We’ve reached a crossroads in the adventures of Ben Simmons, the 6’11 point guard with elite defensive capabilities and an amateur-like inability to put the ball through the net from any considerable distance.
He’s just 22 years old and in his second NBA season, but the Sixers’ trade for 29-year-old Jimmy Butler signals the franchise’s desire to win right now. As Joel Embiid has entered in the MVP conversation, Simmons is trailing behind.
Against the general NBA population, Simmons is spectacular. He’s still stuffing the stat sheet at 16 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists per game, all while showing incredible versatility on defense.
But against the NBA’s elite teams, he’s become somewhat of a liability.
In Simmons’ 11 career games against the Celtics, Boston has outscored Philly by 125 points in 402 minutes with him on the floor, according to StatMuse. For reference, with Embiid on the court for those 11 games, Philly is outscoring Boston by nine points in 384 minutes.
Against other title hopefuls, that number doesn’t get better for Simmons:
- Minus-30 vs. the Raptors in seven games (Embiid is minus-24 in seven games)
- Minus-13 vs. the Thunder in two games (Embiid is plus-8 in three games)
- Minus-8 vs. the Nuggets in two games (Embiid is plus-17 in three games)
- Minus-3 vs. the Warriors in two games (Embiid is minus-19 in two games)
- Minus-3 vs. the Rockets in two games (Embiid is plus-19 in four games)
Yet against the bad teams, Simmons dominates:
- Plus-48 vs. the Hawks in four games
- Plus-25 vs. the Nets in seven games
- Plus-37 vs. the Knicks in six games
So what gives?
Simmons lack of shooting makes him incredibly predictable
During his short NBA career, Simmons has attempted less than 18 percent his shots from outside of 10 feet. There’s little reason for a defense to approach Simmons until his head is down and charging to the rim. If he’s looking to score, he only wants to dunk or lay the ball in.
Learning to defend one type of shot is much simpler for a defense than the many different ones Steph Curry, LeBron James, or even Embiid can deploy. Simmons has taken 13 fadeaways all year and made three of them. He’s launched 67 jump shots and made just 28 percent of those. He’s even made slightly more than 50 percent of his 47 hook shots, so if the defense at least forces him to turn over a shoulder, it’s in decent shape.
The only kind of shots Simmons can burn a defense with are layups and dunks, and he’s not at the level of his elite peers in the former category. This season, Simmons is taking 5.8 layups per game and making 59 percent of them. That’s 0.4 attempts and six percent worse than Giannis Antetokounmpo, who also famously can’t hit a jumper, and one attempt and four percent worse than LeBron James.
Even that decent layup percentage masks Simmons’ ungraceful finishing around the hoop at the sight of defensive pressure. He struggles to get a proper angle and often results to outmuscling his competition, which doesn’t work well because of his fluctuating ability to finesse the ball. This miss near the end of overtime on Christmas was not pretty.
Good defenders like Al Horford, who might be Simmons’ worst nightmare, know where to cut him off and time his leap.
Simmons is almost impossible to stop on a fast break, but in half-court situations, he’s vulnerable. The film is out on Simmons in Year 2, and his moves haven’t changed.
Defenses know where Simmons wants to put the ball, and they’re taking advantage
The best defenses have figured out how to change their system to factor in Simmons’ inability to shoot. Often, they’ll sag the man guarding him toward the free-throw line in halfcourt sets and use the next-closest man to clog the lane he tries to drive through. Everyone knows where Simmons wants to be.
Watch Jayson Tatum stand off Simmons and Marcus Smart slide in to the free-throw line for the strip.
As the league has adjusted, Simmons’ turnovers have changed. He’s on pace to turn the ball over by way of losing the ball (as opposed to a bad pass) 79 times this season, up from 33 last year. He’s still on pace to cough it up at a similar rate to his rookie season (4.7 per 100 possessions this year to 4.9 per 100 last), but these kinds of giveaways are especially bad for Philly because they lead to easy transition buckets the other way.
It’s no surprise that the Sixers give up the third-most points off turnovers in the league at 18.5 per game, behind only the lowly Suns and Hawks.
This issue isn’t going away anytime soon
The awkward fit between the Sixers best two players has never been more apparent. Embiid wants to slow the pace and post up, while Simmons wants to run. That makes it difficult for head coach Brett Brown and the Sixers’ staff to build an efficient system around both of them.
Simmons won’t get a jumper overnight, and his style of play can’t be reinvented by May. The question is how Philly pulls the pieces together in the short term, especially without Robert Covington and Dario Saric on the wing after they were traded for Butler. Markelle Fultz was supposed to be the ultimate solution, but that’s looking less and less viable by the week.
Philly’s challenge isn’t insurmountable. The Milwaukee Bucks are proving a superstar’s broken jumper is a manageable obstacle.
The problem is that Simmons won’t ever get full reign to play like Antetokounmpo does as long as Embiid and Butler are in town. There’s no precedent for a challenge this unique.
The Ben Simmons conundrum has no easy escape.