Philadelphia 76ers: Who Should Start Once Ben Simmons Returns?
While the Philadelphia 76ers starting rotation seems set for the time being, how should Brett Brown shape it once Ben Simmons returns to action?
The Philadelphia 76ers have found themselves in a surprising groove as of late, winning two-straight games in the midst of a four-game win streak at home before losing to the Memphis Grizzlies in double overtime. Their rotation has been soundly anchored by Joel Embiid in the post, and guys like Sergio Rodriguez and Ersan Ilyasova have provided stability that we haven’t seen years prior.
Their rotation, however, is far from settled moving forwards. Jerryd Bayless recently returned from injury, and players like Nik Stauskas and Hollis Thompson have been outperforming their starting counterparts at times this season. And, while not much will change prior to the All-Star break, the eventual return of Ben Simmons later in the year could lead to a significant rotational shift.
Not only does Ben Simmons command a starting spot himself, but he changes the dynamics of the offense as a whole. He adds a ball-dominant point forward who needs to have the ball in his hands to produce, and in turn affects how the offense around him operates.
His versatility as a 6-10 playmaker also gives Brett Brown a myriad of options he can fall back on. Simmons is capable of manning either forward spot successfully, and could carry a rather diverse load in terms of handling the ball or working as a secondary creator out of the post.
With everything taken into consideration, there could be some changes on the horizon in order to find the best group of talent to fit alongside Simmons. Here’s who should man the starting rotation upon his return:
PG: Jerryd Bayless
While this may seem odd given how well Rodriguez has played thus far, Bayless’ fit alongside Simmons simply makes more sense. El Chacho’s facilitation skills are far superior to those of Bayless, but that simply won’t be needed as much once the Sixers’ 1st overall selection hits the floor.
Simmons, while he may not be ready to take on a full load as the primary ball handler from day one, will likely command the vast majority of the offensive possessions as the head catalyst. Simmons has magnificent court vision from anywhere on the floor, and is at his best when finding his spots and orchestrating the flow of the offense.
Bayless, on the other hand, is known as a guy who can score in bursts — something we’ll likely see more and more of as he works his way back into a groove over the next several games. He’s an excellent spot-up shooter from beyond the arc, and is one of the more dangerous off-ball scorers the Sixers currently have on the roster.
He’s still capable of handling the ball and running the offense, but doesn’t need to with as much proficiency as Rodriguez does assuming Simmons is on the floor. Scoring outside of Simmons becomes the primary area of concern at that point, and Bayless is clearly superior in that aspect.
While it may seem odd to take Sergio off the floor — especially if he keeps producing at a high level — it’s something that benefits Simmons and the team more long term. Bayless is on contract for three years, as opposed to one year in Rodriguez’s case, and gives Simmons a more fitting unit to work around him.
SG: Gerald Henderson
While Nik Stauskas continues to make a strong argument here, there’s not enough there to convince me to take Henderson out of the starting rotation. This team has thrived in ways it hasn’t been able to in past years due to the steady play of it’s veteran pieces, and Henderson has been a massive part of that.
He isn’t the flashiest producer, but Henderson has done a lot to make the Sixers’ offensive function. His aggressiveness alone has been the source of many sparks early on in games, while his perimeter shooting (42 percent from deep) has been among the most consistent on the team.
He’s an underrated passer on the wing, and understands how to make the right plays with the basketball. Henderson isn’t going to lead the team in scoring like I not-so-wisely prophesied before the season, but he does hold the ability to simply get into the teeth of the defense and make plays happen — something Philadelphia hasn’t had on the perimeter in recent years.
He’s only on contract, at minimum, through this season, but Henderson seems like a role player who could continue to have long term value in the Sixers’ organization should he choose to remain with the team. He has already emerged as a vocal leader in the locker room, and is somebody whose style of play should fit nicely into the fold, whether as a backup or as a starter, for at least a few more seasons.
He’s still just 28 years old, and clearly has enough left in the tank to put up more productive seasons as a complementary piece on the perimter, something he has done well throughout his career. Unless Stauskas’ meteoric rise continues at an earth-shattering rate, Henderson should remain locked into the starting lineup once Simmons returns.
SF: Robert Covington
I’m going to give Covington the benefit of the doubt here, because the defensive versatility he provides alongside Simmons is a worthwhile investment. His shooting woes have concerned me, and perhaps a stint on the bench is needed to reverse that, but he simply meshes well with Simmons on paper.
I’m not confident enough in Simmons’ defensive range to slot Ilyasova or Saric in the starting rotation from day one, so Covington’s aptitude in, ideally, stretching the floor and providing a rangy wing defender is an ideal combination. We’ve seen Covington’s energy have its ups and downs given his struggles thus far, but when he’s engaged, he has proven to be the most effective perimeter defender on the roster.
He’s willing to put his body on the ground and has the size (6-9) needed to switch between different positions on the court in search for the best matchup defensively. He can step out and guard James Harden at the one spot, or slide inside to body up a smaller four. Him and Simmons could be utilized interchangeably in a number of scenarios, and projects well for a Brett Brown-headed rotation.
If he’s able to get his shot back — which is a given in these projections — then he provides another apt floor spacer alongside his backcourt mates in Henderson and Bayless, and helps give Simmons another spot-up shooter to kick it out to on the perimeter.
PF: Ben Simmons
In case you haven’t gotten the memo yet, Ben Simmons is locked into the starting rotation. While I genuinely would love to slot Ilyasova at the four and slide Simmons to the three, it’s better to play it safe upon his return and not ask too much of him defensively.
Simmons, whether the full-fledged point guard or not, will hold a major part of the playmaking role once he gets back. Standing at 6-10, Simmons’ ability to work his way into the defense and find open teammates is virtually unheard of from players with his physique. He handles the ball well on the exterior, and should have ample room to locate his spots on the floor and facilitate the offense.
With shooters all around him, the only massive concern for Simmons is going to be his own scoring. Simmons never developed into the go-to scoring option some were hoping for at LSU, and his lack of aggression in searching out shots can at times be a hindrance — even if he’s among the best at keeping the ball in motion.
His perimeter shot isn’t there yet, but he did hit some nice pull-ups from midrange during Summer League play, something he’ll absolutely have to exploit to maximize his potential at the next level. Outside of Embiid, nobody on the Sixers’ roster remotely matches his upside as a prospect, and their game plan needs to mirror that.
If he’s able to do so, Simmons needs to look for his own shots and create offense outside of passing the ball when warranted. He doesn’t need to change his game by any stretch, as passing is always going to remain his strong suit, but it would be a major boost if Simmons is able to keep defenders honest with an improved scoring touch.
C: Joel Embiid
Much like Simmons, this one is about as obvious as they come. Embiid is unequivocally, without question, the starting center moving forwards in Philadelphia, barring injury. We’ve seen Embiid rapidly blossom into one of the league’s brightest young centers, and somebody who could legitimately be the team’s best player for the foreseeable future.
Standing at 7-2, Embiid has the physical tools needed to match up with anybody in the league. He’s incredibly mobile for his size, and has the rim protection chops needed to be among the elite defensive bigs year-in and year-out.
He has showcased the type of scoring versatility that should make him an excellent fit alongside Simmons, and gives the Sixers a frontcourt that should anchor down the positions for the next decade if they can stay healthy. Embiid is a viable 3-point shooter in the pick-and-pop, and could make an incredibly dynamic pick-and-roll threat alongside a 6-10 Simmons who is a physical specimen in his own right.
Embiid is the defensive anchor and the team’s best offensive player, which is a rarity. Even the slightest consideration of not starting someone who has emerged as the franchise’s top asset is ludicrous.