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December 04, 2020

Ben Simmons talks accountability, Sixers' lack of focus, and whether he'll shoot in 2021

NBA Training Camp
22_Ben_Simmons_Sixers_76ers_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers guard Ben Simmons.

It does not take a rocket scientist to conclude something was wrong with the Sixers during the 2019-20 season. Playing two centers at the same time is a pretty bad starting point, and when you lose a versatile piece like Ben Simmons before the playoffs begin, you're drawing dead against high-level teams in the Eastern Conference.

But to let Simmons tell the story now, the Sixers were finished before they even took the floor for the Orlando bubble.

"We didn’t know when we were going to get a bucket, who was going to get us a bucket, from that to knowing what we needed to be in at all times, people being held accountable for certain things, whether it’s a minor thing, it all plays a part," Simmons said Friday. "We weren’t in a position to go into that bubble and win. I think our mindset was off, and accountability is a huge part of winning...bringing in Doc and all these guys in, and Doc’s team, with all these coaches around, the maturity has definitely risen with the team and I think it’s been great to see that and see guys be accountable for certain things, and come here ready with a different mindset and also having those vet guys come in like Dwight, Danny Green, that’s really setting the bar.

"You just can’t come into a situation like the bubble if guys aren’t ready and you don’t have that chemistry and accountability already. Doc and I have spoken about it. You could tell the teams that were doing well in the bubble were tight-knit and were held accountable for certain things going on, and you could see it. You kind of see it with the Clippers now, with things that are coming out. Same with us. Guys weren’t held accountable, myself included."

Back around the accountability carousel we go. As we discussed earlier in the week, accountability can be a funny thing. Rivers was unable to hold guys accountable in L.A. last season, to the point that his star players are openly taking shots at him now, and now he's being hailed as the savior for a group with the same problem under a different coach, something Simmons acknowledged himself in the above quote.

Sometimes, it seems a new voice and a slightly different approach is all it really takes. Rivers has not been able to open up a full training camp as he has in any other year he has coach, but Simmons says he has already pulled aside his star pupils to make sure they understand the responsibility they carry as the leaders of the team.

"We’ve had multiple meetings already, Jo and I, with Doc, on how this is our team," Simmons said. "And we need to be responsible, and hold each other accountable on the floor and off the floor, and Doc is going to put us in the right positions to be successful. Only time will tell, but I’m very excited for that. I think it’s going to work out well."

That matches the vibe being projected around the practice facility right now, with other holdovers on the roster noting the difference in demeanor the team has compared to last season. Some of that is the nature of the current world we live in — Seth Curry told reporters Friday his current life is just bouncing between the facility and his hotel room — but the arrival of new staff and a new roster seems to have rejuvenated Philadelphia's most important players.

"There’s a real seriousness and a real vibe in the gym of, 'Hey, we got to get our respect back.' We have to really come out with this type of demeanor that we have something truly to prove this year." —Tobias Harris

"There’s a real seriousness and a real vibe in the gym of, 'Hey, we got to get our respect back,'" Tobias Harris said Friday. "We have to really come out with this type of demeanor that we have something truly to prove this year. There’s this type of seriousness and this type of vibe we all expect from one another that so far, it’s only been a couple of days but you can feel it the minute you walk through the door."

One thing Simmons specifically has to prove this season? That his health woes are behind him. For the first time since the year after he was drafted, Simmons dealt with serious injury adversity in 2019-20. It's easy to forget now, but Simmons' knee injury during the bubble was the second serious problem of the year for the Aussie, with a back problem derailing him in the late winter/early spring months prior to the league shutting down. Simmons says he's good now, stopping short of the "best shape of my life" cliches we hear this time of year but assuring everyone he's ready to go.

So the focus turns to basketball, where Simmons has shown himself to be one of the league's best and most infuriating talents at the same time. Doc Rivers has made it clear he is not interested in pigeonholing Simmons positionally, ensuring the debate about whether he is or isn't a point guard will continue for at least one more season. This time around, however, Simmons has an important mentor in his corner: longtime NBA guard and new Sixers assistant Sam Cassell.

"I’m a very creative player. I’m able to make plays, whether it’s scoring or getting somebody open or just making the right play," Simmons said Friday. "I think [Rivers is] just allowing me to do that, and putting me in the right positions to do so. And then, on top of that, I’ve been working with Sam a lot, and he’s just been breaking it down, putting my game to a certain speed so where it’s not always downhill and attack. Sometimes it’s sizing guys up and taking my time."

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It's a partnership many fans have asked for, with Cassell's pro career and history of working with guards suggesting he can help take Simmons to the next level. Cassell has earned praise from John Wall for the work he put in on his approach to the game while with him in Washington, and Paul Pierce once called Cassell the true third member of Boston's big three, a dig at Ray Allen but an indication of how important Cassell was as a leader and teammate for the 2008 Celtics.

Mixing speeds and learning how to succeed in an environment that isn't all pace, all of the time is critical for Simmons' development, and by extension the development of the team. So it was only a matter of time before the questions about his willingness to shoot came up, especially after Rivers suggested this week that Simmons and Embiid could be put in some pick-and-rolls together this year. The concern has long been that teams will just drop far under the screen and nullify the value of the action, and Simmons echoed the sentiment of his coach when the topic of his jumper came up on Friday.

"It’s important to make shots," Simmons said after a long pause, "but it’s more important to win. So however the winning happens, it happens. I know Doc and Sam are going to put me in the right positions to do that, and be dominant, so I’m just looking forward to being out there and seeing what they have to offer in terms of my situation on the floor and where I’m going to be."

It's a far more measured answer than he gave during training camp last year, when Simmons said simply, "If it's open, I'll take it." The odd three-pointer here and there aside, he did not live up to that maxim. Simmons took more of his attempts around the rim than he had in any other season previously, and in spite of that fact, his free-throw attempts dipped under the mark he set in 2018-19.

Thanks to some offseason additions, there's less pressure on Simmons to be a shooter than there has been since his rookie year. Pending the completion of the Al Horford for Danny Green swap, the Sixers should be able to put three good shooters on the floor at a time with Philadelphia's core duo, opening up driving lanes, space in the post, and trail threes in transition when Simmons grabs a rebound and takes off for the other end of the floor.

"It comes down to... players to make sure they’re held accountable. And if they’re not going to listen and do those certain things, they’re not going to win." —Ben Simmons

Curry, while lacking the dynamism of his more famous brother, is one of the league's elite catch-and-shoot players. Simmons is thrilled to get to work with him, and for reasons beyond his terrific numbers as a spot-up player.

"I’m super excited to play with him," Simmons said. "Just the way he plays, he can pass the ball, not only shoot it but pass the ball, his IQ is very high, moves with pace, cuts with intention, and I think it’s going to be very similar to my first couple of years having JJ [Redick] around, and Marco [Belinelli]. Just a younger version, maybe a step quicker. But I think that experience I have with JJ and guys like that is going to help the team a lot just by having a guy like Seth and Danny Green and even Tyrese [Maxey]."

Will the fresh feeling of a new cast and new coach last? It's always hard to tell during training camp when everyone is just happy to be back in the gym and closer to playing games again. We had to hear a whole lot about Al Horford's intelligence last offseason, and how the Sixers would bully teams with size, and how all the concerns we had about their group on paper were not as serious as they seemed.

It turned out those flaws were even more fatal than pessimists would have guessed. But the start to this year certainly feels different. It's a roster that for the first time in a couple of years actually makes sense for the best players on the team. Their lives have been made easier by management, a novel concept for a professional basketball franchise.

Those players know, however, that all roads lead through them. New look or not, the story stays the same.

"It comes down to players. There’s only so much that can happen with players and coaches, and that’s on the players to make sure they’re held accountable," Simmons said. "And if they’re not going to listen and do those certain things, they’re not going to win. But I think it’s a great opportunity for us, being younger guys, to have somebody like Doc come in, so we have to get it done."

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