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Maximizing Ben Simmons’ offensive versatility should be a priority next season

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How can Simmons remain useful without the ball in his hands?

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In an era defined by its march toward position-less basketball, Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward who passes like Chris Paul, rebounds like Kevin Love and defends like Paul George should be the poster boy for versatility. But this era is also characterized by the three-point revolution and, in that regard, Simmons is the antithesis, avoiding outside jumpers like the plague.

For most of the season, the Philadelphia 76ers were able to surround him with a herd of shooters and work around that flaw, beaming into the second round of the playoffs having won 20 of their past 21 games. Then, the Boston Celtics, with their shell defensive scheme, rendered Simmons nearly obsolete by exposing his lack of offensive versatility. Without the ball in his hands, Simmons’ value plunged nearly to zero.

Now, Simmons’ second-round performance isn’t a precursor to struggles he’ll encounter next season. It’s more likely to be the type of hurdle that restricts him from reaching his peak potential and the Sixers from advancing deeper into the playoffs — still relevant, yet less pressing (at least in the interim), issues.

The Celtics were the NBA’s best defense last season and fielded a rare blend of personnel to eliminate Simmons from the equation. His struggles also shouldn’t fall squarely on his shoulders as the Sixers didn’t roster another playmaker who inspired creative ways to help manufacture an impact for him.

That lack of help won’t necessarily be the case next season, as reports suggest Markelle Fultz is returning to form and primed to assume a significant role, either from the bench or in the starting unit. Whether or not he earns the “starter” designation shouldn’t matter. If Fultz is healthy and playing well, he deserves to be in the closing 5 — a vastly more important quintet than the starting one.

Trading out Dario Saric or J.J. Redick — two players whose primary duties are off the ball as floor-spacers — for Fultz in the starting lineup would theoretically mean Simmons is functioning without the ball in his hands more often. If such a change does materialize — and even if it doesn’t — the Sixers need to unlock the versatility of their blazing-quick, strong-as-an-ox point guard.

The easiest path to weaponizing Simmons off the ball is utilizing him as a cutter more often. Set plays will get the job done at times, but he’ll also need to improve his off-ball instincts and tendencies. Nonetheless, his marriage of size and speed should enable him to wreak havoc when secondary ball-handlers are initiating the offense.

A season ago, Simmons was a deadly cutter. Among all players who registered at least 100 possessions as a cutter, he ranked third in points per possession (1.48), trailing only LeBron James (1.62) and Anthony Davis (1.58). The key now is unleashing him more often to produce baskets like this:

Those plays haven’t proven to be consistently effective, however. Eventually, those sets lose their novelty and become predictable. If Simmons is ceding control of the offense that early in the possession and it isn’t a post or elbow touch for Joel Embiid, opponents can expect it to be one of the off-ball actions catered for him.

Too often, he’d drift around the perimeter, becoming a non-factor in the play, or clogging the paint, hanging out near the dunker’s spot along the baseline. The emphasis is on more impromptu, instinctual cutting for Simmons, capitalizing when defenses are scattered, stretched thin, or lasered in on other players.

The onus to find Simmons as he bolts to the rim might be on the other franchise cornerstones, Fultz and Embiid — perhaps Philadelphia’s second- and third-best creators — both of whom are confident playmakers.

Embiid is in the midst of his first fully healthy offseason and was a markedly better passer last year, improving his assist and turnover numbers — even if the latter remains a well-known issue. Another step forward as a playmaker should be expected as his passing slowly continues to become a luxury in the Sixers’ offense.

Fultz, meanwhile, was an uber-efficient passer as a rookie, churning out a sparkling 3.8:1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, albeit primarily against reserves on lottery-bound teams. He didn’t make a ton of advanced reads — though he is capable of doing so — but flashed considerable comfort and feel as a lead ball handler, invoking credence in his potential to coordinate the offense, even when Simmons is on the floor.

If Fultz can pair his herky-jerky, dribble-drive action with his passing talent to expose creases in the defense, Simmons could have even more runway to fuel up for easy buckets:

Even if Fultz doesn’t work his way into the closing lineup or a noteworthy role, Simmons will still need to improve his off-ball impact. Developing a better feel for when to explode to the rim, as he did in the plays above, is the most viable path to growth. If he maintains similar efficiency at a higher usage, he’ll demand more defensive coverage off the ball, opening up the floor for Embiid down low, Fultz in the lane, and shooters around the arc, increasing his off-ball presence and worth.

Another route, especially if Fultz rekindles his jumper, might be hiding in plain sight. At 6 feet 10 inches, Simmons has the size of a traditional power forward and small-ball center. Despite that, he operated as the roll man in just seven pick-and-rolls last season.

The sample size is far too small to glean anything in-depth, but Simmons’ 1.43 PPP on those plays suggests the potential exists for it to enter his offensive arsenal more frequently, especially considering his combination of size and quickness.

Usually, Redick was the ball handler in these situations as the Sixers harnessed his elite gravity and shooting stroke to spring Simmons free:

Here’s an example with Saric, another marksman whose magnetism draws two defenders by assuming ball-handling duties:

Again, though, the consistent upside of those actions with Redick and Saric conducting the orchestra is relatively low. Neither is more than a mid-tier passer or shot creator, so if the defensive coverage is disciplined, the play fizzles out.

Enter, Markelle Fultz. His three-level scoring, mature passing chops, and ball-on-a-string handle fuse to breed a pick-and-roll maestro — an action he excelled in during his one season at the University of Washington.

If his off-the-bounce package resembles anything close to the one he displayed pre-injury — and really, if he’s just a competent threat to pull up or attack the rim — Simmons should discover value as a roll man. Fultz is capable of making vastly more advanced reads than Redick or Saric, even amidst stout defensive coverage.

The most dominant pick-and-roll creators are imminent threats as scorers who leverage defensive attention to spark open looks for teammates (think Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving). Fultz is cut from that same mold and has the chance to be a devastating lead guard, alleviating some of the pressure for Simmons and tapping into the ancillary potential he offers as a 6-foot-10 primary initiator.

Moreover, a Fultz-Simmons pick-and-roll should create mismatches against switch-heavy schemes, which most teams seem to be leaning into nowadays. Fultz, unlike Redick and Saric, has the offensive juice to burn wings and bigs off the dribble.

Simmons, though, was an underwhelming post scorer as a rookie and might not be ready to mash guards on the block each night. In order to maximize the upside of those pick-and-rolls, he’ll need to expand a post reserve beyond his patented and predictable right-hand hook shots, and show he’s capable of consistently punishing smaller defenders.

To diversify his offensive game, he’ll also need to embrace his size and strength down low, as he had a tendency to be stonewalled, even against traditional guards and wings. Even if Simmons doesn’t become Hakeem Olajuwon in the post, the danger he poses that close to the basket against slimmer, shorter defenders is enough to draw the eyes of multiple defenders.

Of course, not every set should be tailored to meet Simmons’ offensive needs. Philadelphia has a bevy of other weapons at its disposal — some more limited than others — who provide necessary value. With Saric, Redick, and Robert Covington all serving as high-volume three-point shooters, using Simmons as an off-ball screener more often while Fultz or Embiid (or whoever) directs traffic, would be another path to avoiding his aimless wandering, which sometimes cursed offensive possessions.

The comparisons between LeBron and Simmons have existed for nearly half a decade now. After Simmons steamrolled to Rookie of the Year last season, the parallels and expectations only heightened. What sets them apart, aside from a jumper, though, is LeBron’s off-ball utility. He obliterates switches in the post, identifies openings as a cutter and can rumble to the rim as a roll man — all characteristics Simmons should hope to emulate.

An outside shot isn’t likely to come any time soon for Simmons. What does have a chance to surface, especially if Fultz has stolen back his jumper from the Monstars, is other paths to off-ball relevancy as a cutter, screener/roller and improved post player.

With the Celtics and Toronto Raptors poised to jockey for the East’s top spot next season, advancing beyond the second round feels farfetched for the Sixers. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues to growth in regards to long-term title contention.

Ben Simmons was invisible for long stretches against Boston. If the Sixers want any chance of achieving conference supremacy in the near future, that can’t be the norm when matched with elite defensive units. Markelle Fultz vaporizing defenses as a scorer and passer will help, but it won’t be a cure-all. Maximizing the generational talent that stands before them will be a collaborative effort between the team and Simmons himself. Only time will tell if the investment produces results.