Ben Simmons, at his best, is one of the most explosive and exciting players in the NBA. But he has to become a more dominant player if the Philadelphia 76ers are ever going to win the Eastern Conference, let alone an NBA championship.
Such improvement isn’t likely going to come from Simmons trying to be something he’s not; he’s never going to have Kyrie Irving’s handles, or Stephen Curry’s jump shot. Instead, he should focus on becoming an amplified version of himself.
Simmons is the most unique floor general in the NBA. He’s 6-foot-10, but moves and operates like an athletic six-foot point guard. He’s electric in the open floor, blows past defenders, finds the open man, can finish over anyone inside, hits the boards at a high rate, and is a superb defender. This season he averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. The year prior, which was his rookie campaign, Simmons averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game.
He’s a former No. 1 pick, and from a talent perspective alone, it’s easy to see why. He can be impossible to gameplan for, and playing alongside the likes of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris only made Simmons more lethal.
Then the playoffs happened.
The 76ers went into the playoffs with Embiid nursing a knee injury, which meant others were going to have to pick up the pace, regardless of whether Embiid was on the floor. Now, a big criticism of Simmons is his shooting. He has never made a three-pointer, and the majority of his shots come in the paint. That’s a result of his aggressive play, but it also speaks to a lack of confidence in his jump shot.
The key to slowing down the 76ers has been making sure Embiid doesn’t go bonkers and forcing Simmons to beat you because of his inefficient shooting. And in the playoffs that aspect of the point guard’s game was exposed.
In Game 1 of the 76ers’ first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons shot four-of-nine from the field. It’s not even about the missed shots, it’s the shots he didn’t take, or was forced into passing up that draw red flags. For a player of Simmons’ caliber, a playoff game should never go by where he finishes with single-digit shot attempts, but in the 76ers’ ensuing playoff series, the head-scratching games continued.
In five of the 76ers’ seven games with the Toronto Raptors, Simmons attempted 10 or fewer shots while capping at 13 attempts in Games 3 and 6, as well as just 21 points in Game 6. In Game 7, Raptors star Kawhi Leonard attempted 39 shots; Simmons attempted five and 60 throughout the series.
Simmons played a bit passive, appeared rattled, and seemed like someone who couldn’t perform in a big game. You know who has a similar skill set to Simmons, but plays with a motor unmatched, or slowed down in both the regular season and postseason? Russell Westbrook.
There are two different ways of viewing the Oklahoma City Thunder’s triple-double machine. On one hand, he’s the most explosive talent in the sport, plays above the rim, will always take the big shot, and goes coast-to-coast with ease. He’s also the most productive player in the sport in recent memory, as he has averaged a triple-double (points, assists, rebounds) in each of the last three seasons.
Simultaneously, he has never escaped the first round of the playoffs as the team’s go-to scorer, has been categorized as a ball hog, especially in crunch time, and has played alongside great players in that span including Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams. There’s a frequent discussion as to whether Westbrook will ever win an NBA championship given his style of play. At the same time, his drive and impose-your-will mentality is everything the 76ers need, and Simmons has the tools to be that kind of a player.
Simmons can absorb contact, run the fastbreak, play off the ball, and suffocate the box score. The difference between Simmons and Westbrook is that Simmons doesn’t draw as many fouls and is reluctant towards taking outside jump shots. And if he’s never going to do the latter, he has to maximize what he can do. Being different, or unique, makes you unpredictable to opposing teams, and that can be an advantage.
Simmons has to improve his shooting, no matter the approach he takes this offseason, but him getting to the charity stripe and scoring more often is what the 76ers need; the aggressive mindset will, in time, bring along a steady jump shot.
For the moment, it appears the 76ers are likely to lose one, if not both of Butler and Harris to free agency this summer, and part of it is based around the thinking that they will look to give Simmons a max deal when he’s a restricted free agent next offseason.
This is a player who was once considered a hybrid of LeBron James and Magic Johnson. While it’s unfair to expect Simmons to blossom into that echelon of a player, it wasn’t a lackluster comparison, at least not from a skill set perspective. But he has a ways to go before even being considered a part of that historic class.
If Butler and Harris depart, there’s no guarantee the 76ers bring in a star, or two high-caliber players to fill the voids their departures would create. In all likelihood, they’re going to roll with Embiid and Simmons, banking on them becoming the best star duo in the NBA and powering them through the East.
When healthy, Embiid is the second-best big man in the NBA behind Anthony Davis. He’s a beast in the post, finishes inside, can play out on the perimeter, get physical, is an underrated passer, and a well-versed defender. Couple that with a 6-foot-10 point guard, Simmons can become invincible, and the 76ers are a team that no one can prepare for; this has been the Philly dream from the outset of their once dragging rebuild.
Ben Simmons has the chance to be an all-time great. But unless he fully utilizes his strengths, or widens his skill set, he’ll never fulfill his potential.