With Thursday’s game against the Washington Wizards in the books, the Boston Celtics have completed their eight seeding games in the NBA bubble. They held on to the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and now look ahead to their first playoff foe: the archrival Philadelphia 76ers. But while the Sixers may have taken the regular season series from Boston 3-1, their upcoming playoff dance will look quite a bit different without All-Star forward Ben Simmons, who underwent surgery after a subluxation of his left knee last week and will miss the remainder of the season.
Simmons has become something of a punchline for his general unwillingness to shoot threes, especially in the playoffs. It’s an extremely notable weakness, especially for a lead ball handler, and one that has been exploited on numerous occasions. In Boston’s five-game series victory in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics infamously sagged off Simmons completely, leaving him alone on the perimeter, and completely mucking up Philadelphia’s offensive spacing.
It’s tempting, then, to underestimate Simmons’ value to the 76ers. The mythical “Ewing Theory” has already been invoked on quite a few occasions. But let’s be clear: Philadelphia is substantially worse off without Simmons on the court, and his absence will have serious implications for the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
Even considering his deficiencies as a shooter, it’s a stretch to suggest the Sixers will be better without Simmons on the offensive end. On a team with so few individual shot creators, his ability to create looks for his teammates is invaluable. Their best facilitating guard in his absence might be Raul Neto. He’s also one of the most dangerous downhill threats in the NBA, shooting 71% at the rim despite not being a credible threat from range. The degree of difficulty in finding good shots will jump substantially without him on the court.
That said, they’ll probably still be able to pass muster as an offense without him. Embiid can serve as a highly capable offensive fulcrum due to his formidable work in the post, and around him, Philly can space the floor with more range. Simmons’ absence will provide more minutes for average-to-good shooters like Alec Burks, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Raul Neto, and Mike Scott. It’s not exactly a star-studded group, but this inside-out approach should allow them to at least hold their own. Improved play from bubble breakout guard Shake Milton (just 12-for-36 over his last four games) is a must.
It’s on the defensive end that the Sixers will feel the Simmons injury most sharply. As one of the four or five most versatile defenders in basketball, his importance on that end of the court can’t be overstated. Joel Embiid may be the anchor behind the Sixers’ eighth-ranked defense, but Simmons is the Swiss Army knife that enables much of what they want to do. He guards 1 through 4 for Philly — even spending some time on centers — and is absolutely disruptive on the perimeter, ranking among the league leaders in deflections and steals. In the bubble, the Sixers’ defensive rating is an ugly 117.9 when he sits.
Against the Celtics and their trio of talented wings, losing Simmons will prove to be devastating. The Sixers still have two very effective perimeter defenders in Josh Richardson and rookie Matisse Thybulle, but beyond that, their options are uninspiring. The trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward are going to see favorable opportunities against players like Burks, Korkmaz and Scott. This also further stresses Embiid’s responsibilities as a rim protector — especially if he isn’t 100% healthy after recent ankle and wrist injuries.
Tatum in particular stands to benefit from Simmons’ absence. The Sixers just no longer have an ideal option to check him. In Wednesday’s loss to Toronto, Al Horford drew the start at the four alongside Embiid, but asking him to chase Tatum on the perimeter would have been a tall order even if he was still at his physical peak. Tobias Harris is a closer physical match, but he’s been a mediocre-to-average defender at best for much of his career, certainly not someone you want guarding a #1 option. Richardson or Thybulle can shift over, but both are at a length disadvantage against his pull-up jumper — and, again, that leaves either Brown or Hayward in an advantageous situation. Philly will be forced to pick their own poison.
None of this is to suggest that the 76ers should be taken lightly. They still have the talent to win games, and at this point, they have nothing to lose. Embiid is the kind of player who can win you a playoff game single-handedly, and his supporting cast remains solid — especially if Horford can recapture some of his playoff magic from the Boston and Atlanta days. They’re not going to roll over easily.
Still, the Simmons injury is a substantial loss. A team that had preseason hopes for a championship has morphed into an underdog just trying to play spoiler. The Celtics now have a pronounced upper hand, and if they capitalize properly, they should be looking at a showdown with the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals.