As the NBA’s Feb. 10 trade deadline approaches, the rumor mill churns ever faster around the Philadelphia 76ers and erstwhile star Ben Simmons. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reported last month that trade talks involving Simmons were “gathering momentum,” while Sam Amick of The Athletic wrote this week that Philadelphia was still actively looking for a huge haul in return for Simmons (to the frustration of prospective trade partners). Michele Roberts, the outgoing executive director of the players association, weighed in Wednesday: “I think what’s happening in Philadelphia frankly is ridiculous, and I don’t know why we’re playing chicken with each other,” she said. “It just strikes [me] that this is something that could be worked out.”
While all of this hangs over the Sixers organization, the team itself has kept playing — and playing well, recently — in spite of turmoil on all fronts. According to research by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, only the Cleveland Cavaliers have been hit harder by COVID-19-related absences, which included megastar big man Joel Embiid earlier in the season and plenty of names in the protocols (among them, coach Doc Rivers) since the omicron variant began wreaking its havoc. And yet, Philly’s win over the Orlando Magic Wednesday night was its fifth in a row, elevating the team’s record to 21-16, ninth-best in the NBA. Without Simmons, the Sixers are a different team — and maybe a worse team overall, at the moment — but it remains to be seen what kind of addition-by-subtraction Rivers can engineer out of this group, sans its second-highest-paid player.
As we might have expected from losing Simmons, who was named to the league’s first-team All-Defense squads in both 2019-20 and 2020-21, Philadelphia’s ability to stop opponents from scoring has suffered a lot this season. The 76ers ranked No. 8 in defensive rating two years ago and No. 2 last season, with Simmons playing a pivotal role both years. Only Tobias Harris logged more minutes for Philly across those seasons, and the Sixers’ defense improved by 1.7 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the court. Without Simmons, this year’s Sixers rank just 19th in defensive rating — giving them one of the league’s biggest regressions on defense so far in 2021-22, even if we cut them a little slack for Embiid missing 11 games.
That’s not surprising when we consider how many good things Simmons brought to Philly’s defense. While nailing down a position for Simmons has always been a challenge given his unique combination of strengths (and weaknesses), the indispensable Cleaning the Glass ranked Simmons at or above the 86th percentile relative to positional peers last season in block rate, steal rate and defensive rebounding rate. He also held opposing shooters 4.5 points below their usual field-goal percentage and was at or above the 78th percentile in terms of boosting turnovers and suppressing offensive rebounds and fouls drawn by Philadelphia opponents while on the court. So it isn’t exactly a shock that the 76ers have fallen off quite a bit in those areas, particularly in forcing turnovers and grabbing defensive rebounds.
With apologies to Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle, all of whom are averaging more minutes than last season while picking up much of Simmons’s workload, no one on the current Sixers can quite replicate everything Simmons did. The closest might be Thybulle, who can guard a similar range of dangerous stars on the perimeter, and who ranks sixth in the NBA in our defensive RAPTOR metric this season. (But Thybulle is so bad offensively — with a 10.2 percent usage rate and -3.0 offensive RAPTOR — that he makes Simmons’s own limitations look minor by comparison.)
Nobody can replace everything Simmons did on D
Defensive percentile ranks for Ben Simmons in 2020-21 and his primary lineup replacements on the 2021-22 Philadelphia 76ers
Relative to players at the same position
|Category||Ben Simmons||Tyrese Maxey||Matisse Thybulle||Shake Milton|
|Avoid foul %||48||52||20||38|
|Def. rebounding %||91||36||7||59|
|On/off effective field-goal %||47||18||73||76|
|On/off turnover %||83||4||97||70|
|On/off def. rebounding %||78||90||8||39|
|On/off free-throw rate||88||40||27||53|
|On/off points per possession||78||18||62||73|
Even Embiid, himself an All-Defense fixture, has seen his defensive impact reduced without his former lineup partner: Philly’s defense allowed just 104.3 points per 100 possessions (an impressive 8.8 points per 100 better than league average) with both Embiid and Simmons on the court together last season, but the Sixers are just 2.1 points better than average defensively with Embiid on-court so far in 2021-22, as only the sparingly used partnership between Embiid and Georges Niang has yielded anywhere near the defensive potency of the Simmons-Embiid duo from a year ago.1
Again, none of this is necessarily surprising, least of all to the Sixers. Short of waving a magic wand to patch things up with Simmons, they knew it would be a struggle to replace the value he created on defense. Until Daryl Morey, president of basketball operations, could swing a trade for a suitable replacement, the premise of a successful 2021-22 season in Philly revolved in part around the idea that a post-Simmons offense would improve stylistically enough without him to help offset a defensive decline.
Simmons’s offensive drawbacks are, by now, extremely well-documented. He’s a brilliant playmaker and athlete for his size, but he can’t — or often won’t — shoot the ball. (That clip — you know the one — of Simmons passing up an open dunk in last year’s playoffs has 1.9 million views on YouTube; the clip of Embiid’s flabbergasted reaction has 2.8 million views.) Despite putting up superficially nice stats, Simmons was roughly a wash for the Sixers’ offense in 2019-20 and 2020-21 combined, and his scoring had trended in the wrong direction each of the previous three seasons. While no single player may replace his versatility as a driver, open-court floor general and pick-and-roll operator (as both a ballhandler and screener), Simmons’s high turnover rate, total lack of 3-point shooting and inability to knock down free throws offered hope that the Sixers could craft a more functional offense without him. After all, with Embiid missing 21 games and Simmons’s usage rate tumbling to a career-low 20.2 percent last season, Philly’s attack still finished 13th in offensive rating during Rivers’s first year at the helm.
The Simmons-less Sixers have certainly forged a different offensive identity so far this season. They are running a lot less in transition (down from a tie for 11th in the league in pace factor to 27th), turning the ball over less, crashing the boards less, shooting slightly more from three (but less at the rim) and getting to the line slightly less. These changes more or less line up with what you would expect from removing a player with Simmons’s attributes from the equation. But Philly has yet to turn its new formula into improved results. Granted, the team is no worse off without Simmons — it ranks 13th in offensive rating (tied with Cleveland) yet again — but it’s not better, either, which was going to be necessary to offset the defensive dip without its top stopper. (This is why the Sixers’ net points per 100 possessions have fallen from +5.6 last year to just +0.9 this season.)
The upside might be there for Philly to improve, however. As we noted above, they’ve been one of the teams hit hardest by COVID-19-related absences, and enhanced health in that department would be a welcome change as we approach midseason. Maxey, who is currently out under health-and-safety protocols but should return soon, has been one of the league’s most impressive young offensive players so far this year, while improving his defense as well. Better play from the slumping Harris — who is tracking for the lowest single-season RAPTOR of his career (-2.9) — could be in the offing, as well as from Milton (-1.2) and wing Furkan Korkmaz (-1.7).2 And after recovering from his bout with COVID-19 early in the season, Embiid seems to be rounding into peak form recently — he has scored 30 or more in five straight games and seven of his past eight.
For right now, though, the Sixers have some work ahead of them in constructing a better version of the team minus Simmons. Some of that may come from the return in a trade, if and when Morey finally pulls the trigger and sends his disgruntled star packing. But some will have to come from recreating Simmons’s strengths at both ends of the court — or, at least, from Rivers finding more ways to lean into a roster now devoid of Simmons’s weaknesses.
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CORRECTION (Jan. 11, 2022, 10:38 a.m.): An earlier version of this article gave last year’s date for the NBA trade deadline. The deadline this season is Feb. 10, not March 25.