On his way into the NBA, Ben Simmons was billed as the next great basketball unicorn.
He was going to be the next LeBron James or at least the next Magic Johnson, and despite showing total apathy to the institutional rigidity of college basketball, still put enough good stuff on tape during his lone season at LSU to remain a lock to go number 1 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Yeah, yeah, Brandon Ingram was a better shooter, but players like Simmons don’t come around too often, as Sam Hinkie noted in his resignation letter. After stinking it up for years in an indiscriminate search for top-tier talent, finally, the Philadelphia 76ers are coming up aces.
And in hindsight, those assessments were correct; Ben Simmons is a unicorn, just in different ways than people initially expected.
While Simmons has yet to develop the even average 3 point shot many a talent evaluator expected would manifest by this point in his career, the 24-year-old Melbourne native has more than made up for it with his Defensive Player of the Year-level efforts on the other end of the court, so largely, things are copasetic.
With that being said, Simmons isn’t – and shouldn’t be – above criticism, even if what he’s been taken to task for isn’t always fair or balanced. For all of the good he brings to the table, which Doc Rivers has heralded whenever asked over the past week or so, there are aspects of his game that haven’t exactly lived up to his overall standard and proved fatal to the Philadelphia 76ers’ chances of sweeping the Washington Wizards in Game 4.
The Philadelphia 76ers need to play to Ben Simmons’ strengths, not weaknesses.
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Playing Ben Simmons at center is the Philadelphia 76ers’ white whale.
In theory, the look should work and be darn effective. Much like the “Death Lineups” of a half-decade past, playing Simmons at the five spot surrounded by four shooters of varying sizes should present Philly with a fast lineup that can put up points in a hurry while remaining viable at the defensive end of the court.
Simmons is bigger, faster, and stronger than both LeBron James and Draymond Green and thus should be able to protect the hoop a la Nerlens Noel at a commendable level.
So far, that hasn’t been the case.
With Joel Embiid unable to go thanks to a momentum-shattering knee injury, Doc Rivers had to shake things up on the fly and reanimate some long-forgotten lineups that were probably better left in the regular season. These lineups, most of which featured Mike Scott at either the four or five, did little to get the Sixers back on track, and at best, kept the team treading water.
Why, you may ask, is this particularly relevant? Because the Sixers have been absolutely horrible at turning in a positive points differential when anyone but Joel Embiid is on the court. Of the Sixers’ 35 lineups with more than 20 minutes of on-court time, eight of the top-10 feature Embiid, with a combined +/- of 403. Extrapolating things out one step further, the 16 lineups Embiid has played in for 20 more minutes over his 1,155 minutes of qualifying regular season action have a combined +/- of 400 versus a +/- of 99 over 833 minutes.
What does that mean in a nutshell? That the Philadelphia 76ers are an elite two-way team when Embiid is on the court and just an above-average one when he’s out.
Fortunately, there are ways for the Sixers to remain offensively and defensively solvent when their best player isn’t on the court, but in Game 4, Rivers didn’t play up to any of their strengths and foolishly felt that their weaknesses were still better than what the Wizards brought to the table.
That, my friends, was the team’s biggest mistake.
Despite making strides on the defensive side of the court, Simmons has remained largely the same shooter since his second professional season, averaging a 55.7 shooting percentage from the field while hitting just a bit over 61.3 percent of his 4.9 free throws per game.
Why, you may ask, is this relevant? Because every other team in the league knows that Simmons is a lousy shooter, and Scott Brooks decided to capitalize on it with a decidedly uncool Hack-a-Ben strategy that made for some truly unwatchable basketball but left the Wizards still alive in the playoff picture.
Now granted, the Sixers did the right thing by playing Simmons eight minutes in the fourth quarter despite picking up a fifth personnel foul at the 9:20 mark in the fourth. He is, without a doubt, the team’s second-best player and provides so much more value on the court than off it, and even if he only averages a point per possession from beyond the arc, his contributions are unquestionable.
Despite outscoring the Wizards by a 22-14 margin with Maxey at the controls to shrink a 12 point deficit to four, Rivers pulled the former Kentucky Wildcat and put the ball back into Simmons’ hands for the final frames of the fourth quarter. While this wasn’t a bad idea in theory, because again, Simmons is one of the most gifted young facilitators in the NBA and can run an offense like few others, the Wizards almost immediately started fouling the 24-year-old as soon as the game started to get interesting.
Simmons was fouled four times between when Maxey left the court and returned to it four minutes later and was even sent to the line on one particularly egregious play when he didn’t even have the ball in hand. Regardless of whether he made zero, four, or all eight of those free throws, keeping the ball in the hands of a 60 percent free thrower when an 87 percent shooter was given a four-minute siesta in favor of an additional shooter feels like poor planning on a basic basketball level.
Had Simmons put more work in during the regular season as a small-ball center, maybe this wouldn’t have been as big of an issue. Since 2016, deliberate away-from-the-play fouls result in a single free throw and the ball back, so just having Maxey on the ball would have whipped away two of Simmons’ free throw attempts at minimum or given the team a few more offensive possessions in a one-point game at the 2:00 mark.
Is Ben Simmons to blame for going 50 percent from the line when his team needed him most? Sure, but considering he’s only a 60 percent free-throw shooter on 1,354 career attempts split over four seasons, what do you really expect? Him to suddenly turn into Seth Curry? Look, Doc Rivers is dead-on; Ben is an NBA player the likes of which we have never seen before and may never see again. What he brings to the table is unique, and how he impacts a game is hard to quantify from a traditional five-column stat sheet. However, if he’s deployed incorrectly, like a generic point guard – or a supersized Rajon Rondo – instead of an Australian Unicorn, Simmons’ shortcomings will continue to draw the ire of fans and put the Philadelphia 76ers in a less than ideal situation. Simmons is a unique player; it’s time to play him like one.