Philadelphia 76ers: Simmons at center is a dish best enjoyed sparingly

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

With Joel Embiid out for the next few games, the Philadelphia 76ers have finally given Ben Simmons minutes at center. So far, the results have been mixed.

With Joel Embiid sidelined by a left knee injury, the Philadelphia 76ers have had to get creative in his absence to remain competitive against the more competent centers in the league.

With a 7-foot, 250-pound hole in the Sixers starting five, Brett Brown has had to get creative in redesigning scheme to remain competitive.

Whether it be Boban Marjanovic recording two straight starts, to two very different results, or the surprise returns of Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson from the doldrums of DNP-land, the 76ers backup plans at center have been ineffective, to say the least.

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However, Brown has added a new wrinkle to his scheme that has been equal parts surprising as it is head scratching: Ben Simmons at center.

That’s right, for the first time in who knows how long, the Philadelphia 76ers may be one of the rare teams in NBA history who utilize their starting point guard as a backup center.

Not since the days of Magic Johnson has such a dynamic shift from one minute to the next been possible, and other than, say Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s a wrinkle that very few other teams can match.

Much like the fabled second iteration of the ‘Death Lineup‘ utilized by the Golden State Warriors during their championship run, a scheme designed around surrounding a supersized playmaker (Kevin Durant) with four knockdown shooters (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green) playing a facilitator as a rim protector, a position that’s typically filled with slower, less dynamic scorers, allows a team to play small, play fast, and score some serious buckets.

Such a lineup is designed to feast on matchups, and gas opposing defenders with a vast optionality of offensive weapons, and at times, it’s looked really, really good for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Playing Simmons alongside Mike Scott and Tobias Harris has given the team an incredibly switchable frontcourt capable of adequately shutting down a pick and roll with ease, something Marjanovic struggled mightily to combat in the first half of the 76ers loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Things were looking good, and Brett Brown looked like he’d added yet another cylinder to his already humming offense.

And then Terry Stotts subbed in Enes Kanter, and things got ugly real quick.

No matter who Brown placed on the former New York Knicks big man it never really mattered, as the ‘Turkish Thunder’ got his early and often, recording his 35th double-digit scoring game of the season, and second straight since signing on with Portland.

This wasn’t good.

Now normally, when a center like Kanter gets inserted into a game to go all ‘bull in a china shop’ in the paint, Brown would logically counter by reinserting Embiid into the game to retake the competitive advantage. With him out, the only counters at the team’s disposal to shut down Kanter were Johnson, Bolden, or Marjanovic, none of whom made much of a difference when their numbers were called.

But that’s the issue with relying on a Simmons at center lineup with any regularity: it’s a dish enjoyed best sparingly.

Sure, once Embiid returns from his current injury and the team can revert to their typical offensive sets, having invested some valuable minutes with Simmons at center will look very smart, as there will be times over the next 20-plus game where such a lineup could be absolutely killer, like, say, against another small ball lineup, but that won’t happen every game or even every week.

Simmons is a great, dynamic athlete who could conceivably start at any position 1-5, but at this point, he’s hardly mastered the backcourt, let alone the frontcourt. Can he utilize his speed, size, and hops to become a solid rim protector capable of grabbing boards and facilitating the full court offense against a player like Nerlens Noel? Totally, but he’s never going to be able to go one-on-one against, say, Steven Adams and live to tell the tale.

It’s time to give Justin Patton a serious look. dark. Next

No, for the Philadelphia 76ers to take a step forward and truly become the best team in the East, they’re going to have to settle on which lineups, and players moving forward. Is playing Ben Simmons at center for four-ish minute spurts in an uber-small, fast ‘death lineup’ one of them? I’d venture to say so, but he just can’t be relied on to play in the paint for 30 minutes a game. That’s Joel Embiid‘s job.