Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons is expected to undergo surgery after suffering a knee injury last week. He will miss the remainder of the season. Simmons has been a perennial All-Star over the last few seasons and brings elite playmaking, defense, and finishing. He’s undoubtedly a talented player that the 76ers will miss in the postseason, but it’s tough to predict how much his absence will affect the team moving forward.
One thing is certain: Simmons’ defense can’t be replaced. He’s an elite on-ball defender with arguably the most versatility of any player in the league. He usually takes the assignment of guarding the opponent’s best player and boasts efficient defensive stats as well. Simmons should earn a spot on this year’s All-Defensive First Team.
With Simmons out, Matisse Thybulle and Josh Richardson will assume bigger roles as Philadelphia’s primary perimeter defenders. Thybulle has the makings of a future All-Defensive player but lacks experience as a rookie. Additionally, neither he nor Richardson can replicate what Simmons does on offense, particularly in transition.
It’s tough to gauge how the 76ers will fare without Simmons on this end. Given his elite playmaking and finishing ability, the initial assumption would be that the offense will struggle in his stead. Just like his defensive skills, no one on the team can adequately replace these attributes.
But surprisingly, there’s quite some evidence that suggests Philadelphia’s offense won’t struggle too much without Simmons. The evidence can be seen particularly with the duo of Simmons and premier big man Joel Embiid. The pairing has asserted itself as one of the most talented duos in the league over the last few seasons, making a combined total of 5 All-Star games.
At the same time, many people have expressed doubts on their chances to actually contend for championships together. The doubts are valid, as the two players have dealt with their fair share of head-scratching struggles in the three years they’ve played alongside one another.
Most infamously, Simmons and Embiid combined for a mere 29.2 points per game in the crucial Eastern Conference Finals last year. In that series along with several other occasions, Simmons’ horrific shooting has allowed defenses to clog lanes and force Embiid into jumpers. For such a talented and highly touted duo, their playstyles don’t complement each other nearly enough.
What’s also interesting about this duo is how Embiid plays with Simmons on the court versus with him off. As mentioned earlier, Simmons’ playmaking prowess would theoretically elevate Embiid’s game tremendously. But that hasn’t been the case this year.
Per 100 possessions, Embiid’s plus/minus is just +0.9 with Simmons on the court, far worse than his mark of +10.2 when Simmons sits. Now, that’s not enough to say that the 76ers or Embiid are better without Simmons. But nonetheless, there’s reason to believe that Philadelphia’s halcourt offense will be okay without Simmons.
Perhaps Embiid will be more comfortable now that teams can’t pack the paint as much. A valid critique of Embiid over his young career has been his occasional inability (or sometimes unwillingness) to score frequently in the paint despite his 7-foot, 280-pound frame.
While some of those scoring struggles can be attributed to head coach Brett Brown or Embiid himself, Simmons’ lack of floor spacing is a legitimate culprit. Sharpshooting guard Alec Burks will see an uptick in minutes with Simmons out, providing far more outside shooting and floor spacing for Embiid to work with. The 76ers can also now run the pick & roll more effectively with ball handlers like Shake Milton and Tobias Harris as outside shooting threats to keep the defense on their heels.
Fans will get a taste of what the 76ers look like without Simmons when they take on the Boston Celtics in the 1st round of the NBA playoffs. On defense, the impact resulting from the loss of Simmons will be magnified in this series. He was phenomenal when guarding Celtics star Jayson Tatum this year, holding him to just 31.3% from the field. The task of defending Tatum will likely fall on Al Horford, who’s expected to replace Simmons in the starting lineup. Horford has been a solid defender for years but matches up poorly versus the quicker, younger Tatum.
This will be an extremely tough problem for Philadelphia to mitigate, but the underdog 76ers shouldn’t be counted out completely. Now that Embiid has more room to operate against Boston’s mediocre defensive bigs, the underdog 76ers will put up a strong fight if they play their cards right.
Since the Celtics don’t have an elite interior defender, Embiid should draw plenty of double teams, which might be the key to Philly’s success. The Cameroonian center has improved as a passer from the low post and will be surrounded by an extra shooter to kick it out to, making for an effective counter to Boston’s defensive gameplan. Embiid will be the Sixers’ X-Factor with Simmons out.
Losing Simmons is obviously a huge blow and the 76ers will desperately miss his presence in several forms. But at the very least, Philadelphia will get closure on how they and Joel Embiid can play without Simmons. It’s valuable information now that the former first-overall pick is receiving interest from other teams, most of whom would be willing to give up some key pieces in exchange.