Heading into the 2017 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers needed someone to complement Ben Simmons’ strengths, and equalise his weaknesses.
On offence, this required a prospect that could provide additional ball handling and playmaking, while also offering spot-up shooting skills to spread out opposition defences.
That is why they traded up to select Markelle Fultz.
Regardless of how strongly you feel about Fultz’s NBA potential (I remain lukewarm), there is no debating he possessed more talent, in these specific areas, than any other prospect in his draft class. Fultz is a perfect complement to Simmons, not a threat to take over his role.
Simmons has said that he is a starting a point guard, while Fultz has always serviced this role. In a bygone era, this may have caused issues for all involved, but it appears the 76ers are embracing modern basketball.
Bryan Colangelo, the 76ers president of basketball operations, has reinforced as much, claiming positional distinctions are irrelevant when it comes to Simmons.
"Ben Simmons has incredible skill," Colangelo said in June. "He's got size, power and he's got great vision and feel. He's a facilitator. He's a playmaker. I have always said I don't care what we call him, point guard, point forward. We can call him point center.
"I don't care. To me, he's going to be on the floor using his versatility to make another player on the court better."
Fultz will likely be the 76ers’ nominated ‘starting point guard’, but this label will largely be irrelevant on the offensive end of the floor. The Sixers are going to embrace positionless basketball, so it doesn’t matter how you label Simmons and Fultz. Both rookies have the potential to become elite ball handlers and will be given ample opportunity to flaunt their talents, regardless of positional labelling.
The potential for Fultz and Simmons to excel at the same time is evident from their Rookie of the Year odds. According to the oddsmakers at SportsBettingDime.com, both are among the top-four in terms of favorites (along with the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball and the Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr). Said editor-in-chief Sascha Paruk, “this isn’t unlike what you saw in the NFL last year with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott finishing first and second in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting. Instead of overshadowing one another, the ability for Fultz and Simmons to complement each other bodes well, not just for the Sixers as a team, but also for the rookies to earn individual accolades."
Last August, we asked whether Australia was ready for Ben Simmons? Now, as Simmons approaches a long awaited NBA debut, it’s time to ask whether he is ready for the immense challenge that awaits? For he has an almighty mess to clean up.
The 76ers offence has been just that - offensive.
If elite NBA dynasties are built on the back of sustained success, the 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers have been constructed from sheer ineptitude, borne out of deliberate sabotage. Since Sam Hinkie heralded The Process in May 2013, the 76ers have been all sorts of horrible. No breaking news here, although a voyage into advanced analytics reveals that this Pennsylvanian rebuild has not only been a long and arduous process (insert appropriate joke here), it has also been historically ugly.
Philadelphia has won just 22.9% of games (75 of 328) since the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, completing the NBA's worst four-year stretch this century. We have not seen ineptitude like this since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls. Yikes.
Underpinning Hinkie’s apocalypse has been an offensive arsenal that is, perhaps, the worst attack in NBA history. The 76ers have ranked dead last in offensive rating for four straight seasons.
Forget LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors, this Philadelphian four-peat represents the league’s reigning dynasty. Never before has one franchise consistently been so far behind the rest of the NBA. Isn’t it funny what happens when you devoid your team of playmakers?
Such abysmal results seem fitting once you consider those have played point guard for the 76ers since Jrue Holiday was traded to New Orleans on draft night in 2013.
Seriously, look at this bunch: Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, Lorenzo Brown, Eric Maynor, Darius Morris, Casper Ware, Isaiah Canaan, Larry Drew, Tim Frazier, Phil Pressey, T.J. McConnell, Kendall Marshall, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and Chasson Randle.
This list resembles an assortment of NBL players, not those who belong in the NBA. The 76ers have been in dire need of ball handlers who actually have NBA talent and can be the linchpin of efficient offence. Luckily, they now have Simmons and Fultz, two consecutive number one overall draft picks, ready to debut at the same time.
The pick and roll game
The presence of Fultz alone should unlock additional spacing for the 76ers offence. This will be a godsend for Simmons. At LSU, he was often forced to attack multiple defenders, as spacing in Johnny Jones’ offence was non-existent.
Simmons was talented enough to beat numerous defenders thrown his way, but no great player can consistently dominate without help from his teammates. The Australian will need a spaced floor to perform at the NBA level.
A Simmons-Embiid pick and roll will have room to breathe with Fultz (and J.J. Redick for that matter) spacing the weak side. The threat of Fultz attacking a spread weak side defence will force opponents to stay attached, opening up lanes for Simmons to attack.
We discussed the merit of Simmons receiving screens from unconventional sources when reviewing his 2016 Summer League performance. This bears exploring again, especially given the presence of Fultz, and how Embiid performed last season.
During that Summer League campaign, Philadelphia frequently employed pick and rolls where Simmons would receive picks from his nominated ‘point guard’.
This is the same philosophy the Cleveland Cavaliers have been using to batter Steph Curry during the past three NBA Finals . Fultz doesn’t project as an excellent NBA screener, although simply standing still, in the right places, should allow plays like this to work.
An inverted Simmons-Fultz pick and roll will cause headaches for opposition coaches. Maintaining base defensive assignments will require constant awareness and discipline from defenders. Fultz’s range and Simmons' elite ball handling represent significant pressure points.
If the defence succumbs to this challenge and decides to switch, Simmons can utilise supreme athletic gifts to badger smaller guards, as Fultz spaces out to the three point line.
A secondary challenge is then presented to the defence: either let Simmons attack a clear mismatch, or rotate a help defender. This scenario will be made all the more dangerous given the presence of Embiid, a seven foot monster who is capable of pure filth like this.
Embiid and Fultz cannot be left alone on the perimeter. Placing one, or possibly both of them, in the weak side of a Simmons-led pick and roll, could create space that Simmons dreamt of at LSU.
The talent and possibilities are endless. Brett Brown could even use Embiid as a floor spacer and deploy Simmons as a lethal roll man, with Fultz leading the offence. As Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer rightly points out, Simmons has the talent required to become an excellent roll man. His nuclear athleticism could terrorise the league for years to come.
Simmons and Fultz will likely split the lion’s share of ball-handling responsibilities this season, with each benefiting greatly from the other's presence. There will be growing pains as each rookie adjusts to life in the NBA, but there will be signs of competent offence in Philadelphia for the first time in years.