We are roughly six weeks away from the NBA All-Star game in Los Angeles. Six weeks away from watching Victor Oladipo drop a pull-up three over Russ on the opening drive forcing Webster’s to add a fresh definition for ‘irony.’ Six weeks from Joel Embiid finally winning a date with Rihanna after his performance of ‘Umbrella’ at a K-Town karaoke bar breaks the internet. Six weeks from Aaron Gordon deciding that he only wants to shoot twenty-eight footers during the dunk contest. And six weeks away from Ben Simmons stepping onto the court at the Staples Center as the first Rookie All-Star since Blake Griffin in 2011.
There will be people, purveyors of bad takes and undercooked arguments, who will argue that he shouldn’t be an All-Star. They’re already circling their mental wagons. Pulling up only-green-around-the-rim shot charts. Flipping through their bookmarks to find that Kevin O’Connor article about how Ben shoots with the wrong hand. Digging through obscure Kemba Walker stats in order to prove he deserves a spot. I’m writing this article not only as a preemptive challenge to anyone who thinks Ben Simmons isn’t an All-Star, but to arm my fellow Rights to Ricky Sanchez-listening, Process-Trusting, Hinkie-tattoo-having cohorts with all the ammo you could possible need to shut down that one friend who grew up in Conshohocken but is a Celtics fan for some reason. Because not only does Ben Simmons have All-Star stats, he has an All-Star’s affect on his team, and he’s got All-Star-level highlights.
Let’s start in the obvious place. The easiest to prove and hardest to argue place. And the best place for direct player-to-player comparison - individual stats. Right now Ben Simmons is averaging 16.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 7.5 apg. Only two other players in the NBA are averaging 16, 8 and 7: Lebron James and Russell Westbrook. Only twenty-four players in NBA history have finished a season with that stat line. Only four have done it this century. It’s impressive, but it’s only one side of the game. So what about defense? Right now Simmons is tied for 2nd in the East in steals per game (1.9 ), 3rd in Defensive Rating among Eastern Conference Point Guards (102.8) and 1st in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM) with a staggering 1.77. To put his DRPM number into context (definition below) Kyle Lowry’s is 0.39, John Wall’s is 0.29 and Kyrie Irving’s is -1.12. Ben Simmons hasn’t just been better than his All-Star competition on defense, he has been a force. A game-changing presence and a big part of why the Sixers have the 7th highest Defensive Rating in the NBA.
A player’s ability to improve their team is an underrated but important part of what makes an All-Star. Too often when picking All-Stars people get caught up in judging the individual without taking into consideration whether or not that player has a positive affect on the players around them. Given that basketball is a team sport, I’d argue it’s pretty important. Simmons affect on the Sixers has been both dramatic and quantifiable. When he’s on the court the Sixers score more points and give up fewer points. Opposing teams have a lower FG%, a lower Offensive Rating, and turn the ball over more (per Bball-Ref). By far the best lineup the Sixers have includes Simmons. The Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid lineup has won 16 of the 21 games they’ve played in together and is plus 18.1, which means they’re outscoring opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions. To put it simply, the Sixers are a much better team on both ends of the floor when Simmons is playing than when he’s not. It’s easy to see his affect in the numbers, it’s even easier to see it when you watch him play.
That quick series of clips or what some might call a highlight reel is an excellent segue. An All-Star level highlight reel isn’t just some invented, Simmons-friendly metric. When fans vote for Kyrie they aren’t voting for his PER. They’re voting for that time he crossed-over most of the Lakers lineup on a single play. The same goes for Lebron’s chase-down blocks and Curry’s heat-check threes and Russ’s posterizing dunks. Fans don’t tune into League Pass to see how efficiently Giannis is going to score, they tune in because they know there’s a chance he’s going to do something they haven’t seen before. Because while you can prove your argument for any of these guys by taking a stroll down statistical lane, the seed of their greatness is planted on the screen. And when it comes to planting seeds of metaphoric greatness, Ben Simmons is Johnny Effin’ Appleseed.
On top of all that, there’s also a hard to define quality that makes us happy when certain players get picked and leaves us feeling numb when others get the nod (I’m looking at you Paul Millsap). Is it personality? Likability? Swagger? In the modern NBA where 75% of the vote comes from fans and fellow players, the All-Star game is, at least to a certain degree, a popularity contest. As much as it is a measure of a player’s relative statistical accomplishments and ability to dominate an ESPN highlight package, it’s also a measure of how much we want to hang out with them. Given the quality of the basketball, what else is All-Star weekend but an extended hang with our favorite NBA players? So the final question becomes, is Ben Simmons a good hang? I would argue that beneath his poised and collected exterior, he is. There’s the fact that he retweeted some random guy’s TTP tattoo. The fact that his name on Call of Duty is Simmo the Savage. The fact that he has an adorable French Bulldog. The fact that he retweeted back to back tweets about a rally for Meek Mill and an ancient shark with a snake head. The fact that Lil B the Based God clearly wants to be his friend and so does LeBron. And above all, the fact that he’s Australian. Have you ever met an Australian who wasn’t a good hang? That’s not a rhetorical question. Of course you haven’t. They’re all a good hang.
And with that, I rest my case. Now go vote.
DRPM: Player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions (per ESPN.com)