The Philadelphia 76ers are locked in a battle with the surprising Brooklyn Nets. The Nets stunned the Sixers in Game 1, but the Philadelphia got back on track with blowout victories in Games 2 and 3. Without question, one of the biggest difference-makers for the 76ers is Ben Simmons.
In Game 1, Simmons registered merely nine points three assists, and three turnovers. But in Game 2, Simmons came alive, pouring in 18 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. Simmons continued his solid play with 31 points and 9 assists in Game 3. The first three games of the series presented a microcosm of Simmons’ play this season: either he’s passive and does little on the court to contribute, or he’s actively engaged and helping his team in all facets.
Jared Dudley dared to call Simmons “average” in the half-court. And he may have a point, to an extent. While Simmons is far from average, there is still a lot he can be doing better when he’s not off to the races in transition.
If the Sixers want to be real title contenders now and in the future, Simmons will have to fully understand his role, and coach Brett Brown will have to use him in a way that maximizes Simmons’ skill set. For that, the Sixers should look no further than the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Draymond Green possesses some similar attributes, as well as the lack of an outside shot, and Steve Kerr has utilized Draymond very well over the past five years.
Simmons’ biggest problem is his obvious lack of an outside shot. 89.7% of the shots he took all season came from within 10 feet of the basket. Because of this, defenders will employ a “gimmicky” defense where the defender sags off of Simmons immensely–daring him to shoot from the outside. But Simmons can’t shoot, and as a result, the defense has an extra man ready to help on drives or post-ups.
There are also times when Simmons just stands in the “dunker’s spot,” right outside the paint near the basket, and doesn’t move for an entire possession. Because of this, his defender is free to help off of Simmons in the paint.
Teams use a similar “sag” strategy against Draymond Green. Against the Warriors, you have to pick your poison. And most teams will let Draymond be wide open from three-point range, and help on Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or Kevin Durant. But Draymond doesn’t merely stand around. He facilitates, always looking for cutters. He’ll screen off-ball for shooters, taking advantage of his sagging defender to free up Curry or Thompson. Or he’ll post up, and find shooters or cutters with his court vision.
Simmons has a similar skill set, but taken to another level. Simmons can be unstoppable driving to the rim. He has the frame to bully a defender in the post. And he possesses elite court vision.
Simmons is already a force in the league, and should continue to play to his strengths. But here are three additional ways the Sixers should consider utilizing Simmons in the offense, looking to Draymond Green as a template:
3) Post up more often
Draymond Green isn’t a shooter. But he’s a great facilitator and passer, so the Steve Kerr has him post up a lot. This season, Green finished second in the NBA in assists off of post-ups. Simmons was 12th in the league. Simmons does have elite court vision, as he’s third in the NBA in three-point assists this year. The Sixers should utilize his great passing and court vision more by having him find cutters and shooters from the block.
On this play from the Warriors in Game 1 of their first round playoff series, DeMarcus Cousins enters the ball into the post, and the Warriors run their post split action:
Draymond surveys the floor while Cousins sets a screen for Kevin Durant. KD springs free, and Draymond dishes it back out for the open three. The Warriors are masters at spacing the floor, and the Sixers could use some help in that area.
In Game 1 vs. the Nets, the Sixers struggled to find any offensive space, as the Nets crowded the paint and helped off of non-shooters. Simmons hung around the block way too much, allowing his man to help in the paint. And Brooklyn was perfectly fine with Joel Embiid standing at the three-point line, helping off of him on drives too.
But imagine if the Sixers ran something like the Warriors’ post split action. Simmons would be posting up, and Embiid would set a screen for Redick on the perimeter. There are a myriad of options there, ranging from Embiid being open after the screen to Redick springing free off on the perimeter.
Posting Simmons up is something the Sixers do already. And Simmons has the strength to back his man down and score in the paint. He was the team’s high scorer on field goals made in the paint, and getting him more touches in the post could contribute to that.
On this play in Game 3, Simmons displayed his ability to bully a defender and finish deep in the paint:
Simmons started with a drive to the basket. Once he got deep positioning, he turned his back and posted up DeMarre Carroll. No help came, and with Simmons already in great position, he was able to bully his way to an easy shot. This was a great example on how Simmons could abuse a defender in the post. Had help come on this post-up, Simmons also has the vision to zip a pass to the open man. The issue isn’t Simmons in the post, but rather how often the Sixers use him in the post.
In the regular season, Simmons averaged 4.4 post-ups per game, second on the team only to Embiid. But in the first two games of the playoffs, Simmons had posted up a grand total of three times. In the half-court, the Sixers need to be posting him up much more frequently and let Simmons either back down or use his court vision to facilitate from the post.
2) Be the roll man in pick-and-rolls
The Sixers don’t run the pick-and-roll too often, but when they do, it usually involves Joel Embiid as the roll man, and deservedly so. But they should actually start using Simmons more as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations.
Again, let’s look at Draymond Green. Teams sag off of him immensely, especially in the playoffs, since they’d much rather direct their defense at Curry, Thompson, or Durant. But when Draymond comes up to set a high screen for Steph Curry, if Green’s defender is in the paint, Curry gets a wide open look for three.
The Curry-Green pick-and-roll used to be the Warriors’ “bread and butter” early in the Steve Kerr era. Curry would come off of the pick and get going downhill towards the basket. He would draw defenders and dish to the rolling Green, who would read the defense and either finish at the rim or lob it to a big man.
Below is a series of plays where Draymond Green is the roll man in pick-and-rolls, and it demonstrates all of the ways Draymond can pick apart a defense off of the roll. Imagine it’s Ben Simmons in that position instead–who is a better driver, an elite passer, and whose defender is often sagging in the paint.
In the regular season, Jimmy Butler was 12th in the NBA in possessions per game as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. By running the pick-and-roll with Butler and Simmons, Butler could take advantage of the sagging defender by either pulling up from three or getting an open lane to the basket. And if he passes to the roll man, Simmons could finish, pass it to Embiid down low after drawing a defender, or kick it out for three.
On this play in Game 3, Mike Scott and Simmons ran a pick-and-roll that resulted in a Simmons layup:
Simmons’ defender, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, started out in the paint while Simmons was on the perimeter. When Mike Scott received the ball and Simmons set the pick, Hollis-Jefferson stepped up to defend the Scott drive. No one was back to guard Simmons on the roll, and the pass to Simmons got him the easy layup and the foul.
More action like this could take advantage of the sagging defender, and force teams to play closer up on Simmons.
1) Set off-ball screens constantly
J.J. Redick leads the NBA in handoffs per game. A lot of what the Sixers do on offense centers around him running around the perimeter, off of screens, taking handoffs, and launching from three. Having Simmons be the guy handing it off, or even just setting a pin-down for Redick, would take advantage of the sagging defender immensely.
The Sixers do run this sometimes, and here’s a play in Game 2 that illustrated this perfectly:
Simmons dribbled at the top of the arc, and as usual, his defender was deep in the paint. Redick sprinted out for the dribble handoff. Simmons effectively screened off Redick’s man, and with Simmons’ defender so far back, no one was able to switch onto J.J. It resulted in a wide open triple for one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the game.
The Warriors also use Draymond on off-ball screens a ton. He’ll set pin-downs for Curry or Thompson, and just a sliver of daylight is enough room for those two elite shooters. Having Simmons set off-ball screens for Butler, Redick, or Landry Shamet would open up space for them to operate.
If a defender is sagging way off of Simmons, standing still on the block or at the three-point line is the worst possible thing he can do. Simmons needs to be constantly setting on-ball or off-ball screens, rolling to the basket, or posting up.
Outside of those, there is one aspect where Simmons can take advantage of the sag that Draymond cannot: driving to the basket. Simmons has the speed and strength to turn into a runaway steam engine when he gets going downhill. Simmons can be a force when he drives, as he has the quickness to get to the rim at will. With all the space that defenders give him, he could get a running start on drives to the rim and go up strong to finish or get fouled.
Draymond doesn’t drive too much, and the Warriors have needed to use him more creatively to make teams pay for sagging off of him. But Simmons has so many weapons in his arsenal that he can punish defenses in a variety of ways.
But again, the worst possible thing he can do is be passive, not use his skill set, and let his defender roam in the paint to help. Simmons has to be active and engaged for the Sixers to be effective. The level of Simmons’ engagement in the offense directly influences the length of the Sixers’ engagement in the playoffs.
The Warriors have turned Draymond Green into an offensive facilitator and major cog without having to take mid-range or three-point shots. Simmons is already playing at an All-Star level, but the next step in his game is to do the little things that will make defenses think twice before ignoring him.
And maybe people won’t be calling him “average” in the half-court for too much longer.