Maybe the timing was poor.
Some think Brett Brown’s decision to switch Ben Simmons’ hand is a desperation move by an embattled coaching looking to keep his job. Others think it just camouflages a bigger issue — the team’s miscalculation of signing Al Horford to be the starting power forward. The excitement surrounding Simmons at power forward could lead people to overlook that the Sixers are paying Horford $97 million over four years to essentially be a backup center.
I don’t buy into the hype. Moving Simmons to power forward doesn’t look good for the Sixers from a salary-cap standpoint. In today’s NBA, wing players are considered the top of the food chain when it comes to getting paid.
Yet, the Sixers’ highest paid players for the next season — Tobias Harris ($34.3 million), Embiid ($29.5M), Simmons ($29.2M) and Horford ($27.5M) — are all frontcourt players. Even though he’s more effective at power forward, Harris starts at small forward because of the log jam at the four.
As a result, the Sixers’ highest-paid player is playing out of position. Their fourth highest-paid player, who making more than most starting centers, is coming off the bench. Now, they don’t have the cap space available for the maximum-salary perimeter addition they desperately need.
So it will take more than the expected excitement surrounding Simmons’ position change to have people overlooking a failed decision. That’s why I doubt the announcement of Simmons’ move to the low post was used as a way to camouflage things.
Whatever the reason, Brown announced Monday that his two-time All-Star point guard was playing exclusively at power forward during the first two days of training camp. Shake Milton assumed the starting point-guard duties. Brown later backtracked the “exclusive” part of his statement, but he has acknowledged Simmons is the starting power forward and Milton is the starting point guard for now.
No one should be surprised by this move. Maybe you can be surprised the team’s being upfront and honest about it.
Let’s face it, this isn’t the first time the Sixers took Simmons off the ball. They did it against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. At that time, they ran the offense through Jimmy Butler and used Simmons primarily in the dunker position.
While they didn’t utilize Simmons’ strengths in that series, they benefited from taking him off the ball in prior occasions. They just tried to disguise it.
He would start the game with the ball in his hands only to move off it.
Think back to when T.J. McConnell was inserted into the starting lineup with the team on the brink of playoff elimination in Game 4 of the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Boston Celtics.
They fed off the 6-foot-2 point guard’s grit in the 103-92 victory. He scored 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting and added seven rebounds and five assists while playing 38 minutes, 57 seconds. Simmons had one of his best games of that series with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists.
McConnell was listed at shooting guard alongside Simmons in the backcourt. Meanwhile, JJ Redick, the normal shooting guard, slid to small forward in place of Robert Covington, who came off the bench.
But in reality, McConnell was the point guard while Simmons had more of a do-everything point-forward role.
That was the expectation for Simmons for this upcoming postseason.
Brown has been talking about playing Simmons more and more off the ball this season. The 23-year-old has thrived in the role.
Think back to when his versatility was on full display in this season’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee against the Brooklyn Nets. Simmons finished with a career-high-tying 34 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists, five steals, two blocks, and three turnovers in the Sixers’ 117-111 victory at the Barclays Center. He made 12 of 14 shots and went 10-for-14 from the foul line.
Brown called the performance “ridiculously dominant.”
“He was just multiskilled, used all over the place in multiple positions — ball handler, screen-setter, post target,” Brown said back then. “He was on the five man [center] defensively. He was just incredible …”
Simmons even excelled in the point center role, which he played at times during the game. The Nets had no answers for him when he posted up.
Brooklyn reserve center Nicolas Claxton, a rookie, really had his hands full trying to guard the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder. And it didn’t help Brooklyn that Sixers reserve point guard Raul Neto kept feeding Simmons in the right spot.
“It’s tough for any bigs to guard me when I am going at them,” Simmons said. “That is not a knock on any bigs, but I am pretty fast and can get to the rim.”
He was definitely right, and the Atlanta Hawks post players would agree.
Simmons paced the Sixers with 31 points and a game-high four steals while playing multiple positions in a 127-117 road loss to the Hawks on Jan. 30. Fifteen of his points came in the first quarter.
Because of Simmons’ hesitancy to shoot, which led to past struggles in the postseason where opponents routinely sagged off him defensively, Brown opted to move him inside, where he wouldn’t be a liability, and start Milton, who has solid perimeter skills at point guard.
We should still expect to see Simmons with the ball a lot as a point forward. On those occasions, look for Milton to roam around in the perimeter to help stretch the floor.