The 2020-21 NBA season has finally reached its conclusion. An exciting start, followed by a tumultuous and injury-riddled middle was then proceeded by a thrilling and exhilarating finish with the addition of the play-in format making every possible playoff seed worth more than it was in normal NBA seasons. With the playoffs underway, every year there are players who step up and help their teams reach the levels they ultimately want to achieve; an NBA championship. Unfortunately, only one team can win that, but that won’t stop the others from trying, so we’re going to run through some players throughout the week who will be of note in determining how these playoffs go down. This is now the fourth part of our miniseries, with this one sizing up Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers. 

We’ve been down this road with Ben Simmons before. In the more open regular season style game, Simmons rampages down the floor in transition and creates just as many drive-and-kick opportunities as anybody in the league like a baby version of LeBron James, but finds himself cluttering up the lane for his All-Star running mate Joel Embiid. Except, we didn’t last year, because Simmons got injured during the bubble and missed the entirety of Philadelphia’s sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics. Simmons is back, but not much else has changed about his game. We know Simmons is still a defensive player of the year candidate, is one of the greatest creators for others in the game, but still doesn’t shoot. There’s a reason why just two years ago, Jared Dudley (then playing for the Brooklyn Nets before they got their big 3) said that Simmons was ‘kind of average’ in the halfcourt of basketball games, which coincidentally is what the majority of playoff basketball is. Can he rectify it this time around?

If you’re a Ben Simmons and Philadelphia 76er optimist, you’d point to the cast around Simmons and Embiid. When those two burst onto the scene, they were surrounded with top-notch shooting in the form of JJ Redick and Robert Covington, amongst others. Their starting lineup was no joke, racking up a Net Rating of +20.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Though their starting lineup went through different players and iterations through the years, they remained a great offensive team despite the lack of shooting and traditional perimeter playmaking… that is until last season. After a series of puzzling roster moves that included basically trading Jimmy Butler for Al Horford and Josh Richardson, Philly’s starting lineup Net Rating from a year ago was still a solid +8.4, but their offensive rating was a lagging 105.4, a far cry from the team that put the Sixers back on the map from years prior. Newly-hired GM Daryl Morey rectified that this winter after he acquired Seth Curry from the Dallas Mavericks for Josh Richardson, flipped Al Horford and a pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green, and acquiring George Hill at the trade deadline from the same Thunder squad. And shockingly, the Net Rating skyrocketed as a result. This season, the lineup of Curry-Green-Tobias Harris-Simmons-Embiid has a Net Rating of +14 and a blistering offensive rating of 117.7. Weird, shooting matters at a time when NBA teams want to exploit the three-ball as much as possible.

This has helped ease the concern regarding the Ben Simmons – Joel Embiid pairing despite the overlapping skillset between the two. A year ago with less space to work with than Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca in the Death Star’s garbage shoot, the effectiveness of the Simmons-Embiid duo cratered. When the two shared the floor a year ago, the Sixers’ Net Rating sat at just +0.6. The two years before that when Philly had more shooting and playmaking surrounding them? The Sixers’ Net Rating with those two on the floor sat at +15.5 (2016-17) and +7.6 (2017-18), respectively. This season, that same Net Rating is back up to +15.5, so Philly’s shooting has definitely buoyed the performance and effectiveness of their two stars.

What also has helped is that the Sixers have not needed to rely upon Simmons much at all for their halfcourt offense. Sure, we know Joel Embiid is a monster and dominant force on the block, but Tobias Harris’ continued improvement this season has been key for this Sixers’ team. Harris has dropped in nearly 20 points a game on almost 50/40/90 (51.2/39.4/89.2) shooting splits on the season. He’s also dropped a career-high 3.5 dimes per game this season. Most notably though, Harris has just looked more comfortable and aggressive this season. When Harris has gotten a smaller defender matched onto him (not uncommon with the presence of Seth Curry and Danny Green setting screens for him), Harris has looked much more decisive and confident going to work against them. This is a good example against a team they may match up against in the playoffs: the Brooklyn Nets. Harris seeks a screen from teammate Furkan Korkmaz to go against the smaller Joe Harris. Once he gets the switch, Tobias goes right after Joe, gets in the lane, and hits a nice running hook shot over Joe. Tobias Harris has generated 1.08 points per possession in isolation-type plays this season, according to Synergy data via NBA.com, placing Harris in the 87th percentile. That’s a big number. Embiid is going to get his. He’s also going to get double and tripled teamed aplenty. It’s harder for big men to be the primary weapon of your offense in today’s NBA, though certainly possible. Someone else is going to need to get weapons to not only help Philly close games but keep them afloat if Embiid isn’t scoring. Harris has stepped up to be that guy this season.

So if Embiid is dominating, Harris is scoring, Green and Curry are shooting, then Ben Simmons should be ok, right? Well, not exactly. Simmons’ confidence in his offensive game has fluctuated at points during this season. One stretch, he’ll bulldoze through everybody like it’s nothing. Another stretch, he fails to take advantage of mismatches such as this against Duncan Robinson. No one would mistake Ben Simmons for Hawkeye when it comes to shooting, but he has to continue putting pressure on defenses as a driver, even if it means going to the free-throw line. Simmons is a career 59.7% free-throw shooter, and only a 61.3% shooter this season. Yet despite that, Simmons himself is too an efficient isolation player (at least in the regular season), ranking in the 76th percentile in isolation points per possession. He also generates 0.96 points per possession when posting up, putting Simmons in the 54th percentile. That’s okay… It shows Simmons is equipped enough that he should be able to take advantage of mismatches (a nifty tool to have in the postseason) but doesn’t always do so. Simmons is capable of being better in that department, and Philly will need him to do so.

Most importantly though, Ben Simmons can get in the way of his MVP candidate teammate Joel Embiid. It showed up big-time against the Miami Heat about a week ago. Knowing Simmons isn’t much of a shooter, the Heat went to a zone against the Sixers. It flustered them immensely. Embiid was at the three-point line more often than the block where he dominates. This play right here is a good example of this. Though Miami is not in a zone, Embiid is still camped out at the three-point line. He only gets the ball after a Simmons dribble-handoff goes nowhere, only to be doubled by Simmons’ man with the possession resulting in a turnover. Simmons (at times! Not always!) can make life more difficult for his MVP candidate Embiid. It should be the other way around. If that continues in the playoffs, new Head Coach Doc Rivers has some tough decisions to make, or Philadelphia’s playoff turmoil will repeat itself yet again. The questions surrounding the Sixers’ two All-Stars will only get louder and louder regarding a potential change. And if change were to come, they sure as hell wouldn’t move Joel Embiid out of town (I think. Nothing is ever impossible in the NBA, including stupidity ruling the day.).

Ben Simmons is a great player. He’s arguably the best defender we have in the NBA. No cap. But his reluctance to shoot has definitely impacted the Philadelphia 76ers’ chances of competing in the postseason. Simmons now has a golden chance to prove his detractors wrong and that the Sixers can win a championship despite him not shooting jumpers. It feels like he is amongst the players with the most to prove in this postseason. Let’s see how he responds.

Comments are closed.