In perhaps even the darkest days of the process era, the Sixers could play competitive basketball in spurts. Brett Browns core offensive and defensive philosophies are founded in the fundamental belief in defense, pace and space. The 76ers were playing the modern game but as they built their talent base, they often simply could not sustain success for long enough to compete for a full game. Markelle Fultz could be the final piece to a puzzle that allows this team to field elite playmaking and defense for an entire 48minutes. That, combined with credible defensive big men behind Joel Embiid lay the foundation of consistent and sustained success. NBA basketball has long been a game of runs and final 4 minutes typically will determine outcomes a large portion of games.
The two biggest hallmarks of the 76ers circa 2014-2016 were collapses for significant stretches of games. Often the team would sustain a lead well into 4th quarters only to collapse under the pressure due to lack of ball control and elite point guard play. One could argue that this was entirely intentional, that point guard play was eschewed while Sam Hinkie looked for generational big men. Criticism from many corners came around the difficulty in developing big men without a credible lead guard to feed them the ball in the post at the right time and in the right spot.
When the team drafted Ben Simmons, nearly from the start both he and Brown talked about him being a point guard. Last season he proved that he was entirely capable of managing an NBA offense from a lead ball-handler point of view. This development initially made folks wonder about how the point guard duties would be shared when and if Markelle Fultz proved to be the type of player most projected out of college. Fultz’ ability to get to his spots, smoothly handle and most importantly run the pick and roll were enticing skillsets, but raised the question of coexistence with Ben.
When Fultz struggled to shoot the ball last season, those concerns took on a different contextual layer. If neither Ben, nor Fultz could space the floor, then how could they play together at all? Despite all the optimism around Fultz’ developing shot over the summer working with Drew Hanlen, skepticism remained about how the minutes distribution and lineups might look. So it was a surprise to many when Brett Brown announced Fultz as a starter for the first preseason game against Melbourne United. Fultz and Simmons played together for roughly the first 5minutes of the first quarter. Fultz was the first to the bench when JJ Redick entered the game. Simmons continued to run the offense until near the 2 minute mark of the first quarter when he was replaced by…. Markelle Fultz.
Markelle Fultz Starter AND Backup?
So what you have is Fultz and Simmons starting, but from every practical point of view Ben Simmons is the starting lead ball handler and Markelle Fultz is both starting shooting guard and the backup point guard. From this point on through the end of the 3rd quarter when Brown emptied his bench, Fultz and Simmons essentially staggered their minutes and shifts as point guard in the offense. And this approach has the potential to have a more dramatic effect than perhaps we initially realize.
Going back to the initial point about those lulls and opposing team runs over the years as the Sixers would claw to a lead only to see it evaporate during stretches where Embiid and or Simmons were on the bench, Fultz stabilizes the rotation in a very real way. Melbourne United was never really able to make a run that could seriously put the game in jeopardy.
And this continued again Monday night, perhaps in an even more dramatic way. Fultz added more perimeter shooting to his arsenal in game 2 which will only increase the options that Brett Brown has to play Simmons and Fultz together. Where Friday was a track meet to the rim, Monday was a more balanced offensive effort. The Sixers continued their interior attack and the Orlando team, much longer and more athletic than Melbourne tried to take away the middle of the floor as much as possible. This left Fultz open multiple times for corner threes after Ben Simmons penetration.
Fultz willingness to take those attempts is absolutely vital to success with he and Simmons on the floor together and it increases the amount of minutes they can play together which both extends the teams overall creation ability but also allows for more consistent minutes for TJ McConnell in the rotation. A staggered lineup with Fultz and Simmons running the point presents many advantages, but it does make it hard to envision a consistent role for McConnell. But as Brett Brown famously said last training camp “How can you not play TJ McConnell”.
The more viable a Fultz and Simmons lineup is the more options the offense will have and the more they can go deeper into their rotation. All of these factors can lead to sustained success and consistency over an 82 game regular season. Stability, consistency and continuity are the path to top 4 seeds in the playoffs. The Sixers can not expect to finish the year with 16 game winning streaks like in 2017/18 so they will need to be more consistent from the start of the season.
One of the really difficult matchup options that you can expect more of is Ben Simmons, when matched by an opposing point guard, diving down into the post to take full advantage of his 6’10” frame as a fluid 1/4. Having Centers who are capable shooters and also a secondary ball handler will open up this as a weapon even more than last season. If Fultz can prove a shooting threat from the perimeter, not only does he space the floor as a shooting guard for Simmons, but he can also quickly act as a point guard and feed Simmons in a post when the matchup is favorable. Simmons down low or as point guard is a weapon very few teams have answers for and I would expect the Sixers to find every possible way to exploit this. Saric, Fultz and Embiid all could potentially feed Simmons for easy buckets.
Embiid finds Simmons diving to the paint from the high post.
Amir Johson finds Simmons inside taking advantage of his size.
These options create difficulty for an opponent to gameplan and stop the Sixers offensive attack. The sustained pressure that 48 minutes of having Simmons and/Or Fultz on the floor could prove to really change the expected range of outcomes for the 76ers this coming season and perhaps for years to come.