When Brett Brown was asked what he planned to do about the point-guard position on his basketball team during the potentially lengthy absence of his starter, the coach essentially said he was going to look around the bench and see if he had another one.
“You’ll see it done by committee, and — who knows? — maybe somebody is going to emerge to be like the guy as Ben is out there,” Brown said Monday night. “We’ve all learned that when there is a vacuum, as there is right now, that somebody will step up. And I’m trying to see the world through those eyes.”
This is the basketball equivalent of looking for loose change beneath the couch cushions, but it is also the reality for the Sixers while Ben Simmons deals with a nerve impingement in his lower back.
Even for the Sixers, who major in odd, it is an odd situation. Monday against the Atlanta Hawks, for instance, Brown primarily used Josh Richardson and Shake Milton to the bring the ball upcourt, with a small smattering of newcomer Alec Burks thrown in. If the Hawks weren’t aggressive defensively, and they rarely are, even Tobias Harris or Furkan Korkmaz grabbed the odd rebound and got the ball across halfcourt themselves.
In fact, the only guy who seemingly didn’t get a shot at point guard was also the only backup point guard on the roster, Raul Neto, who didn’t play a tick. Welcome to the 76ers of the moment. If you think it was a differently built team with Simmons at the point, take a look at the Sixers without him.
“Something will emerge,” Brown said, “and we need something to emerge.”
That is especially true if Simmons is out for longer than the two-week period after which he will be re-evaluated. Back injuries are no joke, and there isn’t any guarantee when Simmons will return or for how long.
Without Simmons, the Sixers are still capable. Any team with Joel Embiid, who powered to a career-high 49 points against the Hawks, is capable. But the Sixers become a very vulnerable defensive team, particularly on the perimeter, without Simmons. If you don’t play defense in the postseason, you don’t play for long.
The current situation has led to a raft of pronouncements — some of them well-founded — that the front office did Brown no favors in putting the roster together. Like, for instance, why isn’t there a traditional option at the point? Why aren’t there better shot creators at the guard and wing positions? Why, exactly, did the organization think Al Horford would be a natural fit in the lineup with Embiid?
Decent questions, and none of the answers that general manager Elton Brand might offer would feel satisfactory. Some of the reason for the roster dilemma, however, came about because Brand and the front office recognized this whole build toward a championship around Embiid and Simmons is a house of cards.
The two superstars on the roster have injury histories. Embiid more than Simmons, but they are big men who have been hurt before. If one of them disappears entirely from the picture, it is game over.
That’s a major part of the reason the Sixers swung big last season, trading for Jimmy Butler and Harris. They saw the opportunity to go for a deep run in the playoffs and took it. In an alternate world where one certain shot bounced their way, maybe the Sixers could have pulled off something magical. Hey, Nick Foles won a Super Bowl.
It didn’t turn out that way, of course, and the price of the effort was all the players and other assets that went into acquiring Butler and Harris. Some of those bargaining chips would be very useful today. Then, the team opted to pay Harris, and to flip Butler’s potential cap space to bring in Horford. The top-heavy nature of the roster didn’t leave much room for talent beneath the waterline. So, here we are.
“We would be wrong to paint this story of a poorly constructed plan, because all of a sudden Ben’s out,” Brown said. “I don’t see it that way. … This is the opportunity without an NBA All-Star, without a starting point guard, and we will manufacture ballcarriers with the group that’s been left.”
It is the right thing to say, but much more difficult to accomplish. If the team is lucky, Simmons will return in a couple of weeks, or at least in time to regain his game conditioning before the playoffs. If not, then the season is another disappointing waste, and ownership would need to contemplate changing the front office that navigated the course, and, most likely, the coach who couldn’t steer to calmer waters.
Even by house-of-cards standards, this is an unsteady time for the franchise. Everything rides on Simmons recovering and Embiid not getting hurt again. A season ago, the organization made a large bet that their sustained health was unlikely long-term.