Every injury is bad news, but for Sixers fans who just lived through the past few years in Philly, the Ben Simmons news looks particularly cruel. It comes on the heels of season-long injuries to Andrew Bynum in 2012, Nerlens Noel in 2013, and Joel Embiid in 2014 and 2015. Now last June’s No. 1 pick has a fracture in his foot, and he’s out at least three months. The Trust the Process 30 for 30 is slowly morphing into a five-part Ken Burns documentary on metatarsals. Not ideal.
Brett Brown echoed all these sentiments when the news was announced this weekend. “It’s like a punch in the stomach,” he told reporters. “How can it not be? There’s been no team to have more injuries to draft picks than we have.”
But there’s also another way to look at this news. As bad as it looks, and as cursed as Philly may feel, this particular injury isn’t necessarily a disaster. This can work. The more I thought about it over the weekend, the more silver linings I saw for Simmons and the Sixers.
First, the caveat: If Simmons can’t recover from the foot injury, that’s the worst case scenario. Everybody loses, nobody wins, it’s all terrible. Obviously. But for every Bill Walton or Greg Oden ghost story we tell about NBA foot injuries, there are recent cases that are more encouraging. No two injuries are the same, but Pau Gasol suffered a fracture in his fifth metatarsal in 2006, and he went on to win two titles. Kevin Durant suffered a similar injury two years ago, and while he missed most of the 2014 season, he appears to be back to full strength. C.J. McCollum missed most of his rookie season with a foot fracture as well, but he’s since rebounded to be become a star in Portland.
For the sake of this argument and/or the collective sanity in Philadelphia, let’s assume that the McCollum-Durant timeline will be the trajectory for Simmons. He likely misses most of this year, but hopefully he makes a full recovery by next October (Everyone please knock on wood just to be safe).
Then you look at the Sixers.
Post-Sam Hinkie, post-Process, the roster makes no sense. There’s a glut of big men with varying red flags, almost no shooting, and no point guards. It would be a tough situation for any newcomer to enter, let alone a 20 year-old who’s about to be graded on a “franchise savior” curve.
Jerry Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez will help as veterans, but the pieces up front are still an awkward fit, and spacing with Simmons would’ve been an issue all year. I ran this theory by a member of another NBA front office this weekend, and he agreed.
“They’re in a tough spot,” the source said of the Sixers. “Often times rebuilding teams get in this spot, especially if you have the Hinke philosophy where you just go best player available, don’t worry about building a team that makes sense, you’re just playing the long game. They have a bunch of talented players, as other rebuilding teams have had at times, like Orlando the last couple of years. But they don’t have enough shooting, which is the number one reason you’ll underachieve on offense in the NBA. Not enough shooting, too many big guys. So none of their players are going to look good, just like none of the Magic players looked good the last couple years.”
This is where the typical growing pains give way to problems unique to the Sixers. The problem isn’t just that the pieces don’t fit together. Every move from new GM Bryan Colangelo will be processed in the shadow of his own underwhelming track record in Toronto, as well as the shadow of Hinkie.
While Hinkie failed at building a winning team, he never lost a trade, and he accumulated a war chest of picks and players that would theoretically end with stars. Punting on all that potential to add role players is a tricky proposition.
As the source explained it, “I don’t know, pick an example. Trade Jahlil Okafor for Terrence Ross. Terrence Ross is not very good, there’s probably better guys you could trade Okafor for than Terrence Ross, but just picking an example of a guy who can kinda shoot. Jahlil Okafor will probably be a better a long-term player than Terrence Ross. I’d be surprised if he’s not. And if you did that as Colangelo, people are going to tell you to go f— yourself.”
On the other hand: “The chance of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid looking good playing next to Terrence Ross, who people actually have to guard, versus playing next to Jahlil Okafor who’s going to stand in their way, is way higher. With the two guys you really care about succeeding [Embiid and Simmons], you have a way better chance if you can pair them with guys that actually compliment their skillset.”
This is the riddle Colangelo has to solve over the next 12 months. “They would win more games if they made that trade,” the source continued. “Their best players would look better if they made that trade. But politically, you can’t make that trade.”
Still, whether it’s trading for someone like Terrence Ross, Trevor Ariza, or Doug McDermott, or chasing younger gambles like Denzel Valentine or T.J. Warren or Caris LeVert, eventually one of the big men has to be turned into a player who can hit from the perimeter. It’s common sense.
“It definitely needs to be figured out,” Nerlens Noel told the Philly Inquirer on the eve of training camp. “I think at the end of the day, again, you have three starting-caliber centers. And it’s just not going to work to anybody’s advantage having that on the same team. That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m not opposed to anything, but things need to be situated.”
“We’re thrilled to be in the situation that we’re in to have the depth we have at that position,” Colangelo said with a straight face the following day. This has been the Sixers’ clumsy stance for months now.
Colangelo had no advantages in this until this weekend. Now he has time. With Simmons injured, there’s less pressure to make real progress this year, and there’s no risk of screwing with his development by asking him to anchor this disjointed mess. Even when Simmons returns, it’ll be with tempered expectations coming off an injury, not the savior hype that had followed him throughout the draft.
In the meantime, the Sixers can step back and see exactly what they have with Embiid. They can field offers for Okafor and Noel. They can mine the market for one or two more shooters on the perimeter. This was always going to be the next step. Now it comes without putting the franchise cornerstone in a no-win situation to start his career.
I don’t blame any Sixers fans for rolling their eyes hard at the idea of another season dominated by hypothetical rosters of the future. But the hardest part is already over. They landed the potential superstar. I’d be more excited about giving him a better chance to succeed.
Another few months of struggles with past lottery picks should diminish some of the pressure to get equal value in trades. At some point, even the most devout evangelicals in the church of Hinkie will understand they have to send the big men elsewhere. There’s also another lottery pick coming in June, and possibly two. Through both addition and subtraction, Colangelo has a chance to put together a roster that makes a lot more sense by next October.
Really, it’s all about understanding Simmons. He’s one of the most intriguing prospects to hit the NBA in years, but he’s never been a sure thing. He could be diabolical on a team that surrounds him with the right pieces. In the wrong situation, the Sixers are the new Magic and Simmons is Aaron Gordon, but with no-look passes instead of dunks.
Patience will be key to Simmons’s development, and it’ll take creative lineups to capitalize on what he does well. The Sixers in 2016 weren’t in a great position to offer either one. Next year could be a different story. Who’s ready to trust this process?