Getting Ben Simmons On Track

A new home seems inevitable, so let's talk about what it takes to get Simmons consistently playing like an All-Star

“A fresh start isn’t a new place, it’s a new mindset.”

— Hindi Proverb

As September 2021 comes crawling to an end and the NBA season lies around the corner, the relationship between the Philadelphia 76ers and Ben Simmons, once thought to be their gateway to the future and best hope for the franchise, seems irreparable. A horrid end to an underwhelming offseason, combined with a lack of jump shot development, stripped away the excuses that Simmons could hide behind when dealing with Philadelphia media and the city’s rabid fanbase. A divorce is clearly the best path forward for both involved.

Details and negotiations in a constant power play between Darryl Morey, organization leader tasked with finding a trade, and Rich Paul, Simmons’ agent who has made it clear Ben won’t be back, aren’t our concern right now. For Simmons, it doesn’t matter who he gets traded for, only that he does and where he does. Throughout this saga, online theatrics have been largely anti-Simmons, casting him off as carefree, lazy, undedicated and a losing basketball player. All such criticisms we would classify as largely unfair.

Simmons is far too talented to be out of the league entirely; everyone recognizes this. Even Morey, who wouldn’t ask for a King’s ransom in return for Simmons unless he was an All-Star talent, acknowledges that Ben is a great talent. All that means is that somehow and someway a new team is going to get Mr. Simmons’ services. That is where our focus is today.

What features does that team need to accommodate to Simmons? What do they need to focus on to maximize the player he is and can become? What will it take to squeeze every ounce of potential out of one of the most naturally talented players the world has to offer? Perhaps most importantly, what does Simmons need to do to change his mindset so that the same issues don’t get repeated once greener pastures are found?

Player comparison games are ultimately dangerous. To call Simmons a Draymond Green type devalues Green’s historical defensive aptitude, IQ and positive shooting while simultaneously not appreciating the fluidity, finishing and athleticism of Simmons. The same goes with comparisons to how he should be like Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the most physical players in the league who has an extra gear vertically that Simmons won’t get to.

When discussing a seven-footer who averages 7.7 assists per game for his career, you have to throw out the playbook. Simmons isn’t like anyone else before him. He’s only 25 and still has plenty of time to evolve into a unique threat on offense. We just have to figure out how to make that happen. To us, that means catering to Simmons with the sets that are run and personnel around him, not finding a brand new role to stick him in that is borrowed from another non-shooting All-Star.

Any team who acquires Simmons gets an elite defender from day one. Full stop, Simmons’ ability to shut down 1 thru 4 makes him a unique weapon within the right schemes. He has impressive instincts to jump switch, swim his man for steals or gamble in passing lanes. He pressures smaller guys far from the hoop without losing a step when they try to drive. His hands are always ready for deflections. He moves his feet while keeping his chest square and shuts down driving lanes as a result.

It’s easy to look at the 2021 postseason and view it as a failure for Simmons. In the series against the Washington Wizards, he was integral in limiting Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, switching to guard both and using his defense to fuel transition:

Collectively, we don’t talk enough about the value that comes from having a player who can be on the floor for 30 minutes a night that guards any position and locks down an opponent’s best player. Simmons is up for such a challenge, so that even when not in a switching system, he provides impact.

Simmons has done it occasion after occasion. He was sensational against Luka Doncic, picking him up close to half-court to fluster him in the pick-and-roll or prevent isolations. When Luka would go into super-physical mode and rely on hostage dribbles, the length of Simmons from behind altered shots and prevented Doncic from getting comfortable. He chased Luka around screens and handoffs to prevent movement from creating momentum. Doncic was 6-13 from the field with 7 turnovers in their game at Philly:

He doesn’t just lock up bigger guards. Damian Lillard had similar struggles as Luka, running into Simmons’ chest on multiple occasions while Simmons did as good a job against the Portland Trail Blazers superstar as anyone can. Lillard was only 6-21 from the field against the Sixers:

The length Simmons possesses allows him to not just guard multiple positions but gamble safely. He has the sense of a defensive quarterback to read plays as they’re developing and the athletic tools to cover ground when he recognizes what is about to happen. Very few players at his size have that prowess.

We’ve learned from his time in Philadelphia what doesn’t work well for Simmons offensively. Playing second-fiddle to Joel Embiid helped strand Simmons on an island. Embiid — a much superior scorer and top engine — is best with his back to the basket, dominating on the low block in the way Shaquille O’Neal used to. He commands doubles, makes teams pay for trapping him and is good enough with the ball in his hands to turn fast-paced handoffs into deep post position.

The one area that shrinks the floor for Embiid: if he’s surrounded by a non-shooter. Sixers’ fans clamored to win around their beloved Embiid so much that the solution was simple. If Simmons wouldn’t shoot and couldn’t provide positive value around an Embiid post-up, he wasn’t a worthwhile Robin to Joel’s Batman. Part of the divide was sewn in Philly’s unabashed love with the outgoing, charismatic big man. The other is due to Embiid developing into an elite rim protector and defender, rendering Simmons’ greatness on defense somewhat repetitive.

Year by year, Embiid proved worthy of a larger volume of post-ups. As other teams trended smaller to keep up with the space-and-pace era, the Sixers were finding success in the counterattack, throwing Embiid the ball on the block and letting him feast. In 2018-19, Embiid received about 30% of his usage from post-ups, according to Synergy. The two years since: above 36%, a sizeable jump. That increase hasn’t been met by a decrease in efficiency either: Embiid has been above 1.08 points per possession (PPP) on the block.

Simmons simply doesn’t fit next to a high-usage post threat. His cutting and lack of floor spacing becomes a net negative when the primary objective is to score on the block and punish teams who double. The easiest way to hide Simmons when that happened: put him in the short corner, therefore taking the ball out of his hands as a playmaker and threat to attack the rim, where he’s best.

Once the playoffs rolled around, Simmons was relegated from “integral initiator” to “go stand in the dunker’s spot and wait there.” Fans were specifically critical in this, Simmons fourth pro season, as expectations rose and the frustration with watching the same tactic year in and out. Whether it’s an Embiid post-up or an isolation elsewhere, it’s been years of watching Simmons hang out on the baseline once the playoffs arrive:

The Sixers lead the league in post-up attempts as a percentage of their offense last year, with the action accounting for 10.2% of their opportunities. Only four others were above six percent: the Lakers, Nuggets, Bucks and Clippers. Perhaps a fit with the Denver Nuggets next to Nikola Jokic, a similarly talented center who is strong both inside and outside, isn’t the right home for Simmons.

So where is Simmons best? Transition is the easiest answer. First and foremost, he’s dominant in the open floor, a staple of the regular season for him in the past. Simmons is an elite rebound-and-run forward who takes off due to his handling ability and how he pushes the ball out in front of him, allowing him to run through the ball and let his long legs get momentum underneath him.

There is a bit of a catch-22 for a player of Simmons’ defensive stature. In games when he’s needed to switch onto guards and defend the perimeter, he’s farther away from rebounding zones and is more of a sprinter in transition than a break-starter. But sacrificing that defense to keep him closer to the rim isn’t optimal use of such a dominant on-ball defender.

In Philadelphia, that dilemma hasn’t been a major issue. Embiid’s presence and the overall size of the Sixers frontcourt has taken care of rebounding when Simmons leaks out. The same goes for when he gambles defensively; there’s enough rim protection and size behind him to cover up the times when he misses. Positionally, the Sixers have used him almost exclusively as a point guard as a result. They’ve fielded a massive roster, and it prevents a dichotomy around Simmons’ usage from forming.

Regardless of how he gets the ball in transition, Simmons needs to get it. Too many positives flow from there once he attacks downhill. As a passer alone, Simmons created 7.1 points per game last year in transition alone. Combine that with the 4.3 points he scores in the open floor and he’s a juggernaut in the open floor. Only Russell Westbrook had more points created last year.

If transition were enough to build a championship-caliber offense upon, Simmons wouldn’t be on the trade block. What will make the next home the best one for Simmons will be a creative coaching staff and well-built roster that lets Ben play to his strengths.

When thinking about untapped areas, I keep going back to that game from this February against the Utah Jazz, where Embiid was absent and Simmons went up against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert. Ben ran the offense through the post, going against Gobert or others through backing them down. He’d take his size advantage and a cleared-out lane to his advantage. While we think so much about what Simmons’ lack of shooting does for Embiid’s spacing, we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about how Embiid’s presence takes away all of Ben’s post-up looks.

With that lane cleared, he could use his length to play one-on-one and his explosion showed. Great touch off the glass, good patience and use of pump fakes, and superb touch with both hands:

Size advantages create most of these opportunities, as well as the Jazz willingly playing him one-on-one. If Simmons gets enough volume in post-ups, we know he’ll hurt teams who do over-help and bring doubles: he’s far too good a passer in every other fashion for it not to translate. As for judging the sample of his time in Philadelphia, it’s so hard to look at the post-up numbers due to Embiid’s presence and both Brett Brown and Doc Rivers’ insistence on not exposing Simmons at the 5. If you do, as a scorer and passer out of the post, Simmons was just as efficient (0.99 PPP) as Giannis (0.99), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.966) and Jayson Tatum (0.959). That number should increase with more spacing.

As a pick-and-roll handler, Simmons’ violates one of my main tenets in initiating offense: he doesn’t shoot it. Teams can go under against him and clearly contain him from the lane, forcing him to either take the shot or not put enough pressure on the rim to force help defenders to collapse. Without helpers tagging the role and squeezing the lane, catch-and-shoot kickout avenues won’t develop.

Simmons encounters those issues on middle pick-and-rolls quite frequently, where driving around the screen would push him wide and ultimately away from the rim. On side ball screens, when his penetration around the screen generates a paint touch, he’s actually fairly effective. Part of the reason for that: teams cannot ice screens and go under at the same time. When they go under and try to meet him on the other side, Simmons is so damn lanky and long that one bounce and enough explosion allows him to get to the front of the tin.

A great breakdown by Shehan here. Note that Embiid does a fantastic job screening his own man here so that Simmons only has one body to navigate and finish through.

Now imagine that play with one of the league’s premier pick-and-pop threats. Embiid can shoot (23-59 on pick-and-pop catch-and-shoot jumpers) but as we said earlier, he’s absolutely dominant on the blocks. Teams would rather live with the Embiid pop than anything he (or Simmons) get at the rim. Replace Joel in that action with a guy like Karl-Anthony Towns (24-59 but with a 60.2% aFG%, taking more treys) and perhaps the defense hugs KAT so much that Simmons gets to the rim, or even draws a help defender for a kickout.

Clearing out one side of the floor just for Simmons to score in the lane isn’t an ideal usage of a team’s time. But there are great ways to flow into that action from a 5-out or delay series in the NBA. The quick swings and handoffs from the Indiana Pacers playbook last year are examples of how to get Simmons the ball on the move. Not only does that put him in the situation to play through the pick-and-roll but might catch some teams unable to go underneath screens:

Here’s the catch: pair Simmons with the right team and he can be Domantas Sabonis in the clips above at times, too. A hybrid 5 who has the offensive game of a wing (think KAT, Christian Wood, Chris Boucher) to cut or space while Simmons trails to the middle of the floor would be incredibly dynamic, even if it’s only for brief moments. A small-ball Simmons at the 5 grouping might be the best way to unlock late-game or playoff Ben’s ceiling.

Simmons as a trailer, whether at the 5 or the 4, strikes me as a nice role for him to get downhill without worrying about guys sagging off. Semi-transition is always a clusterfuck for defenses, and all Simmons needs is one help defender to take a half-step in the wrong direction for the play to be worth it.

Think about Simmons in a Zion Williamson-type usage where early offense handoffs get him going to the lane:

Last year’s Chicago Bulls playbook was chocked full of downhill-type actions where a slasher starts in the slot and quickly comes off a handoff towards the rim. The intricacies and counters of Billy Donovan’s playbook open up plenty of wrinkles to get others involved, take advantage of how Simmons is being covered and keep the floor spread on most possessions for Simmons to operate out of the spread pick-and-roll:

The Sixers haven’t wanted, or needed, to commit to getting Simmons the ball on the move because it runs counterintuitive to the slow, methodical pace that brings out the best in Embiid. Until we see what Simmons looks like as a focal point of a playbook, I’m not convinced that he wouldn’t be a terror with the ball in his hands most of the time. Playing this style requires shooting, is dependent on pace and means others will sacrifice their touches. It could be worth the efforts, though.

So how does Simmons’ new team incorporate him offensively when he’s not playing with the ball in his hands? The solution could be playing him at the 5 and using him as a screen-and-roll operator. When paired with a great shooting point guard, Simmons has untapped potential on the short roll, using his quick processing speed to find open teammates and positive finishing to destroy teams who don’t commit to his roll. That theory is the basis behind all the Draymond Green comparisons.

There are actions in the half-court that can get Simmons on the move before the catch after spotting up in the corners. The blade action, a common one used for Zion and other non-shooters to cut to the rim from the corner, is of great utility to teams who need to mask a non-shooter.

Now the elephant in the room: shooting.

Everyone wants Simmons to turn into a guy that’s willing to take them. I’m not going to try and diagnose or prescribe remedies for the issues he’s facing mechanically. There’s far too much going on for a high school coach to armchair quarterback everything. What I will say is this: Simmons averages 17, 8 and 8 per 36 minutes through his career and shot 56% from the field. To say Simmons needs a jumper to be effective is an oversimplification of his game and a bailout to lazy coaching. He’s still an All-Star-caliber player, and we’re sensationalizing the Atlanta Hawks series by pretending he isn’t.

A team with Simmons as its best player likely will run into too many scoring issues. But there’s a difference between being their best player and being the one they plan around most. When paired with the right scoring option and elite player, his offensive role is relieved. From a roster construction standpoint, understanding how to put Simmons in a position to best succeed requires assembling talent around him: versatility defensively, avoiding back-to-basket scorers, surrounding with shooters. All those factors are difficult to assemble through one trade, and even more difficult when the Sixers have the leverage of time on their side and a demand for win-now players.

Regardless of how passionate they feel towards their team, it’s been sad to see a whole city and fanbase turn on such a talented player. Simmons has hit shortcomings, but no player or human being deserves the type of criticism he’s endured. A fresh start is coming soon; there’s no blame on Simmons for requesting the exit after the circumstances of the last few months, and doing so certainly doesn’t make him soft.

But we’re worried most about the environment he’ll walk into. Will many of the same issues persist because he’s viewed as a plug-and-play piece instead of an offensive foundation worth building around? Will there be enough shooting around him to let his playmaking shine in the half-court? Do the X’s and O’s incorporate him more in crunch time and during the playoffs than standing in the dunker’s spot?

There is no definitive proof that catering more to Simmons in these ways will turn him into an elite offensive star in the half-court. On the same token, there isn’t definitive proof that he isn’t an elite offensive player when catered to. At 25 years old and with the unique skillset at his disposal, I’d make the bet to build around Simmons and give this a try if there aren’t other avenues towards acquiring an All-Star talent in the short-term.