Philadelphia 76ers: Did the Ben Simmons at center experiment work?

Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia Sixers had a strange adjustment between games four and five. Joel Embiid is injured with a small meniscus tear and that left Ben Simmons and the rest of the Sixers to try to close out the 3-1 series against Washington Wizards.

The Sixers replaced Embiid with Matisse Thybulle in the starting lineup, leaving Simmons as the small-ball five. Ben Simmons filled the position well as he finished with a triple-double of 19 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, two blocks and a steal in a 17-point win to close the series.

But was it sustainable? There is no clear timeline on Embiid’s return so this may be the Sixers lineup for the first half of the second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.

Did the Ben Simmons at center experiment work for the Sixers?

The Sixers depend on Embiid for both ends of the court tremendously, in-game three Embiid scored 36 points and his rim intimidation was sorely missed in games four and five.

On offense, Simmons became a more frequent screener and hand-off threat. Without Embiid and Simmons clogging the paint, the court opened up allowing for pick and roll action with Simmons screening for Tobias Harris or Seth Curry.

Simmons also had more space to post up, without the threat of Embiid in the paint, the floor was more open. Which opened up passing lanes that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

It wasn’t all perfect though. Embiid is the Sixers’ primary offensive option in the half-court so obviously, they needed to make those 24 points per game up. Those points in the half-court came from Tobias Harris’ 28 points and Seth Curry’s 30 points.

The Sixers offense held up without Embiid. They scored 129 points, 52 were in the paint and 40 of those points came from the bench. It’s hard to tell if this is applicable to a series that has Clint Capela roaming the paint, but the Sixers only shot 33 percent from three. There will be games when they get hot from three, so the points in the paint won’t such a concern while the Sixers wait for Embiid.

Defensively is the bigger concern, Simmons may be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate but he’s done that by his menacing perimeter defense, not his interior defense.

The Wizards center rotation is not something high on the scouting report. In the starting lineup, Harris was guarding Gafford while Simmons was on the wings covering Rui Hachimura. When the benches came through Dwight Howard matched Robin Lopez’s minutes, who managed to continue his Kareem Abdul-JaLopez hooks.

The concern is, can you get away with having Harris on a Capela or John Collins? Or does Simmons need to play down low, or do you need to bring in Howard – which means you either compromise the perimeter defense or compromise the spacing.

The biggest change the Sixers can make defensively is having more rotational help on interior defense and trapping the pick and roll. The easier one is trapping the guards on pick and rolls, Simmons occasionally sat back on a pick and roll with Bradley Beal and that’s a no-no.

The rotational help might allow Harris to guards the Hawks bigs *IF* Thybulle, Simmons, and Green can do some of what they did in game five. Coming in and getting hands on the ball without fouling.

If Embiid is back soon none of this really matters unless one of the two stars is traded, or the Australian National Team uses this as an example for the Toyko Olympics.

If Embiid isn’t back soon the Simmons at center experiment was fruitful but requires a lot to go right and the Sixers defense to be perfectly in harmony.

My prediction would be that Howard starts in the Hawks series without Embiid, as Collins and Capela are too much to handle compared to Gafford and Lopez.

So did the experiment work? Yes, in a small sample. But I’m not sure it would work for a full playoff run and regular season.

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