Philadelphia 76ers: It’s time to put Ben Simmons on an island

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers need a one-way ticket to Simmons Island.

For the first 30 minutes of their Wednesday night showdown with the Washington Wizards, the Philadelphia 76ers looked unbeatable.

Seth Curry drained five straight 3s, Shake Milton cooked up a quick 14 points in roughly 13 minutes of action, and reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Tobias Harris continued to look like the two-way max contract player Elton Brand envisioned when he traded for and then extended him in 2019.

Surely the Sixers could just coast off the back of their 82 point first half and turn on autopilot with a bench-clearing fourth half, right?

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Yeah, Bradley Beal had something to say about that.

While his 34 points in the first half weren’t particularly noteworthy considering the Sixers were up 15 going into halftime, one would think Rivers would at least make some adjustments to try to slow down the two-time All-Star from pulling a Kobe on his home court, right?

*sigh* yeah, you’d think that’s what he would do, wouldn’t you?

In a move incredibly reminiscent of the Brett Brown-era, the Sixers came out of the half sluggish, stinky, and worst of all, incredibly sloppy. Their passes started to become errant, their switching wasn’t cutting it, and the Sixers’ bench fell almost completely silent.

In a previous season, that would have been that. The Sixers would have lost their confidence when the score tied up midway through the fourth, their play would have gotten increasingly desperate, and the Wizards would have earned their third win of the season with ease.

Fortunately, this isn’t your grandmother’s 76ers – assuming, of course, she was a big fan of the 2019-20 squad. Over the final four minutes of the game, Joel Embiid put up eight points to secure a season-high 38 points (on 3-4 from beyond the arc) and led his team almost single-handedly to their seventh win of the season.

And as for Simmons, Embiid’s partner in crime? He had an excellent game, too – putting up 17 points and 12 assists in 36 minutes of action in addition to a momentum-changing steal off of a driving Russell Westbrook – but what he didn’t do, not regularly anyway, was cover Beal down the stretch.

Now granted, this isn’t on Simmons. After the game, Doc Rivers explicitly commented on his decision to play Simmons on Westbrook for most of the game to open up playmaking opportunities, but even he admitted that maybe the team should have placed their best defender on the opposing team’s best offender, saying, “I guess after 60 we probably could’ve made the change. We liked what Ben was able to do as a roamer with Westbrook. We thought he could get a lot of easy baskets.” (as per 975 The Fanatic).

Okay, fair. In a weird twist of fate, Westbrook practically morphed into the Wizards’ entire offense down the stretch, and Beal only accounted for three points in the fourth quarter. But what if he went off? What if he remained scorching hot, and the Sixers had to weather a 70 point performance?

That lucky break isn’t going to happen every game.

No, much like how the Sixers routinely turn to Embiid to close out games and load up his stat sheet with fourth-quarter points, they need to start doing the same with Simmons on the defensive end of the court. While the team does have a number of solid defenders of all shapes and sizes – as Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, Dwight Howard, Joel Embiid, and even 2021 Tobias Harris all bring varying degrees of defensive advantages to the table – Simmons is the only defender who can close out guys 1-4 while remaining a formidable threat to sprint for a quick two on a fast break.

Through the first eight games of the season, Simmons has the fourth-highest defensive winshare in the NBA at .6 and the best defensive box plus/minus in the league at 3.0. Simmons can bully up on smaller guards, outperform would-be wing scorers, and athletically dominate bigger, slower forwards. Isn’t that the kind of player perfectly suited to deflate a 60 point performance in a close game?

One would think so.

Furthermore, it’s not like the Sixers need to play Simmons on an island Darrelle Revis-style for a full 60 minutes either, just when it matters. The Sixers can continue to switch on the defensive end of the court, put Simmons on advantageous matchups, and let players like Green and Thybulle grind away on a player like Beal for the brunt of his on-court minutes, but when it counts, Simmons needs to be the defensive focal point in the same way Embiid is on offense.

If not, why play Simmons down the stretch at all? Am I being a bit dramatic? Maybe so, but when Embiid is cooking in the paint in a slow, methodical push for a two-plus-one, what value does Simmons bring to the table? He’s not a threat to hit an open 3 as an outlet pass and would only bog down the paint if he opts to drive to the bucket. If Simmons isn’t adding plus value on the defensive end of the court, why not swap him out for a player like Mike Scott (when healthy) who will?

That, obviously, won’t happen because Simmons genuinely is that good on the defensive end of the court.

In 2019-20, when Joel Embiid was letting the 3 ball fly with three seconds off the shot clock, it was a poor use of his skills. Placing Simmons on Westbrook for 37 minutes a night when he might actually be the worse 3 point shooter of the two is too. Kyrie Irving without Kevin Durant? Sure, put on the clamps point guard v. point guard. But Russell Westbrook? In 2021? When Bradley Beal has 57 through three quarters? Yeah, that doesn’t make too much sense.

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Simply put, when Joel Embiid is on the court, the Philadelphia 76ers have a chance to win any game against any opponent. But to truly optimize the effectiveness of ‘The Process,’ Doc Rivers needs to utilize Ben Simmons in a lockdown defensive role to neutralize an opponent’s best player when the situation demands it. If that can happen, the Sixers will truly be unbeatable.