Not since Devon Sawa’s demonically possessed right hand have we seen a body part as cursed as Markelle Fultz’s right shoulder. After sidelining the rookie point guard for 68 games this season, the shoulder-in-question collided with Joel Embiid’s face Wednesday night, resulting in a concussion and fractured orbital bone for Philadelphia’s star center. Now, Embiid will undergo surgery and miss at least the rest of the regular season.
Yet, they say when life closes a door, it opens a window, and I don’t mean distraught Sixers fans should jump out of one like King Tommen. The good news for Philadelphia is that while the team is losing a game-changing unicorn, it has a spare. For the first time in his professional career, the Sixers will unquestionably belong to Ben Simmons. If ever there was a time to put the “Actually, Donovan Mitchell is Rookie of the Year” narrative to rest, this is it.
Simmons’ rookie season truly belongs alongside historic company. The list of players who have averaged at least 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists as a rookie is as follows: Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Ben Simmons.
Yet, the contrarians to the Simmons for ROY campaign have been quick to point out how poorly the Sixers have played with Simmons on the floor and Embiid on the bench this season. During those minutes, the Sixers have scored 1.053 points per possession this season while allowing 1.102, per nbawowy.com. Meanwhile, the Jazz have been dead even with Mitchell on the court and Rudy Gobert on the bench (1.106 to 1.106).
Like any example of player lineup data, there is plenty of noise involved in those numbers. Throughout the season, Simmons has typically been responsible for providing a stabilizing force to the bench unit while Embiid and a handful of other starters sat. Philadelphia’s bench was a disaster earlier in the season, so it makes perfect sense that Simmons’ numbers would suffer as a result.
However, since the acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, the second unit has performed much better. It’s not surprising that in the month of March (a span of 16 games), the Simmons-on/Embiid-off numbers have improved dramatically, coming in at 1.128 points scored versus 1.064 points allowed per possession.
If the Sixers continue to succeed with Embiid sidelined for Philadelphia’s final seven games, that trend will only improve and become impossible to ignore. Simmons got off to a smashing start Friday night in Atlanta, tallying a triple-double by the third quarter on the way to an easy Sixers victory.
Let’s say Simmons averages a triple-double over these final couple weeks without Embiid. (This isn’t crazy given Simmons finished the month of March averaging 12.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 10.6 assists.) A finishing kick of 6-2 or 5-3 to maintain home-court advantage for Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs, with Simmons leading the way, would offer incontrovertible evidence that the rookie can carry the team without the man in the middle.
Ben Simmons has the numbers to win Rookie of the Year, and Joel Embiid’s absence could be just the thing to provide him with the proper narrative that so often coincides with awards voting. The Sixers may have been cursed by a shoulder, but they’re also certainly blessed with an abundance of young talent.
Soon, they should have more hardware to prove it.