The 0-3 Philadelphia 76ers, with a fourth-quarter lead against the Detroit Pistons, were waiting for their first victory of the season. It had become a familiar scene. Two years ago, they waited until December to notch their first win. Last year, it took until their eighth game. This is a team that knows how to wait. They had waited for the draft lottery, for the draft, for a generational star in Joel Embiid, the two years it took his foot to heal, and even longer to enjoy the spoils of the famed Process.
But Ben Simmons, with the basketball bouncing up and down from his fingertips, was waiting for no one. The Pistons were buckling down, trying to get stops and come back for a win. Simmons worked off a pick set by his teammate Embiid, and as the lumbering, 250-pound big man rolled to the paint, a horde of woefully unmatched Pistons’ defenders followed him. Simmons drove baseline, and with the Pistons swarming, he seemingly had no choice but to play into their hands and take a jumper. For a brief moment, he surveyed the floor.
The 76ers are a team of uncertainty. Their trusted Process, that supposed guiding organizational light, is being questioned with their handling of Shoulder-gate — a tawdry, he-said/she-said affair where the health and shot of No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz is being debated on both sides.
But then there’s Simmons, who at 6’10, towered over it all, and in that moment against the Pistons, fired a perfect crosscourt pass that evaded four defenders and landed in T.J. McConnell’s hands. It was a pass that summoned visions of LeBron. McConnell drilled the shot, and you could feel the next ten years wash over you.
There aren’t many sure things in this league.
But if you can do that? At this age? In this economy? That’s about as good a bet as it gets. Through six games, he is averaging 17.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.7 steals. On Monday against the Pistons, he became the third player in NBA history to record a triple-double in his first four games. In just six games, Simmons has become Philadelphia’s only constant.
As far as blue-chip prospects go, his skillset is surprisingly unconventional, making him an irresistible watch. He shoots with his off-hand, which might be why he’s wholly unreliable outside of 19 feet. But with a killer first step, and half a foot over most point guards, he could render that point moot. He is an athletic marvel yet, at 21 years old, he plays a cerebral style. Again, he is 6’10. And he is a point guard.
“It's an interesting collection of compliments,” says coach Brett Brown. “It's versatile, I admit, but it's true. He's very unusual with his physical gifts. There is that breakaway speed. There is a poise and a pace. There is vision.”
Through the first six games, the 76ers had already played 94 different 5-man lineups. It’s Brown’s personal trapeze act, an attempt to find a formula tethered not only to the skills his young stars currently posses, but to best serve their development. Simmons is the only player out of the three to be featured in all three of their most played lineups. As Embiid’s minutes restriction and no back-to-back games policy continues to chug along, and with Fultz (finally, mercifully) sitting out to get his shoulder right, Philly’s reliance on Simmons is only bound to increase.
There is still a great deal of promise in Philly, outside of Simmons. Fultz’s worst crime, between bursts of athleticism, has been looking like a rookie. Embiid, for all his injury woes, could change the NBA — never mind just the Sixers. But there are so many contingencies leveraged on these possibilities, so many ways it could go wrong.
So it is that Simmons has emerged, as Marlo Stanfield once put it, into one of those good problems. A quandary that only arises out of good fortune. He raises complicated questions, the most pertinent of which would not matter if he were not this good this early: How do you build around a guy like Ben Simmons?
We’ve asked that question of Embiid before, and health willing, we’ll continue to do so. But the “how” was defined by wonder. How, in the end, would they look? Which of many possible directions could the 76ers go with him? With Simmons, “how” becomes a question of structure. How many shooters will need to surround him? How will he guard quicker point guards?
Embiid and Simmons are, in so many ways, perfect foils.
Embiid is the ephemerality of the process — its boom-or-bust stakes. His absence alone illustrates that. The Sixers are 15.9 points per 100 possessions worse when Embiid is off the floor, a gaudy disparity that dates back to last season. Simmons is the nuts and bolts: finding the right structure, finding the right touch. Embiid is everywhere in the public’s eye, offering entertaining quotes to reporters and tweeting something viral every other week. He is elusive on the court, effusive off it. Simmons, who has been coached on handling the media for half as long as he has been coached in basketball, is the opposite.
Joel Embiid, with his agile, 7-foot frame, uncanny defensive instincts, and the ability to score in the low post and beyond the arc with equal ease, is the perfect player. Simmons, on the other hand, is the perfect problem.
How do you build around Ben Simmons, then? With Joel Embiid, of course. We just have to wait, as ever, to see if it happens.
In the first installment of what is supposed to be a second section on relevant NBA topics, I’ve chosen to discuss Lonzo Ball. In that sense, he’s already won.
Aside from his debut, one of the most anticipated in recent memory, Ball — err, LaVar Ball, his father — got into it a little with John Wall, saying he “better beware” of the matchup. Wall responded saying he would have “no mercy” and an inevitable news cycle, the kind you see coming from a mile away and can do nothing about, erupted.
We’re going to see this time and time again, and I’m wondering how much of it is going to merely be a charade. The notion that players are fed up with LaVar Ball, and that they want to stick it to Lonzo, is certainly out there. And with Patrick Beverley, a menacing underdog who likely sees the hype around Lonzo as the antithesis to his own game, that’s probably true. Maybe even with John Wall, perpetual chip that is now sewn into shoulder permanently and all.
But for most NBA players? You just have to wonder how badly, a few weeks from now, a guy like Jeff Teague or Jrue Holiday or even Kyrie Irving is going to want to stick it to a rail-thin, 20-year-old point guard because they can’t stand the sound of his father’s voice. When you say it out loud, the degree of absurdity only heightens.
Besides, this is the exact kind of the thing that a lot of NBA players admire: enterprising guys cutting the middleman out and taking all the spoils of fandom for themselves. Manipulating the media. If Big Baller Brand really takes off, players will look longingly from the side while they wait for their contracts to expire. But in the long run, it’s more money in their pockets. And it’s a slap in the face of a shoe industry that, while it keeps their coffers filled, exerts control over them.
Ask an NBA player what they appreciate the most about LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, and after washing over their skills, a great deal of them will delve into business savvy. It might not be long before that takes over their conception of Lonzo Ball.