The Curious Case of Ben Simmons

Much has been made already about the Philadelphia 76ers and their postseason struggles during the Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons era. But this year might have been the tipping point that could change the course of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

For the first time in 20 years, Philly entered the postseason as the number one seed in the East, led by Embiid’s best season yet, where he finished second in MVP voting to Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic. Despite Embiid’s dominance and the team’s regular season success, the Sixers once again crashed out in the semi finals to the lower-seeded Atlanta Hawks, falling to them in seven games. Philadelphia had every chance to win the series and advance to Eastern Conference Finals, but was unable to hold on to 18 and 26 point leads in Game 4 and 5 respectively—completely unacceptable for a top-seeded team. One has every reason to believe that the front office will be looking at all options on the table, including but not limited to trading Ben Simmons for a wing scorer. Philly is in desperate need of a true second option and that is certainly not Simmons, nor is it Tobias Harris, who is more suited to be a third option on a championship contender.

Time to move on from Ben Simmons?

Ben Simmons has been quite the polarizing figure since he entered the league as the first overall pick in 2016. While his court vision, versatility and defense have been widely praised by even his fiercest detractors, his Achilles heel is well known: his inability and flat out refusal to shoot the ball outside of ten feet from the basket. Till date, Simmons has not shown a willingness to improve his most glaring weakness four years into his career. 

Since his free throw shooting was the talk of the town this postseason, let’s take a look at that aspect of his game. While it is true that he shot a putrid 34.2% from the free throw line in this year’s playoffs, he clocks in at nearly 60% from the charity stripe over the course of his career during the regular season. In fact, he steadily improved his free throw shooting over his first three seasons, shooting 56%, 60% and 62.1% before dipping slightly to 61.3% this year. While those percentages are nothing to write home about, it also begs the question as to what caused the massive drop off in his accuracy during this postseason. He averaged 64.1% in his previous two playoff appearances—a fairly respectable number for his standards. This leads one to believe that the issue is not physical in nature, but mental.

Photo by Robert Banez (All-Pro Reels), distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Simmons’ entire playoff career paints the picture of a player who wilts under pressure and the bright lights of the NBA playoffs. When the Sixers are cruising to an easy playoff series victory, Simmons lives up to his All-Star status and then some. In the 2018 playoffs, his first postseason appearance, he averaged 18.2 PTS, 10.6 REB and 9 AST shooting 50% from the field and 71% from the free throw line in an easy series win over the Miami Heat, needing only five games to dispatch them in the first round with an average margin of victory of 16 points. The Sixers advanced to meet the Boston Celtics in the semi-finals, but fell to them in five games with Simmons averaging 14.4 PTS, 8.2 REB and 6.4 AST, shooting 47% from the field and 70% from the free throw line. The difference between the two series is easy to see with his most egregious performance coming in Game 2, after the Sixers were blown out by 16 points in Game 1.As one of the top options on the team along with Joel Embiid and sharpshooter JJ Redick, one would expect him to play his part to help tie the series in a critical game or risk being in a 0-2 hole. However, Simmons went on to post a single point in Game 2, with 5 rebounds and 7 assists, racking up more turnovers(5) and fouls(2) than points.

Fast forward to 2019, Philly trotted out arguably its best team in a decade, adding All Star swingman Jimmy Butler during the season to a core of Embiid, Simmons, Redick and Tobias Harris. Expectations were sky high and rightfully so. The Sixers matched up with the young Brooklyn Nets led by D’Angelo Russell in the first round, heavily favoured to advance to the semi finals. The Sixers did just that despite a shocking Game 1 loss on their home floor by nine points but proceeded to win the next four games by an average of 16 points. Simmons averaged 17.2 PTS, 6.8 REB and 7.6 AST, shooting 64% from the field and 58% from the free throw line. Even so, his tendency to wilt in high pressure situations was evident in the aforementioned Game 1 loss where he scored only nine points, his lowest of the series. The Sixers advanced to meet the Toronto Raptors in the semi finals and fell to them in seven games, one of the most thrilling matchups in recent memory, in no small part due to the first ever Game 7 buzzer-beating winner by then Raptors star forward Kawhi Leonard.  Given the magnitude of the series, with both teams almost evenly matched and Embiid rendered ineffective by Raptors big man Marc Gasol and various ailments for most of the series, the other Sixers were looked on to step up.  While Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick and to a lesser extent Tobias Harris were helping fill the void created by the ineffectiveness of Embiid, Simmons averaged only 11.6 PTS, 7.3 REB and 4.9 AST, shot 60% from the field and 56.3% from the free throw line. He had one exceptional performance in a win or go home Game 6, posting 21 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Sixers avoid elimination and set up the now classic decider in Toronto. During the series he scored in single digits twice, posted exactly 10 points twice and took less than 10 shots four times, including taking only 5 shots in the all-important Game 7. The Sixers are at their best when Simmons is aggressive and collapsing the defense leading to open shots for his teammates on the perimeter, but unfortunately that version of Simmons only showed up in Game 6—one of the few times he showed up in high pressure situations thus far.

“I don’t know the answer to that right now”

sixers coach doc rivers when asked if simmons can be the point guard of a championship team

That brings us to this year’s playoffs. Given Simmons’ injury during last year’s postseason in the Orlando bubble, he was forced to sit out during Philly’s first round loss to the Boston Celtics in four games. As was the case during the last two years, Simmons played well in their relatively easy first round series victory over the Washington Wizards, dispatching them in five games. He averaged 14.8 PTS, 10.2 REB and 9.2 AST shooting 64% from the field and 35.7% from the free throw line, kicking off the Hack-a-Ben strategy used later on by the Hawks to take control of the series. This time, it was in the form of his worst performance in a playoff series, averaging only 9.9 PTS, 6.3 REB and 8.6 AST in what many saw as Philly’s best shot to make the Conference Finals since the arrival of Embiid and Simmons. To be clear, all the blame cannot fall on Simmons’ shoulders since the team as a whole was responsible for letting Games 4 and 5 slip away after holding a double digit lead in both contests. However, Simmons’ refusal to even touch the ball for a considerable part of the final three games out of fear of being fouled and sent to the free throw line was arguably the nail in the coffin for the Sixers. As pointed out earlier, Simmons actually improved his free throw percentage over his first three years in the league, shooting around 60% from the stripe on average. If this was not a clear case of mental weakness, how else can one slash their free throw percentage by nearly half?

The most egregious instance occurred at a crucial juncture in Game 7 against the Hawks with the Sixers down by two with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. Simmons passed up a wide open dunk after backing down his much smaller defender in the post, dumping it off to a cutting Matisse Thybulle, after spotting two Hawks closing in on him, presumably preparing to foul him and send him to the line. That moment in the game was singled out by Joel Embiid after the contest, implying that was where the Sixers lost the contest and the series, stopping short of fully expressing his understandable frustration with Simmons. When coach Doc Rivers was asked whether Simmons could be the point guard for a championship team, he responded, “I don’t know the answer to that right now”.

This offseason will certainly be interesting to say the least, given the Sixers’ inability to get past the second round with the core of Embiid and Simmons. Something’s got to give and there is a good chance that Simmons has played his last game as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. According to Yaron Weitzman of Fox Sports, Simmons was frustrated with his new role off-the-ball after the 2019 playoff defeat to the Raptors, forcing the Sixers to let Butler, the de facto point guard for the series, become a free agent and join the Miami Heat. Regardless of whether or not he has the ball in his hands, Simmons could still be an effective option in the half court by finding scoring opportunities by cutting hard and allowing his teammates to find him. However, his inability to shoot the ball handicaps his game significantly as every team in the league knows he would pass up an open shot from the perimeter, making it easy to game plan against him when he is not the primary ball handler. Even more concerning is that Simmons’ reported frustration with Butler basically stemmed from his unwillingness to improve his shooting and become more of a threat offensively while playing off-ball. Knowing what we know now, there is considerable reason to believe that the three of them could have defeated any team in the East the following year in the bubble, especially with the departure of Leonard from the Raptors.

There is too much evidence that suggest the Embiid/Simmons pairing is not a winning combination and the Sixers may only have two more years until their championship window closes with the expiration of Embiid’s current deal. If he feels he does not have a chance to win a championship in Philly, he could leave in free agency or even follow the footsteps of Paul George, James Harden and Jimmy Butler, forcing his way to another team as early as next year—a possibility that cannot be ignored. Given the circumstances, the 76ers may not have much time left.


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