After a hiatus of over four months, the Philadelphia 76ers finally got back to game action on Friday afternoon in Orlando. In the first of three exhibitions before the eight "seeding" games get underway, the Sixers squared off against the Memphis Grizzlies; a team they won't see again this season unless both squads make a Finals run. Both teams were a bit rusty -- as was to be expected after such a long layoff -- and both coaches used the exhibition as an opportunity to test their depth and experiment with rotations. Ultimately, the Sixers walked away with a 90-83 win. Tobias Harris led the way for the Sixers with 15 points and 10 rebounds in 22 minutes of action, while Ben Simmons added nine points, nine assists, and seven rebounds.
While it was just one game, and an exhibition at that, there was still a good amount to be gleaned from the first look that we've had at the Sixers since mid-March. With that said, here are a few takeaways from Philadelphia's victory over Memphis.
Philadelphia's starting five is more well-balanced
When the Sixers initially started the season back in October, their first five consisted of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson. While that lineup boasted a ton of talent, it wasn't the most balanced due to the fact that three of the players -- Embiid, Simmons, and Horford -- prefer to do a bulk of their work on the offensive end in the paint, and thus they aren't natural floor spacers. That lineup proved to be clunky, and it didn't necessarily maximize the talent of either of Philadelphia's young All-Stars in Embiid and Simmons, as both are at their best when the floor is adequately spaced around them.
In an attempt to maximize the space around Embiid and Simmons, Brett Brown experimented with moving Horford to the bench during the season, but injury issues forced him to reverse course. Now that the team is fully healthy, he's trying again. On Friday, Shake Milton replaced Horford in Philadelphia's first five; a change that will likely stick for the remainder of the season. The move gives the Sixers an additional floor-spacer in the first five, and it bolsters their bench by having Horford, a multiple-time All-Star, as the anchor of the second unit. Horford played the center spot for the majority of his career prior to signing with the Sixers, so it also allows him to spend more time at his natural position. The change paid dividends for the Sixers on Friday as they were able to roll over the Grizzlies. Only time will tell if the move is a long-term answer for Philly, but it definitely makes them a better-balanced team.
Ben Simmons was a willing floor-spacer
The importance of Ben Simmons developing some semblance of a jump shot in order for him to reach his full potential as a player, and for the Sixers to reach their full potential as a team,. During a conference call with media members earlier this week, Brett Brown said that Simmons has been more willing to shoot 3-pointers in Orlando than he has been in the past, which is obviously a positive sign for the Sixers.
"I think this area is arguably one of the most overrated topics I've been a part of in coaching," Brown said. "Ben Simmons is going to play basketball and the court is going to tell him what he should or shouldn't do. You can say 'well I don't agree with you coach Brown' or you can say 'fair enough'. I feel like his mindset to willingly find space and find threes, that has been a paradigm shift."
On Friday, Simmons was indeed a willing shooter. He attempted a corner 3-pointer in the first quarter, and though it didn't drop, it was a positive sign to see for the Sixers.
Then, there was another attempt in the second half, and on that one, Simmons was able to connect:
The fact that Simmons attempted two 3-pointers is certainly a step in the right direction, as is the fact that he shot them both with little hesitation. By playing him off of the ball more, the Sixers are hoping that it will encourage him to let it fly from long range a bit more, as it takes a bit of the thinking out of the process when you are instructed simply to catch and shoot. Simmons will obviously need to continue to be aggressive from behind the line, but the early results in Orlando are promising.
Simmons still has the ball in his hands a lot
There was a lot of buzz when Brett Brown told media members that Simmons would be moving to the power forward spot in order to allow Milton to take over point guard duties, but on Friday it appeared as though that change was largely just in name. Simmons still had the ball in his hands, a lot, over the course of the contest. He pushed the ball in transition off of defensive rebounds as he always does, and he served as the lead guard when Milton was off of the floor. When the two were on the floor together, Simmons was still used as an offensive initiator, either from the high post or in the pick and roll. Despite his new power forward designation, Simmons still racked up nine assists in the first half of the game.
Not point guard Ben Simmons had nine assists in the first half.— Michael K-B (@therealmikekb) July 24, 2020
Brett Brown is a smart guy. He knows how dangerous Simmons is with the ball in his hands, especially in transition and in the paint. So while his position may have changed, the fact that Simmons is going to have the ball and control the action quite often for the Sixers, hasn't. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Brown continues to find ways to maximize Simmons' unique skill set while also using Milton to initiate the offense.
The Sixers dealt with injury issues throughout the season, so we rarely got to see them at full strength. But now that they're fully healthy in Orlando, their depth -- especially at the wing -- sticks out. Behind starters Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris, the Sixers have four other viable options to plug in for perimeter play: Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Alec Burks, and Glenn Robinson III, the latter two of which were added at the trade deadline in February. All four of these players bring something different to the floor, and all could ultimately prove to be a solid addition to a postseason rotation. However, we know that rotations shrink in the postseason, as coaches tend to rely more heavily on their main guys. Thus, there's no way that all four of those guys will be able to play major minutes consistently for the Sixers in the playoffs. Depth is never a bad thing, but a major task for Brett Brown over the next two scrimmages and eight seeding games will be to identify the player(s) that he thinks can have the biggest positive impact in the postseason and establish a reliable rotation.