January 18, 2021
Sitting at 9-5 and just ever so slightly below the Eastern Conference's top seed, the Sixers have had plenty to smile about through the opening weeks of their schedule. But as Joel Embiid puts together an MVP campaign and Shake Milton begins building a case for Sixth Man of the Year, Ben Simmons has gotten off to the worst start of his career to date.
It hasn't exactly flown under the radar. Between Simmons' involvement in James Harden trade talks and renewed interest in the Sixers following an offseason of major moves, there are a ton of eyeballs on Philadelphia this season. And while Simmons has remained a nightly triple-double threat who opened the year on something of a defensive tear, he has inspired a new round of debates about his limitations as a halfcourt basketball player.
Few have actually made an attempt to figure out the how and why. That's what we'll attempt to do here. And with due respect to the positives he has brought to the table this season — writing this article does not mean I think Simmons is a bad player — this is neither the time or place to get into the full scouting report on him. Onward we go.
One of the defenses of Simmons' tough start has been a prevailing claim that he is traditionally a slow starter. Using even a tiny bit of scrutiny, this seems to be pretty obviously false. In fact, you could make a credible argument the opening month of his career in 2017-18 is the best individual basketball he has ever played, save for his January run last season.
Across the first seven games during his rookie season, Simmons put together averages of 18.4 points/9.1 rebounds/7.7 assists on 53.5 percent from the field during October 2017, posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than two to one and averaging close to six free-throw attempts per game. It was a strong enough start that members of the front office (keeping in mind what we would learn about Bryan Colangelo's preferential treatment of one over the other) insisted to PhillyVoice privately that Simmons may already be their best and most important player.
Over time that year, we saw a preview of how teams would respond to Simmons. It didn't end up mattering until the playoffs, with the Sixers beating up on teams with nothing to play for during a huge win streak to close the regular season, only for the Celtics to expose the emperor's lack of clothes in round two.
A lot of what you're seeing now is a culmination of the last few years of basketball. There is not much mystery left. Even as Simmons has slowly incorporated three-point attempts into his game this year, defenses have been content to keep dropping in coverage until he has to make a decision.
"Ben Simmons is shooting with the wrong hand" has become somewhat of a meme on Twitter for various reasons, and while I'm not going to sit here and advocate for a shooting hand switch mid-career, teams are certainly prepped for him to favor his right hand going to the basket.
Funneling drivers toward their non-shooting hand as they attack the basket is the sort of thing they teach you when you first play organized basketball. Simmons is a unique case in that teams constantly sit on his right hip, which is his dominant hand but his non-shooting hand. Instead of trying to power through contact or finish with his left hand, Simmons picks the worst of both worlds, tossing up wild attempts with his right hand.
The side Simmons attacks from hasn't especially mattered, as teams are happy to sag and push him toward his left in either case and regardless of whether it's a halfcourt or transition look at the rim. Opponents are defaulting to stances guiding him in that direction and often before screens are close enough to force them one way or another. And Simmons is making matters worse a lot of the time, often resorting to wild reverse attempts.
It's not always the result of a Simmons-centric scouting report, and sometimes Simmons is taking that space himself because it's the path of least resistance. But teams have done an effective job of pushing him in the direction they want him to go, and he has not figured out a way to counter it.
What's worse is that Simmons sets himself up for these failures by playing smaller than he is. Guidance to a side should not be able to limit a player with his size and athleticism going downhill. But in most of the clips you see above, Simmons slows his own momentum before he can take off, resulting in a lot of feeble attempts from under the rim. The cause here is the difficult part to pin down — whether it's because he's actually put off by defenses or because he doesn't want to go to the free-throw line is a distinction I can't personally make.
Even if we believe the scouting report is damaging his effectiveness, let's assume that Simmons is not going to shoot quite this bad around the basket all year. He is shooting over eight percent worse at the rim right now than he did during his rookie season, and over five percent worse than last season. This would be the first year he shot under 70 percent from three feet and in, and he's set to do so by a comfortable margin.
Still, the current version of Simmons has no ability to make up those points elsewhere. He was no one's idea of a mid-range assassin as a rookie, but he shot over 17 percent of all his attempts that year from 10-16 feet. That number dropped precipitously in his sophomore season and has never climbed back up. Cutting out midrange shots is not problematic on its own, but a piece of his game that once flowed naturally now looks as forced as everything else.
The NBA getting smaller over the years feels like it should be a thing that helps Simmons, a college power/point forward who was used to bullying smaller players and capitalizing when help was sent. It has instead hurt Simmons in two ways:
The former problem is a big deal for Simmons as a driver. As mentioned, his in-between game is non-existent at this point along with the outside shot, so teams are rewarded over and over again as they continue to sink and just wait for him to toss up a flailing layup attempt.
Getting an attempt at all, though, is a bigger problem this season. Simmons' volume on drives, one of his primary forms of offense, has fallen through the floor. Twisting, mid-air passes have become habitual for Simmons, and while they look terrific when he's able to pull them off, there are times when he's turning decent-ish layup opportunities into contested threes, recycled possessions, or outright turnovers.
Often, this is a product of Simmons picking up his dribble far too early, charting his course as he travels it instead of planning ahead. This trend is exacerbated by the fact that teams are playing the pass, not the attempt, on many occasions. Players can briefly cheat off their man on the perimeter and then quickly get back in position for an interception.
(For my money, that turnover against the Wizards is the worst and most infuriating play of the year from a Sixers player. Feel free to submit your own nominations.)
Simmons has watched his turnover numbers climb to a career-high 4.2 per game this season, a direct product of the aforementioned major factors. With better shooting/spacing around him, the expectation was that his life would get much easier. It has not played out that way yet.
The second problem has made him a one-read player out of the post, where he finds himself unable (or unwilling) to win matchups against players who are giving up considerable size and athleticism in most cases. Players like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Grayson Allen should have no chance mixing it up with Simmons in the paint, but Simmons hasn't put his body into those guys in a legitimate effort to score.
It's not a fair ask or expectation for Simmons to just bulldoze through guys in the post over and over again, and even in the possession above, you can defend it by saying there is help waiting behind him and it was better to reset and hunt a cleaner setup. The issue once again is the predictability of how a possession will play out. Defenders simply hold their ground as best as they can and don't worry about reaching or contesting shot attempts that never come, which leaves the rest of the defense in place and in a better position to guard the ensuing pass. In a playoff setting, teams work hard for these sorts of mismatches, and you can't routinely discard them without paying some sort of price.
The biggest unknown when it comes to Simmons is how much he's being held back by his own body. To say the least, it has been a rough year or so for his health, and he stands to lose a lot more due to physical slowdown compared to a lot of other players in his class.
After the strongest month of his career last January, Simmons suffered a back injury at the tail end of February in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks, putting him on the shelf through the league stoppage in mid-March. That ended up being a blessing in disguise for Simmons, whose coach said as late as mid-June that he did not expect Simmons to be at 100 percent for the NBA's eventual restart.
In Orlando, we were briefly treated to a starting lineup that featured Simmons as a forward. That lasted all of three games, with Simmons knocked out of the bubble by a subluxation of his left patella. Again, Philadelphia's early exit from the bubble playoffs was somewhat of a blessing, with Simmons able to focus 100 percent of his energy on recovery and rehab, prepping for the season he's in the thick of today.
It's at least fair to say we can't think of him as Philadelphia's iron man any longer. After missing two games last weekend with what the Sixers called swelling in his left knee, many have opined that Simmons has lacked burst and explosiveness in the games since. I'm not sure I can agree with that as reasoning for his offensive struggles, but he has had some puzzling moments on defense that could be explained by pain in his knee.
Temporary loss of explosion would be frustrating for Simmons and his team, but something he can ultimately put in his rearview. The concern is if any physical slippage is more permanent than that.
Many players have thrived after early injuries took away some form of elite athleticism and dialed it down to just "very good" athleticism. Chris Paul is a good example of this — young CP3 had electric pace-changing ability, but the skill he combined that with allowed him to continue on at elite levels once the burst slipped. Simmons may be 6-foot-10, but if his athleticism begins to fade sooner than expected, he is not in a position to make up for that with his handle, his touch, or craftiness in the painted area.
To some degree, Simmons will bounce back as the season wears on. A layup here and there will drop, and that will be all the difference a low-volume attacker needs to go from career-low percentages to right around "normal." Doc Rivers, who has figured out ways to get more out this group on offense, will presumably find a way to ease the pressure on one of his star pupils. The head coach admitted recently they've only introduced a "low percentage" of the plays he eventually wants the team to master, and as we saw with Embiid last week, the introduction of just one new play can be a difference-maker.
Shrugging all of this off as an early-season mirage, however, would be misguided. While Simmons missed last year's playoff run, these are largely the same problems that limited his effectiveness in each of the two postseason runs he was a part of. With his fourth year underway, Simmons has found himself unable to respond to the same questions defenses have asked of him since they figured out he wasn't a threat to shoot.
The severity of the problem has been amplified by factors out of his control. Philadelphia's near trade for James Harden, Joel Embiid's improvement with the same supporting cast and coaching change, and the improvement of peers around the league have put these failures into focus more than ever before. Simmons' even-keeled approach has been a positive for him in many ways, but there is a thin line between steadiness and stubbornness in professional sports, a field where it takes equal helpings of self-confidence and self-awareness to succeed at the highest levels.
Even if he never expands his game the way people hope, it should be clear by now that counteraction is necessary to put defenses, well, back on the defensive. It's up to Simmons to prove this is just a blip, and he must do so in the most disjointed, scattershot season he's likely to ever be a part of.
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