Despite a strong 23-14 start for the Philadelphia 76ers (and a convincing Christmas Day win vs. the Bucks on national television), there still seems to be more questions than answers. Ben Simmons and his fit in Philly’s playstyle is a prime example of that
Heading into the season, the Philadelphia 76ers were all the rave amongst NBA fans. Discounting the loss of Jimmy Butler; the additions of glue-guy darling Al Horford and do-it-all wing Josh Richardson seemed to offset any worries around the team.
Instead, the conversation revolved more-so around just how good Philly was going to be. Many had them as the favorites to make it out of the East; referencing the team’s pure size, the development of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and potentially one of the best starting fives in the league as the main reasons why.
Thirty-seven games into the season and that same kind of optimism seem to be missing. Even after a mauling of the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day and Joel Embiid looking as determined as ever, there still seems to be more questions than answers with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of those questions involve mention of their franchise corner piece, Ben Simmons. It feels redundant to bring up glaring issue number one: his jumper, or lack there-of.
There’s nothing that hasn’t been said of Ben Simmons refusing to shoot the ball, as well as the issues that arise from it. NBA Twitter has well taken care of that; it lets teams sag off him, it limits his offense, and it limits his teammate’s offense (specifically speaking with Embiid).
But the underlying issue it creates is Simmons’ generally awkward fit with how the 76ers run their offense. Non-shooting creators work best with shooters around them; Simmons does not have that. In Philly’s ideal world, he is expected to act as that next to Embiid. Rather, his role is not being maximized given his current skill set, and that will become evident (as it has the past two years) in the playoffs if Philly doesn’t try and resolve the issue.
Here is a look at how Philly is misusing (or simply not using) their young point guard. Alongside what they can do to fix the problem. An important theme to note: as much fun as it is to critique a player, sometimes the team as a whole also needs to be held accountable.
The basis of Simmons’ issue within Philly’s offense begins with these two things: his lack of jumper and his lack of engagement/aggressiveness (shown by his 23 percent usage rate). That usage rate is the lowest of his career and is only good enough to rank him in the top 38th percentile of all point guards.
With how little he has the ball, it begs the question if he really is the “6-foot-10 point guard” he’s been pegged as. That’s not to say his low usage rate is a perplexing negative from all angles; considering that he is sharing the court with Embiid (who truly can’t have the ball enough).
The negative has to do with what he is doing when he doesn’t have the ball, specifically when in the halfcourt offense (which Philly is in a lot, which is another schematic decision that does not benefit Simmons). Unfortunately, Simmons without the ball is essentially statistically similar to Simmons on the bench.
The two things Simmons does most without the ball: acting as a cutter (14.6 percent of the time) and posting up (12.5 percent of the time). Considering his elite ability to finish inside (he’s making 56.1 percent of his 2-pointers), this initially seems fine. But considering the fact that he is cutting and posting up in a paint where Embiid also is ideally doing the same, it creates a clogged and overlapped inside attack that just doesn’t work in today’s NBA.
The 76ers often bring Embiid out to the perimeter to account for this; likewise taking away the most threatening aspect of their offense: when Embiid is alone down low in the post, one-on-one with a big likely not capable of guarding him. They often are forced to bring him outside of the paint though, because again, Simmons off the ball is basketball’s definition of a black hole.
He acts as: a pick-and-roll roll man only 1.8 percent of the time, a spot-up shooter 3.4 percent of the time, and is involved in handoff action only 1.8 percent of the time. Philly is at their best when Embiid is going to battle in an open trench down low, but as seen above, when he’s doing that all Simmons does is stand.
He’s a scarecrow on the perimeter and not a very intimidating one for that matter. It’s a fair bet to not defend him when he’s out there, allowing his defender to collapse on Embiid inside. Then arises the great 76ers debate: “what do you do with Simmons when you have Embiid?”
Some have suggested the trade route (with most suggesting to trade Simmons), others have flooded the point guard with their utter desire to see him shoot a basketball. Perhaps both routes could lead to more success in Philadelphia, but other pathways can also be explored.
As stated earlier, both the player and team should be accountable for finding/creating an ideal fit within a scheme. Simmons developing a jumper certainly would open up Philly’s offense, but there are things the 76ers could try that could also theoretically do the same without ruining a multi-year chemistry-building project (trading away a star player) or waiting on a hopeful hypothetical situation (Simmons developing a jump shot).
To recap, here’s the issue at hand: Philadelphia is best in the halfcourt when Embiid is down low with as much spacing as possible. Having Simmons on the floor seriously disrupts that. You either have to place him down low which clogs the paint or leave him on the perimeter to stand and be ignored by defenses anyway.
To have such a generation-defining athlete in Simmons act as such a zero on offense at any point seems inexcusable, jumper or not. One way that could be done is using him more as a screener and pick-and-roll roll man (remember his small 1.8 percent frequency as both a roll man and handoff participant).
The 76ers are not a pick-and-roll team by any means (they only run it about 11.6 percent of the time, 29th in the league), but Brett Brown has openly toyed with the idea of using Horford in the pick-and-roll more often; he should also consider doing the same with Simmons as a screener.
In off-ball situations, consider this: if Simmons sets a screen at the wing for Tobias Harris, Simmons’ defender can either sit back and allow an open Tobias look, call for a switch and potentially set up a mismatch or call for a hedge over the top of the screen. In two out of those three scenarios, Simmons’ defender is engaged with him on the perimeter. That is where the beauty in it all lies; it’s a scapegoat for Simmons’ inability to create spacing.
The same also applies to pick-and-roll situations. It really is as simple as this: if Simmons sets a screen on the outside, his defender is forced to respect it. It’s again a scapegoat strategy that lets Simmons create spacing for an Embiid-filled paint. Come playoff time, teams will be doing all they can to stop Embiid inside; Simmons setting screens adds a wrinkle to that (the same wrinkle adding a jump shot would).
Of course, though, it’s not the perfect fix. Philly’s wings aren’t exactly imposing snipers from outside, so off-ball screens from Simmons might not actually attract as much attention. And Philly also lacks the elite ball-handling talent to match with Simmons in the pick-and-roll (but Trey Burke, Richardson, and Tobias do deserve their due justice). To even further counter the point, Simmons isn’t even the most elite screener by any means. He often commits fouls and he isn’t exactly a brick wall to run into. But that’s not the point.
The point is that it’s something to try. Since all hope seems to be lost regarding Simmons’ jump shot, it’s something that could potentially pardon the letdown. It’s something that could also pardon the constant sagging off on Simmons, and it is something that could open up the paint for Embiid’s even further.
Simmons really is a phenomenal player; he is somebody who already impacts the game in almost every fashion. It’s just not ideal to have a player of his caliber be inactive at any level of the game. Simmons, unfortunately, is inactive on the perimeter. Using him more as a screener and roll man could potentially patch up that issue while fans continue to wait on his jumper.