"This one stings, for sure..."
That was the reaction of Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown to the news of Ben Simmons' partially dislocated knee, which he suffered in Wednesday's 107-98 victory over the Washington Wizards, according to ESPN's Tim Bontemps.
Brown's reaction is understandable. The postseason is less than two weeks away. And since the start of his career in 2017-18, Simmons is Philadelphia's leader in wins over replacement player.
The Ringer's Dan Devine even laid out a Defensive Player of the Year argument for him:
"Simmons was a persistent menace, leading the league in steals while finishing second in deflections and third in loose balls recovered. He continued to do his damage from a variety of angles, too: For the third consecutive season, according to defensive versatility metrics compiled by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Andrew Patton of The BBall Index, he spent at least 15 percent of his floor time defending the 1, 2, 3, and 4 positions, while also seeing his fair share of duty against bigs. (Another fun nugget from Narsu and Patton’s research: Simmons spends more time than any other All-Star guarding opposing teams' no. 1 options.)"
That defensive versatility was crucial for a Sixers squad that ranked in the 76th percentile in points allowed per 100 possessions when Simmons was on the floor. And now, it may have to figure out how to defend the No. 4 or No. 6 offenses of the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat, respectively, in a playoff series without him.
Bontemps tweeted that the "Sixers will have a better sense of what a timeline might be for Ben Simmons over the next 24 hours," but a matter of weeks seems more likely than day-to-day. That might take Philadelphia through the first round.
Basketball Reference's current Playoff Probabilities Report has the 76ers facing the Celtics, a team with more playmaking and positional versatility than most. Not having Simmons to spend time on Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward could impact their chances to advance.
And a first-round exit might be tough for Brown to overcome.
"It was just a foregone conclusion that Brett was going to get fired if they didn't do something special [in the 2019 playoffs]," Ryen Russillo said on the Bill Simmons Podcast. "And then, it was like, 'Oh wow. They kept him.' And I'm telling you now, that same stuff has picked up again."
Not having Simmons could give Brown an out, but few things in life are as tenuous as the job security of NBA head coaches. Even without Simmons, a beatdown at the hands of the Celtics or Heat (who have their own star wing in Jimmy Butler) would undoubtedly fuel speculation about Brown's future.
None of that is a foregone conclusion, though. The Sixers are plus-1.8 points per 100 possessions when Simmons and Joel Embiid are both on the floor. They're plus-12.2 when Embiid plays without Simmons.
It's worth noting that this is a new trend. Despite popular narratives regarding on-court friction between the two stars, Philadelphia has historically been at its best when both play.
But if everything somehow falls into place as the 76ers work more through Embiid over the coming weeks, the future that might feel less certain is Simmons'.
This season has provided some evidence of that possibility:
- Embiid with Simmons off the floor: 31.6 points, 15.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists per 75 possessions
- Embiid with Simmons on the floor: 25.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists per 75 possessions
Imagine a deep playoff run with Embiid putting up numbers like that and Simmons on the bench. How could the front office not entertain the idea of testing the trade market?
Simmons brings a unique combination of size and talent that plenty of teams around the league would covet. If Philadelphia replaced him with multiple floor-spacers who don't dominate the ball, it might unlock another level of play for Embiid.
The common, valid rebuttal to those who call for the breakup of this duo is: "Well, they've never been surrounded with the right supporting cast."
With even one elite shooter like JJ Redick in the lineup, the Simmons-Embiid net rating skyrocketed. If the goal is keeping the top two in place, a teammate like that should be the target.
The problem is that the Sixers don't have a ton of flexibility right now.
Tobias Harris (123rd in the league in box plus/minus) is set to make an average of $37.2 million per season through 2023-24. Al Horford (34 years old and 55th in box plus/minus) is on the books for an average of $27 million through 2022-23, though only $14.5 million is guaranteed in the final year.
Good luck winning a trade with either of those contracts involved.
The players who can return value in a deal are Simmons and Embiid. The latter will now have the chance to show his value as the unquestioned alpha for the 76ers.
The former may only be able to watch as the next several weeks potentially shape the future of the organization.