Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons and Shake Milton can save the season

Ben Simmons and Shake Milton could define the Philadelphia 76ers’ season.

Hey ladies and (statistically speaking, mostly) gentlemen, have you heard the news? Ben Simmons is going to be back and better than ever when the Philadelphia 76ers restart the season later this summer.

While it feels like a lifetime ago now, there was a time when Simmons’ playoff availability was a very real concern for the Sixers down the final 20-ish game stretch of the regular season, with his status perpetually stuck on Out due to a back injury suffered mere minutes into a late-February contest against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Had the NBA season continued on as usual, the playoffs would have started right around eight weeks after that date and would be long since over – along with free agency and the draft – by now. We’d be entering the NBA’s mid-July dull period before camps open up in August, and we’d potentially even be hypothesizing about how Brett Brown’s replacement will fair in his first NBA season, assuming, of course, the long-tenured head coach failed to make a deep playoff run with a bruised and broken club (probably) minus their All-Star point guard.

But, if you recall, there was one bright spot that emerged from Simmons’ injury that could singlehandedly impact the season more than any other move made by Elton Brand and company: The emergence of Shake Milton.

I know, right? Who would have thought in an NBA calendar year featuring the drafting of Matisse Thybulle, the signing of Al Horford, the sign-and-trading of Jimmy Butler for Josh Richardson, and the midseason trade of future second-round picks for Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III giving a 23-year-old former two-way player signed to a four-year, $7.8 million deal would be the potential savior of the season? If you had ‘Shake Milton becoming the Sixers’ fifth playoff starter’ in some crazy prop bet you are about to get paid.

In Simmons’ absence, Milton developed into a force of nature seemingly overnight, averaging 17.7 points and 4.1 assists on 60 percent shooting from 3 in 30 minutes of action a night. Milton found success as a passer, made seemingly every 3 he attempted, and even got the best of Paul George in a Staples Center contest where every person in the room knew the ball was coming his way.

Fun fact: The Sixers played the LA Clippers twice in 2020, once in mid-February and again on March 1st. In those games, Milton combined for 39 points in 41 minutes of action – zero points in one minute on the February game, and 39 points in 40 minutes in the March game. Oh, what a difference a few weeks can make.

So in theory, had Simmons missed the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season and been a day-to-day question mark for however long the team’s playoff journey lasted, the Sixers would have been borderline fine with Milton running the show as an on-ball point guard. Fortunately, that won’t be an issue now, as Simmons and Milton are both healthy, happy, and ready to rock side by side as the team’s new-look backcourt when basketball resumes this fall.

How well will this duo mesh together? That, my friends, could go on to define the final chapter of the Sixers’ season.

If Simmons can return to form as the team’s do-it-all full-court offensive weapon and Milton can smoothly transition into a weird amalgamation of J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, and Josh Richardson at the two-guard, the 76ers could finally make good on the potential they squandered for the majority of the 2019-20 season and finally field a team capable of going head-to-head with any team in the NBA. It wouldn’t take much. The Sixers need additional outside spacing from beyond the arc, a secondary ball-handler, and a fourth-quarter closer capable of generating his own shot with Simmons kicked off-ball. Milton averaged five fourth-quarter points per game over the 76ers’ last nine contests, the second-best mark of any player on the team not named Joel Embiid and may be able to do even more if Brett Brown gives him the perpetual green light in a must-win scenario.

Factor in the beyond underrated addition of Ryan Broekhoff as an off-ball guard/forward coming off the bench and the Sixers’ offense should be all the more deadly with two viable distributors dishing out the ball to open shooters like Richardson, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

But wait, there’s more. As every overly zealous Sixers fan will tell you, there is no better player in the NBA in the full court fast break game than Benjamin ‘The Fresh Prince’ Simmons. He’s bigger than most players, faster than most players, and an ambidextrous scorer who can throw the rock down with either hand. That being said, Simmons really doesn’t have a natural partner in a two-man give and go game – outside of maybe Glenn Robinson III. If Milton and Simmons can mesh together over the league’s abbreviated training camp and eight-game tune-up regular season, the duo could become ever more deadly when running the court together, as Milton can pose a threat as a passer, scorer, or outlet passing option on the wings.

Milton’s development may singlehandedly save the Sixers’ season, a near unthinkable, um, thought when Coach Brown effectively removed him from his regular-season rotation after the All-Star Break.

In a weird way, suspending the NBA season for four-months could actually be just what the doctor ordered for the Philadelphia 76ers. The team has had a chance to bond over Zoom-fueled happy hours, Joel Embiid got his driver’s license, and Ben Simmons ‘did Pilates during the shutdown and added weight‘. While these developments could go a long way to getting things back on track for what may or may not be Brett Brown’s final playoff push as the Sixers’ head coach, the single greatest factor to the team’s success may be how Ben Simmons and Shake Milton are able to mesh together as backcourt buddies. If it works, the Sixers’ offense could look unbeatable, but if not, we may have another Al Horford-Joel Embiid situation on our hands.