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December 26, 2018

Let's discuss the Ben Simmons shooting problem

Sixers NBA

The Sixers are in trouble if Ben Simmons never decides to start shooting the ball in NBA games. I know I'm not exactly going out on a limb here, but hear me out, because the goal is not to have this devolve into the meathead mentality that powers most of these conversations.

It is obvious to everyone that the Boston Celtics do not respect Simmons as a perimeter threat. This is true of basically every team in the league but especially relevant to the Sixers against teams who actually matter. Nobody is really going to care if Simmons looks like a wizard against the Knicks or the Hawks or the Bulls if he turns the ball over nine times against the (full strength) Raptors and is a non-factor in tough spots against the Celtics.

It is perhaps less obvious how Simmons' disinterest in shooting blows up the plays people think they should run more, and neutralizes their best player early and often in games.

In a pick-and-roll league, the Sixers are an outlier with how few they run. Brett Brown probably wouldn't lead the league in pick-and-rolls even with better personnel for them, but Simmons' presence on the floor makes it hard to get value out of them as is.

Just one example, but the Sixers tried to run a pick-and-roll with Embiid and Butler with the game hanging in the balance in overtime. And it never really has a chance unless Embiid and Butler run it perfectly because Marcus Morris is able to help off Simmons from the "dunker's spot" without ever fearing that it will come back to haunt the Celtics.

You don't need to watch 50 different videos to show the same symptoms of this problem. Simmons' shooting is not just a problem because he's limited as an individual, but because his limitations are so extreme that they limit the playbook for other players on the team, primarily the team's best player. There is very little Brett Brown, Elton Brand, or anyone else can do if teams can habitually help off Simmons to defend the paint.

The Sixers made a massive change to their foundation the moment they traded for Butler. They have another ballhandler on the floor, a player who can score out of isolation, the exact sort of player everyone believed they needed when the Sixers fell to Boston in five games last May. Philadelphia's bench leaves them exposed all the time, no doubt, but their top-end was undoubtedly made better.

And still, the problems like the one we see above are in place. The inability to get the ball to Embiid in crunch time remains. We still see Simmons and Embiid trying to post at the same time on the same possessions, only striking gold when they are playing an opponent inferior enough to get away with it.

Embiid has bristled lately, noting his desire to shoot fewer threes and go to work on the block, grumbling after Tuesday's game that the ball didn't find him enough in winning time. Per David Murphy of, here's what Embiid said after the loss on Christmas.

I felt I could’ve done more. The ball didn’t find me in the fourth and in overtime. In those situations, I gotta show up and then also, I gotta be put in the right situations to be able to help the team. I feel like I wasn’t in the right situations. I felt like I could’ve done more. We lost. I put this heavily on me because I know I could’ve done more. The way I was playing, I don’t think they could guard me. They were double-teaming on the first dribbles, but I gotta find a way to adjust with that and just be myself.

It is hard enough to thrive in the post in the modern NBA without cramping the paint, and that's exactly what happens when Embiid shares the court with one of the team's three best players.

Let's set aside the impact on Embiid for a moment and use a wider lens. Simmons' shooting is a problem because the pressure to make shots is redistributed to role players on a team that doesn't have a lot of good ones.

Conventional wisdom says teams with star players win, and teams with more star players win more. The problem with applying conventional wisdom here is that the vast majority of star players have the means to score as an isolation player in the halfcourt. Volume scoring/shooting has become dirty terminology in the efficiency-centric world we live in, but stars tend to recognize when they need to just hoist the team on their shoulders and run.

In many Sixers losses, those who believe in Simmons will make (accurate) observations about the failings of their role players. On Christmas, Mike Muscala was gift wrapped open three after open three and only managed to knock down 1-of-8. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing an improved bench will be all that matters for Philadelphia.

But role players are role players for a reason. Robert Covington was a much better one than Muscala, and you could have put him on a milk carton during the Celtics series last year. Marco Belinelli got turned into a traffic cone in the playoffs. The cold streaks are longer and the limitations are greater. To be a great team, your stars have to be good enough (or at least willing enough) to carry the team in spite of whatever swoons your role players have.

Role players are also incentivized more financially to chase the money when it becomes available elsewhere. NBA teams mostly have to worry about keeping stars happy and building winning teams to keep them around, because once you're in the max contract tier the money is effectively the same beyond extra years. Role players have different priorities — do guys want to win above all else, or do they want to get the one big paycheck in their prime that might define their life and their family for generations? 

The Houston Rockets built what seemed to be a perfect foil for the Golden State Warriors and then watched Trevor Ariza leave for a garbage Phoenix Suns team because they offered him $15 million. You can do everything right and still watch an important player walk out the door. It's not even clear yet if this Sixers front office is capable of identifying or acquiring those role players to begin with. What happens to Philadelphia when JJ Redick eventually leaves, or even if he suffers a serious injury?

Finding role players to fit around this cast of stars is also comparatively harder than it is anywhere else, once again because of Simmons. The bar for shooting has to be set higher to preserve the spacing the Sixers do have, and as a rule of thumb, there aren't many high-level shooters available who can defend at the level the Sixers need to contend. The guys who can do both at a high enough level to push the Sixers to contention are either stars or sub-stars, and they're pretty damn hard to get, financially or otherwise.

If all of this sounds like a case for trading Simmons now in an effort to chase better fit around Embiid and Butler, it's not. Wonky as this situation is right now, I believe trading a top-30 player in his second season would be downright negligent, and I think you have to let time show what the end game is here. 

Some Sixers fans have noted two sides of the trade coin the team has been on over the last decade: getting surplus value because they struck deals early, and getting torched on the market because they waited too long. The problem with re-applying the lessons of trades involving, say, Michael Carter-Williams or Jahlil Okafor, is that those guys can't play. They never showed even a fraction of the talent Simmons has in a year-plus, nor did they leverage any of their own gifts in a way that consistently helped win games, in Philadelphia or elsewhere. It is not an accident that the Sixers outperform teams when Simmons is on the court, nor should it be ignored that almost all trades involving stars end up hurting the teams that deal them away.

Were it not for the dramatic rebuilding process that brought us here, I believe a lot of people would be less on edge. Because Simmons and Embiid are effectively the product of "The Process," it seems some believe that the Sixers should just automatically become a championship team. But it takes time, seasoning, development, and yes, a little bit of luck to get there. The important thing is that the Sixers have already established a strong foundation less than two seasons into a long-term partnership. Defense is half of the game, and their three-man core is as good as it gets there.

No one who considers themselves a Sixers fan should view anything as inevitable. Maybe Simmons' shooting hurts the team until the core is blown up, maybe trading him is a mistake, maybe he never needs the shot to win, maybe a couple small additions are all this team needs. Anyone pretending to know all the answers right now has none — this is one of the league's truly unique players of the last couple of decades, and he plays next to a relative novice to the sport who also happens to be an MVP candidate.

But Simmons is not Giannis Antetokounmpo, with a team built around his talents and superior physical gifts to overcome his shooting weaknesses. His task is improving his shooting for his own sake, but also because it is imperative to building a title team around the franchise's best player.

Ignoring that fact is not going to help anyone. They do not need him to be Ray Allen to win a title, but they certainly need more than this.

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