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July 15, 2021

Would moving Ben Simmons to forward actually fix anything for Sixers?

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Ben_Simmons_layup_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Should the Philadelphia 76ers move Ben Simmons from point guard to power forward?

The stay-or-go debate surrounding Ben Simmons has been the biggest story of the Sixers' offseason by a considerable margin. And that's completely reasonable — his series against Atlanta has been one of the most talked-about subjects across the NBA, and in the trade rumors that have surfaced since then, a slam-dunk offer hasn't materialized yet (at least publicly). Making a trade just to make one is how bad franchises end up stuck in the mud.

On the other side of it, there are cases being built by the people who want to see Ben Simmons stick around in almost any scenario. The lead argument has been a theme for years: Simmons should be used as a forward, not a point guard, and that may be his path to being a more impactful player, for the Sixers or otherwise. 

Is that a magic bullet for Philadelphia, or is it a matter of shuffling pieces around with no real impact? I suppose the answer is neither, depending on how you look at it.

Where Simmons and the Sixers can benefit

Regardless of how you feel about Simmons' game, his contract, and his place on a contender, it can still be true that he was underutilized in both the regular season in the playoffs. He is accountable for the state of his game five years after being drafted, but there are choices being made stylistically that don't tap into what he does do well.

Right off the top, there's the small-ball angle. Longtime readers are aware of my skepticism regarding Simmons as a five — he doesn't have the length or (at least for now) the instincts to protect the rim — but you're going to that look for what you can do out of that look on offense, not defense. "Simmons and shooters" doesn't mean Simmons has to dominate the ball or even initiate the offense in order to have an impact, and his background as a power forward should serve him well here.

Simmons' short-roll passing is a skill that doesn't get used anywhere near enough in Philadelphia, mostly because there's always somebody in the space he'd be rolling into. There are hang-ups using Simmons in any part of a pick-and-roll, but even in the playoffs, you could see how easy it is for him to suck attention in and hit an open shooter on the perimeter:

Is this great defense on Washington's end? Certainly not, and every guard isn't going to force an opponent to bring the big high in pick-and-roll defense the way Seth Curry draws Daniel Gafford here. But this is a play Simmons can make with regularity if given the opportunity, which he hasn't been for various reasons.

Some of those reasons are "self-inflicted" to a degree — Simmons wanted the title and responsibility of point guard for a long time, driving Philadelphia to commit resources elsewhere as they made a commitment in that direction. That said, they were at a deficit of guard play even for a team with a max committed to a guy named the point guard, something that appears to have changed over the last year. Curry's presence is a good place to start, and Tyrese Maxey could be in line for a significant increase in responsibility if the Sixers can't make a major outside acquisition. The rookie showed major growth throughout the season, earning strong reviews for his work ethic and his ability to fix holes on the fly, leading many to posit he could warrant a bump to the starting lineup next year.

I'm not quite there yet, at least until we see how things shake out, and he will need to make defenders pay for going under screens if a pick-and-roll combo with Simmons is going to work out. But Maxey's pace on the second unit combined with Simmons' athleticism and short-roll passing could be powerful with shooters around them. As we saw in the early stages of last season, Maxey is capable of punishing defenses with midrange floaters and runners if they sink too deep toward the rim and/or the big man, and if Simmons is left alone, he'll have opportunities to hit shooters or (presumably) easy layups and dunks at the rim.

That's doubly true if the Sixers find a way to make a major acquisition, a la Kyle Lowry, without dealing Simmons. There are major financial hurdles in the way if that's the route Philadelphia decides to take (not to mention sacrifices to the roster and pick collection), but Lowry offers a considerably more polished and dangerous version of any pick-and-roll attack you could run with Simmons and the ballhandlers on hand. He can punish drop coverage, thread passes to a rolling Simmons, and hit skip passes if teams cheat too hard to stop that pairing.

A bench lineup with Simmons playing big and an actual guard running the offense has multiple ways to hurt you. Simmons getting the ball in the post and being able to kick to multiple players who can either make threes or attack scrambling closeouts off-the-dribble is a big deal, and the latter feature is something they've lacked for most of the last half-decade. The Sixers are slowly moving away from "unitasker" players (though still not quickly enough) on offense, and you could certainly argue that small developments throughout the rotation could be enough to make the difference and get them on a path toward actual contention.

When the Sixers had Jimmy Butler in town, Brett Brown did find ways to keep Simmons at least partially involved on offense when things got tough in crunch time. This missed three from Tobias Harris is a shot he has talked about lamenting in the years since, but a good example of keeping Simmons engaged by opening the floor up and asking him to move, rather than being content with him drifting into no man's land.

Rivers is not responsible for Simmons checking out to the extent he did against Atlanta, but keeping every player (especially your primary playmaker) involved and engaged is one of the primary jobs of the head coach. Simmons has been pushed to forward in the past, and even though we know now that he wasn't too happy about the arrangement, they were still able to get more out of him.

The Sixers force-fed the Embiid/Simmons pairing last season for justifiable reasons. They'll still spend plenty of time together if you give them both room to breathe and play their own styles within the same game. And while Doc Rivers may lament how small they are when they don't have a true big on the floor, small and skilled is better than big and clumsy. 

Problems that remain

The biggest issue with this thesis is that it rests on the premise that Simmons' problems can be solved via tactics and complementary talent. While there is no doubt it would serve him well to have another perimeter creator on the floor, and for Rivers to give him a lift with how he's used, it is also remarkably clear that his biggest issues are mental, as he admitted while the Hawks series was slipping away this summer.

You can play small, you can put more guards on the floor, and you can try to get him into the right headspace by keeping him involved throughout the game. But ultimately, Simmons' weaknesses are going to manifest in the same way regardless of the lineups around him if he doesn't find a way to address the mental block he has in the final minutes of games. Playing four-on-five with Maxey, or Lowry, or any number of other guards on the floor is still playing four-on-five, and that guard is replacing somebody (likely Seth Curry) in the closing lineup that is helpful and productive on offense. 

There are issues in every style. If a closing lineup looks like Maxey-Curry-Simmons-Harris-Embiid, your backcourt is susceptible to being beaten up by teams with bigger wings and guards and Maxey's shooting is a much bigger deal. Maxey-Green-Simmons-Harris-Embiid has fewer defensive issues and worked decently enough in limited low-stress reps last season, but it has one less guy who can dribble and the same pressure on the young guard to shoot and shoot well. Are you really going into the playoffs next year and betting on a 21-year-old to be in control of the team during crunch time? That's not fair to anyone, especially Maxey, even considering the confidence he has shown in himself and earned from the organization.

(Maxey and Simmons lineups did not exactly set the world on fire and were underwater overall by over five points per 100 possessions, grading out in the 10th percentile on defense, according to Cleaning the Glass. Most of those groups had very little time together, and the discrepancy between how they looked with Dwight Howard on the floor vs. with Embiid was significant, the difference between slaughter and effectiveness. The question is whether they'd be effective enough, especially because we have years of evidence to suggest positive point differential for the starters doesn't necessarily mean anything in crunch-time.)

If the Sixers somehow swing a deal for Lowry that allows them to put a Lowry-Green-Simmons-Harris-Embiid group on the floor, that's a high-end outcome as close as you can probably get to optimal for this group. You still have to ask if a team with Kyle Lowry as the driver of their perimeter attack is destined to win anything. It was only when paired with a star wing in the form of his life that Lowry became a title-winning guard, rather than a very good player on teams that habitually fell short. Admittedly, he wasn't playing with an MVP-level big man in Joel Embiid, but he'd also be working around a player who is outwardly uninterested in playing fourth-quarter offense. Even the unrealistic outcomes are imperfect.

Building the second unit around the idea of small-ball with Simmons sounds nice, but the cascading effects have to be considered. To feature small Simmons lineups, you're basically forced to eat into the time Embiid has attacking backup big men, which tend to be fruitful for Philadelphia on both the scoreboard and the foul count, and putting teams in the penalty is a huge feature of the Embiid experience. That's less of an issue in the playoffs, where top bigs are going to shadow Embiid's minutes regardless of your sub patterns, but against regular-season rotations you are cutting into a favorable setup for your best player in order to maybe unlock Simmons in a configuration he'll never play in during the minutes that really matter.

And it's hard to ignore the history here. This is a problem that scouts picked up on dating back to his freshman season at LSU, where he did play as a forward, ultimately leading to the same results you see today. Jonathan Givony, then of DraftExpress and now of ESPN, wrote this blurb following the conclusion of Simmons' lone college season at LSU:

Opponents were able to neutralize him very effectively in the half-court as the season moved on, simply backing five feet off him. Simmons would respond by getting very passive in turn, looking very conscious about firing up jumpers, even late in games when his team desperately needed him to be aggressive. To reach his full potential and effectively be paired with other players, Simmons will likely either need to significantly improve his jumper, or be surrounded by plenty of shooters at all times as a primary ball-handler. 
Simmons' talent-level is unquestionably extraordinarily, and he could still develop into an incredibly unique mismatch in the NBA, particularly if he shows a willingness and openness to address his flaws. He'll have to improve his approach to the game significantly, though, if he's to reach his full potential. [DraftExpress]

Back then, Givony faced criticism for an overall view of Simmons that many viewed as overly harsh, taking into consideration his production and the surrounding talent at LSU. And that's still where we find ourselves now, multiple coaches, a new position, and dozens of teammates later, as the Sixers search for what to do about the problem.

Simmons is older and wiser now, and perhaps more humble following a humiliating defeat, though we're left to guess on that front for now. It's not impossible for a change to be what he needs to rediscover himself. It's just also possible that, as he told reporters after Game 7, "I am who I am."

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