Takeaways from 76ers’ New Lineup Showcased at Orlando Practices

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Just a few days after practices began in Orlando, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown has revealed one major lineup change the team has been working on: moving Ben Simmons to a point forward role. Brown said on Monday that the team was trying some "high-level stuff" with how they would use Simmons.

The move also resulted in the addition of Shake Milton to the starting lineup. Milton was on fire in the last handful of games before the NBA was forced to suspend its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last nine games before the suspension, Milton averaged 17.8 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 57.4% from the field and an incredible 60.4% from 3-point range. He proved, albeit in a small sample, that he has the ability to run the offense while also being able to shoot from outside and be an off-ball guard, something the team had looked to receive from former first-round pick Markelle Fultz. Joel Embiid has certainly been impressed by Milton's play both this season and in the team's practices thus far in Orlando.

“He’s been amazing,” Embiid said. “He’s been the starting point guard. I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job, just running the team, and we're going to need him to knock down shots, which he did before the league basically got shut down. He was on a roll. So we all need him to keep it going. But it’s been great.”

Having a versatile guard like Milton allowed Brown to explore more options and ways of utilizing star forward Ben Simmons, who had previously been used as the starting point guard. Simmons' lone weakness is outside shooting, something which has plagued the Sixers' offense over the past couple of seasons. Having a player bringing the ball up who provides no threat as a shooter naturally limits the offense, especially when it comes to floor spacing (the defense can sag down into the paint since they don't have to defend the primary ball handler at the 3-point line). Moving Simmons off the ball will result in his lack of shooting not being as much of an issue.

The change to more of a point forward/power forward role for Simmons will also allow Simmons to play more of a role in the team's transition offense. Simmons will be able to use a combination of his speed, rebounding ability and passing ability to get the ball quickly down the floor. Overall, the change in position for Simmons should result in the unlocking of many different parts of his game.

The addition of Milton to the starting lineup also further opens up the 76ers pick-and-roll game. Milton, in a small sample size, has proven to be an adequate ball handler out of the pick-and-roll. In 32 games this season, Milton was in the 59th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency. Milton does not feel that playing with Simmons will pose any issues.

“I feel like it’ll be easy,” Milton said last week about playing with Simmons. “Ben’s a very unselfish player. He can pass the ball, he can finish however, we can play pick-and-roll together, I can spot up while he creates and does his thing and just shoot the ball. I feel like playing with Ben is going to make the game a lot easier for anybody, so I don’t see it being a problem.”

When implementing a big position change, especially with a star player, one of the most important aspects of the move is the reaction from said player. Brown, when asked about how Simmons has handled the position change, praised Simmons' handling of the position change.

"Like a star. Just a mature, whatever it's going to take to get this team to be the best it can be with the pieces that we have," Brown said. "That's one of the pieces he has to offer, and I think he has been great accepting that, and really killing it in practice in the environment I just said."

Another noticeable change coming from the adjustments to the starting lineup is the exclusion of Al Horford. Horford, the team's key free agent signing this past offseason, has not played up to expectations so far this season. His numbers went down across the board and he looked a step slow on both ends of the floor. Whether it was a lack of his typical shooting efficiency (his shooting percentages were down to 44.2% from the field and 33.7% from 3-point range) or an uncharacteristic struggle to keep up on the defensive end, things just were not working out for Horford in his first year in Philadelphia.

Horford, who has played center his entire career up to this point, was asked to move to power forward in order to fit in with Embiid, one of the best centers in the league. The experiment has not worked up to this point as it became clear that playing Horford and Embiid together is not efficient. Just take a look at Horford's numbers both with and without Embiid on the court.

  Points per Possession FG% 3PT% +/-
Horford without Embiid 22.5 45.6 34.8 4.8
Horford with Embiid 9.1 37.5 27.9 -1.4

*Stats are per 100 possessions*

Moving Horford to the bench, and therefore mostly splitting up his and Embiid's minutes, seemed to be the clear decision. However, the move provides no guarantee of success, as Horford averaged only 6.0 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 37.5% from the field and 20.0% from beyond the arc in three games coming off the bench this season.

The new-look starting lineup of Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Simmons and Embiid – a group which has yet to play a single minute together on the court – has shown some promise throughout the team's first handful of practices in Orlando. However, Brown still has some more time to tinker with both the lineup and the rotations before the season resumes.

“In relation to trying new things, there’s some high-level stuff, whether it’s Ben more off the ball, how we’re going to rotate the group,” Brown said. “Who are we going to start is probably the simplest way to go. And it’s still all on the table. We’re still all learning about some things."