How Philly is Hiding Ben Simmons's Shooting Woes
Regardless of how physically imposing, rare, and breathtaking Simmons can be, building a championship contender with someone who can’t shoot as a focal point is exceptionally difficult.
Photo by CJ Gunther/EPA-EFE
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Ben Simmons is 22 years old and—according to some smart people, including his own general manager—one of the world's 20 best players. He’s already won Rookie of the Year, one playoff series, and only Russell Westbrook and LeBron James have more triple-doubles since his career debut. If he doesn’t go down as one of the 10 best passers his size (6’10”, for those unaware) who ever lived it’ll be a wild disappointment.
He'll always be a unique mismatch who terrorizes defenses caught between stopping his momentum and realizing the moment they do he’s going to fling a dart out to the three-point line, or put one of his teammates in a hot-air balloon to cram home a lob. On defense, Simmons’s height and build allow the Philadelphia 76ers to stick him on opposing centers (Al Horford, Myles Turner, etc.) when they need to hide Joel Embiid on someone who isn’t as threatening in the pick and roll. He’s very good and special and the 76ers should feel blessed to have him on their team.
But if last year was a hazily appealing honeymoon, the earliest returns on Simmons’s sophomore season have sometimes felt like the first valley in a marriage that’s yet to experience any conflict; an unsettling realization that the notable hitches in his game won’t improve anytime soon—he and Philly are officially in this through good times and bad. Regardless of how physically imposing, rare, and breathtaking Simmons can be, building a championship contender with someone who can’t shoot as a focal point is exceptionally difficult. It helped spur Saturday’s blockbuster trade for Jimmy Butler and, regardless of what the team says, has made Markelle Fultz expendable. This year, Philadelphia has the 26th best offense in the league with Simmons on the court (on par with the tanktastic New York Knicks). They play like a 36-win team with him and a 48-win team without him. (When Embiid isn’t on the court but Simmons is, the Sixers have the worst offense and worst defense in the NBA.)
Philly still likes to get Simmons going downhill, usually to his left, with a J.J. Redick ball screen near the free-throw line. It’s a tricky but increasingly predictable action that most defenses are starting to spot from a mile away, especially as they use it more and more towards the end of quarters. Here’s the best-case scenario: Malcolm Brogdon deciding Fultz is a threat in the weak-side corner.
More often than not, teams will either switch the screen and force Simmons/Redick to go one-on-one, or the floor will be too congested for him to do much of anything. Watch Michael Kidd-Gilchrist below.
It’s early, we’re months away from the trade deadline and buyout market. Someone like Kyle Korver can really help. But a smart thing Brett Brown has done to mitigate Philly's shortage of outside shooting is use Simmons more as an off-ball scorer. That sounds insane, but this is less about his gravity flying off a pin-down and more about physical duck-ins and and the most intimidating Hawk cut in the league.
The sequence seen above is similar to what the Oklahoma City Thunder ran last season as a way to involve Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook. (As covered by Ben Falk over at Cleaning the Glass.) Embiid screens for Simmons near the elbow and gifts him a free dash into the paint.
Below, the Indiana Pacers are ready for it. Bojan Bogdanovic spins under Embiid’s pick while Myles Turner drops a bit, ready to absorb Simmons’s cut. The Sixers shrug their shoulders and get a layup.
As Brown tinkers with different ways to accentuate Simmons’s nightmarish athleticism (while obscuring his setbacks) in lineups that feature Embiid and Butler, look for this more and more.
According to Synergy Sports, post-ups and cuts accounted for 18.2 percent of Simmons’s possessions last year. Right now they’re at 28.4 percent, with Brown stacking his playbook with more ways to let Simmons attack from spots on the floor where he’s comfortable. This baseline out of bounds set is a great example.
Simmons inbounds the ball and then immediately carves out post position for an entry pass. Simple, yet effective! But these actions aren’t enough to prop up Philadelphia’s offense and ultimately nullify an aesthetic that’s occasionally drowsy. Don’t let anyone ever tell you Simmons’s inability to shoot doesn’t matter, be it from the corner, elbow, or free-throw line. He's awesome and has found ways to overcome it, but defenses know he isn't willing to pull-up from 15 feet and they guard him as such. That's more wart than novelty. Shooting helps! But harnessing his physicality on the block, along with different ways to leverage his speed in a half-court setting, is wise. They should/will lean into it even more now that Butler is on board.