. For now, though, Rivers has a lot of options to consider, though few, if any, are ideal.