Through three playoff appearances, the Ben Simmons Experience™ has always been a matter of when, not if, the bottom falls out. He’s dominated each of his first-round matchups against the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, and Washington Wizards, only to skew closer toward an offensive ghost than a bruising, 6’11 floor general who blends brilliant passing with interior scoring chops when the second round arrives.
One point in Game 2 against the Boston Celtics as a rookie. Five points in Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors the following year. And then, the potential coupe de grâce, 19 combined points over the final three games against the Atlanta Hawks, a tailspin that played a key role in the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers falling well short of their 2021 championship aspirations.
The first-year struggles were understandable: A rookie guard encountering a game plan designed by a shrewd opposing defensive coach with apt personnel to slow him. Speed bumps could be expected and dismissed under the justified belief that young players are forged through such trials. The second-year inconsistencies, while more damming, were still understandable — Simmons shifted to an off-ball-centric role as Jimmy Butler assumed grander creation responsibilities during the postseason, while the team on the other side of the floor was a defensive juggernaut.
But this year — nearly half a decade into his career, equipped with the experiences to rectify prior struggles, and fresh off of a regular season when Simmons was the supposed Robin to an MVP-caliber Batman on the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference — there is no legitimate justification for another second-round nosedive.
It was not just the scoring decline that encapsulated this offensive nosedive. For years, Simmons and his ardent supporters have implored critics to examine his game beyond scoring numbers. Whenever the media handed Sixers coach Doc Rivers an opportunity to do so this season, he harped on the concept. And to an extent, the general sentiment is correct, it’s just often applied to an extreme that seemingly devalues scoring altogether for an All-Star who prefers initiating the offense rather than being relegated to off-ball duties.
Simmons is an excellent player largely because of all his non-scoring traits — elite perimeter defense, rebounding, transition firestarter — but the scoring still matters. His deficiencies there, which are not mutually involved with the pesky jumper many groups fixate on, are why he’s failed to translate his All-Star impact after the first round in three consecutive playoff runs.
That talking point aside, a complete erosion of half-court offensive utility served as a much more prominent influence in Simmons’ faults against the Hawks. The scoring totals just provide a synopsis of the hardships. Play after play, he drifted into irrelevance once the ball left his hands.
He failed to roll with purpose after screening in dribble hand-offs or pick-and-rolls, a longstanding issue of his. He did not seek out off-ball screens to spring free shooters or cutters as the dunker spot morphed into his half-court home. He crashed the offensive glass less often than ideal; although in fairness, that very easily could’ve stemmed from a mandate to retreat defensively and slow Trae Young’s early offense profits.
While frequenting the dunker spot opposite Joel Embiid in the mid-post, he did not always seal off his man or attempt to do so and act as a release valve for the big fella. As is the case with many critiques of Simmons, some context helps absolve him — Embiid has not shown a willingness to toss that pass throughout the season, so it might help explain why Simmons’ motor in that realm faded. Either way, the inactivity in that spot further exacerbated his offensive hibernation.
The spacing is just awful on a play like this for a few reasons: Ben Simmons doesn't seal off his man to try and be a passing outlet, so Tobias ducks in to do so. But Ben likely doesn't try to seal off his man because Joel has struggled to make that read all year. pic.twitter.com/okAOFbMhmv
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 19, 2021
For long periods in the second half of this series, the Sixers’ three-time All-Star and 2019-20 All-NBA guard merely existed in the half-court, failing to wield his size, frame, and basketball instincts for contributions. He floated, a footprint never to be left. He became so wired for passivity instead of aggression that in the fourth quarter of Game 7, he made a decision that will be talked about for years, bypassing an open dunk to feed a cutting Matisse Thybulle, who was promptly fouled and split a pair at the line.
You have likely seen that Simmons attempted three shots in seven fourth quarters against Atlanta, with his last attempt coming in Game 3. More broadly, he’s taken fewer than nine shots in 10 of 19 career second-round games (52.6 percent), an occurrence he’s only registered in 19.6 percent (54 of 275) of his regular season contests. He discernibly downshifts the aggression in these pivotal series and doesn’t compensate in other ways offensively, with the parts of his game that would be relied upon in these moments never being properly sharpened.
Simmons is 6’11 and 240 pounds, a freight train of a player capable of dislodging most opponents when he so pleases. He does not adhere to traditional requirements of the point guard mold. Screening, cutting, fervently rolling, rebounding, and being a connective passer in the half-court (a la Draymond Green) should be things he always does with vigor, not things that are tied to the ebbs and flows of his scoring. Those are low-hanging areas to remain useful offensively in all circumstances and leverage his size and intelligence. Yet while they may appear basic, Simmons hasn’t plucked them through four seasons and it bogs down his and the team’s offense considerably.
The most vocal retort to Simmons’ lack of big man skills is the Sixers’ inhibiting surrounding personnel. Ben Simmons needs to be surround him with shooters!, people declare. They’ll cite the post-centric offense catered for Embiid as a limitation for Simmons.
Yes, this is not the perfect situation for Simmons, but it’s fairly low on the list of problems restricting him. And here’s the thing: this year’s Sixers team, as well as the 2017-18 and 2018-19 versions, are damn good ecosystems for him — in the past, players like Robert Covington, Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick, and Dario Saric served as credible shooters who opened lanes to the paint and were beneficiaries of his drive-and-kick game, while other on-ball scorers like Butler took some of the onus off him to be the hub of the team’s offense. It’s not quite suited to optimize him, sure, but it is constructed rather well to enhance his steadfast strengths and cover for many of his gaps.
This season, his four starting peers shot 45 percent (Seth Curry), 41 percent (Danny Green), 39 percent (Harris), and 38 percent (Embiid) beyond the arc; the latter two were on relatively low volume, but it wasn’t as if defenses were abandoning those guys to mitigate Simmons’ interior scoring chances.
He had three guys commandeering heftier scoring loads. Dribble hand-off and pick-and-roll partners existed. None of them elite, of course, but undoubtedly of the caliber for him to embrace the big man responsibilities, aid his ball-handlers, and remain a terrific player (as he’s long been). More perplexing is that when he sets rugged screens and rolls with purpose, forcing the defense into a difficult decision, success follows. The outline of how well it could work with an elite ball-handler is there — and even how well it could work with the players at his disposal. The outline isn’t accompanied by routine, though, and that’s a much more damaging concern than the absence of an elite initiator.
When he was shifted to a role that demanded he hammer home these nuances against the Hawks, he seemingly treated them as a pass-fail assignment. Make the handoff, stand in front of someone to screen, and the job is complete. That cannot be the case, yet it was far too often — not every time, but at an unsustainable rate regardless.
Simmons likes to refer to himself as “a basketball player” instead of boxing himself into one rigid position, perhaps an ode to his wide-ranging skills. But as this year’s second round progressed, he resorted to a bystander more than a basketball player in the half-court offense. Some of that is tied to personnel, but so much was his own doing.
So, the narrative that Simmons needs a new home because of schematic or talent hindrances just should not and cannot resonate. A fresh start away from Philadelphia certainly could help and seems necessary for all parties at this juncture, but any sort of breakthrough is unlikely to be heavily correlated with on-court skills or factors — the Sixers have largely surrounded him with empowering teammates. Most stars are not entirely optimized, in large part because it is incredibly challenging to do that. Embiid, for example, has never been optimized in his career, yet has become an MVP finalist and displayed growth as a postseason performer.
Simmons has faltered in three separate second-round cameos, against contrasting opponents, with three different iterations of the Sixers. The onus should primarily fall on him for these blemishes, not the continually rotating cast of teammates. Embiid is the lone constant, but he’s a superstar who overwhelmingly simplifies Simmons’ job, one that sees him toggling between point guard and power forward, and unable to truly excel at either position full-time or part-time because of self-imposed sanctions.
Maximizing Simmons requires a daunting checklist, too: A stretch 5 who protects the rim, a lead ball-handler who shoots off the bounce effectively and is a plus distributor, and two more shooters, one of which probably should brandish significant on-ball creation equity. Assembling that quintet is arduous, rare, and likely expensive. Any potential trade suitor who conceivably rosters each of those archetypes probably has to part with one or multiple of them to acquire Simmons, who is a very good player and also owed nearly $150 million over the next four seasons.
Those archetypes are coveted, usually expensive, and would bolster the Sixers sans Simmons, anyhow. Optimizing Simmons better than his current context is pretty dang tough and more idealistic than attainable in almost every scenario, barring a gigantic leap from him to remedy much of the creation requirement. And besides, there’s no guarantee that going all-in on maximizing the skill set of exactly one player on an NBA roster would beget becoming a championship contender.
Some semblance of reliable half-court creation would alleviate many of the concerns that spur these yearly pitfalls and pose incongruity for his fit alongside a superstar big man. Embiid, while a subpar three-point shooter (32.9 percent in his career), commands attention beyond the arc because he’s one of the league’s preeminent scorers and exhibited a money midrange game this season. Ignoring him altogether affords a lethal bucket-getter space and freedom.
If Simmons touted a face-up or post-up game, rather than almost exclusively being a passer in those spots, Embiid could comfortably migrate beyond the arc and let his running mate cook on occasion. If Simmons did not contort himself around contact — instead, powering through with his strength and body control — and predominantly only finished with his right hand, Embiid could clear the lane and let Simmons drive. If Simmons committed to setting space-carving screens and rolling aggressively, rather than wandering into the lane, Embiid could spot up to give those actions room.
But Simmons doesn’t do those things, at least not to the degree in which they genuinely enhance his offensive malleability. That is what makes this inflection point of his career so bewildering, because he has sprinkled in flashes, even prolonged ones, of incredible two-way basketball. The run to end his rookie season. January 2020. His five-week, pre-All-Star Break surge of 2021.
He’s sliced and slashed with physicality, finesse, and craft to thrive as a finisher. He’s skillfully danced in the two-man tango of pick-and-rolls or dribble hand-offs, capitalizing on the scoring gravity of his teammates to convert inside. He’s functioned as a versatile offensive hub from the elbows and post, balancing facilitating and forceful rim attacks. There are multiple month-long stretches of him looking the part of a top-15 player, as if he’ll finally exorcise some second-round demons and turn the corner, waving goodbye to the offensive stagnation that has sat shotgun to his career thus far.
And then, these stretches evaporate. They leave Simmons as he’s always been, a confounding, anomalous star with glaring, detrimental playoff warts and the need to look inward and assess his self-inflicted, albeit correctable, flaws. They’re central to he and the Sixers’ inability to progress since his rookie season, each finding themselves in a similar position to that of three years ago: a second-round flameout. Only this time, there’s a whole lot less optimism and understanding.