Time for more Simmons at center? Reviewing a couple of questions without Embiid


With Joel Embiid sidelined by a left knee bone bruise and set to be re-evaluated in two weeks, the Sixers on Sunday will play their first home game with fans since last March 11. Approximately 3,100 fans will be allowed inside Wells Fargo Center, where the team is 45-5 since the beginning of last season.

Here are the essentials for Sunday’s game between the 26-12 Sixers and 19-15 Spurs: 

  • When: 6:30 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 5:30 p.m.
  • Where: Wells Fargo Center 
  • Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia 
  • Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the MyTeams app 

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Time to see more Simmons at center? 

Ben Simmons will return to action after missing the Sixers’ first two games following the All-Star break because of exposure to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19. He won't have a minutes restriction, according to head coach Doc Rivers. The Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan is out because of personal reasons, while LaMarcus Aldridge is away from the team as San Antonio seeks to move him elsewhere.

As for Simmons, his importance becomes even greater while Embiid is away. One of his best career performances came last Jan. 20 against the Nets with Embiid out, a game in which Simmons was used as a small-ball center and had a 34-point triple-double.

Before Embiid’s injury, here’s what Sixers assistant coach Dave Joerger had to say about lineups with Simmons at the five: 

“Well, certainly it’s been a small sample size so far. It has been positive when we’ve done it, and there’s been times where we’ve had to do it out of necessity — in case of emergency, break glass kind of deal. And then I think we saw some things. You never really know your team — (longtime analyst and coach) Hubie Brown used to say it and (Rivers) and I have talked about this — it can take 50 games to learn your own team when you come in new. We’re learning. 

“Ben as the screener in pick-and-rolls has been a problem for teams, whether he’s at the center or not. But specifically, when he is at the center, setting ball screens and rolling into open space, he’s a real problem. Now he’s got his momentum going downhill towards the goal and, with as tremendous of a passer as he is, people don’t know, should I help or not? It is something positive for us. We’re trying to play a little bit more free-flowing but as time comes down to the playoffs, execution is the most important thing offensively to win close games, and we’ll be much more intentional, I think, later on in the year about getting to that.”

Now might be the perfect time to use Simmons more as a screener and further learn about how to be successful as a team when he’s at center. Though he’s not nearly as threatening as a screener, Mike Scott is another small-ball center option that could be on the table. 

What will change on defense? 

Embiid is the Sixers’ defensive anchor. He’s also much better than Dwight Howard and Tony Bradley defending on the perimeter, whether that means playing “up to touch” in specific pick-and-roll situations or switching on to guards.

However, the fact that Howard and Bradley are limited doesn’t mean the Sixers should play bland defense. For one, lineups without either of those players on the floor and Simmons or Scott at center can be flexible in terms of switching. Simmons-Matisse Thybulle units have game-changing potential when they play zone defense, as we’ve seen this season.

To compensate for Embiid’s absence, variety will be necessary. That could theoretically be helpful in the long term, too, as the Sixers figure out what works and what doesn’t with the playoffs in mind. 

Tough task for Sixers’ bench 

San Antonio’s bench players have averaged close to 40 points per game, six more than the Sixers’ second-unit players. 

Veterans Patty Mills and Rudy Gay are the Spurs’ two main bench pieces, while Lonnie Walker IV, a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, has come off the bench since the All-Star break. 

Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz each scored 18 points in the Sixers’ win Friday over the Wizards, and Thybulle has been playing at a high level, racking up eight steals and making 9 of 11 field goals over his past two games. This is a good test for those players, especially with the trade deadline under two weeks away. 

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