For the Philadelphia 76ers, this season has been marred by disappointment. Headed into the season fourth in NBA championship odds, the Sixers are 12-6, 5th in the Eastern Conference standings. So who is the main culprit? Not Tobias Harris, who has recovered from a three-game slump to become his regular self. Not Joel Embiid, who despite laying a goose egg against the Raptors, is averaging his usual MVP-like numbers. Rather, it is Ben Simmons, who is averaging a career-low in points (12.7) and has regressed from last season with a true shooting percentage of 56.0 percent.
After a summer filled with jump-shooting videos on Instagram and press conference promises, Ben Simmons was supposed to start firing jump shots. Don’t let his first NBA 3-pointer fool you: he’s taken just four shots from 15 feet and out, compared to 85 combined through his first two seasons. However, the most disappointing part is a decline in a skill he’s always had: ball-handling.
I’d be remiss to say his ball-handling and shooting woes don’t go hand-in-hand; they do. The simple answer to his ball-handling problem, of course, is adding a jump shot. There’s no need to expand upon this topic, though, as Liberty Ballers’ Jackson Frank concluded in an article published in late July: his “actualized ceiling does not involve any sort of credible jumper.”
I agree with the sentiment, but for the first two seasons of his career that didn’t matter so much. After averaging 15.8 points on 55.7 percent true shooting, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.2 assists as a rookie, he averaged 16.9 points on 58.2 percent true shooting, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.7 assists. His elite point-guard skills — specifically his passing ability — compensated for his porous shooting. The problem is that’s not the case anymore. He’s lost some of his point guard luster.
Simmons is still defended the same. On-ball defenders sag off him, while help-side packs the paint. The strategy is not going to change. What can change, however, is how Simmons goes about negating the strategy. Rather than killing his dribble between the 3-point line and elbow area, Simmons needs to keep his dribble alive. If he did so, he’d create open shots for teammates. Instead, he forces passes out to contested teammates:
The statistics reflect his tendency to defer. In his first three seasons, Simmons’ drives per game decreased from 14.6 to 9.9 to 9.0, while his pass rate increased from 37.7% to 42.3% to 59.9%. His drives-to-pass rate ratio represents the disproportionate proportion at which he passes out of drives.
There are statistics, of course, that paint Simmons in a brighter light. He’s averaging 8.1 assists per game, tied for fourth in the NBA.
He’s getting rid of the ball quicker. He averages 4.19 seconds per touch this season compared to 4.4 last season and 4.45 the season before. He likes to push the ball in transition, but he also makes assists within the flow of the offense. Whether it’s to spark a hand-off or a flare screen, to find an above-the-break shooter, to snuff out a mismatch in the post, his unselfishness is on full display:
He has the potential to be an even better passer. Instead of side-stepping defenders, he needs to drive in a straight line. Given all his intangibles — 6-foot-10 and over 220 pounds, with blazing speed and ox-like strength — Simmons boasts a mismatch one way or the other.
He lacks the requisite tight handle to operate through traffic. As soon as help-side stunts, Simmons kicks the ball out:
Larger forwards and centers — Aaron Gordon, Marcus Morris, Dario Saric, and Pascal Siakam, and even more so Aron Baynes and Bam Adebayo — overpower Simmons.
Absorbing contact would also help improve his career-low 32.2% free-throw rate. To be considered elite, one must be able to draw fouls. But most of the elite can also hit free throws. Simmons shoots 58.3 percent from the line, which is likely why he avoids contact. While that makes sense, Simmons should lean towards maximizing his strengths, not minimizing his weaknesses.
His biggest strength, as mentioned, is passing. Probe deeper into the lane, and Simmons vacuums in help-side defenders, creating shots for 3-point shooters. More drives like this, please:
His second-biggest strength is his finishing ability. His 69.4 percent shooting in the restricted area ranks seventh in the NBA. Like his passing, rarely does Simmons maximize his finishing ability.
On drives, he’s finishing 22.4% of possessions, almost half of last season’s 41.9% and 52.7% his rookie season. Drives see him pick up his dribble from outside the lane, coercing him into an awkwardly long step into the lane. From there, he extends into a horizontal position, then, for whatever reason, he favors a right-handed layup off his right foot:
Simmons’ half-court game is in danger. If not for his usual transition scoring prowess — he had scored 73 points on 34-of-50 shooting in transition entering Wednesday night — his offensive numbers would be even lower than what they are. He’s averaging a career-low in points per touch, which dropped from 0.194 to 0.144. Part of that is a slightly skewed shot profile. He’s taking less mid-range shots, layups and dunks and more post fadeaways — 38.9% of his shots have come within 3-10 feet, compared to 32.6% last season and 32.5% the season before. It’s not working out, though: he’s shooting a career-low 29.3 percent on such shots. Exchange post fadeaway’s for strong driving finishes and his scoring efficiency rises. When he collects himself near the rim and explodes vertically, he is a nigh-unstoppable force:
His scoring efficiency has dropped from being really bad (28th-worst) to disastrously bad (seventh-worst) given medium volume standards (40 or more possessions). That Simmons hovers around 88 possessions per game in either season raises an important question: should he take on a different role in the offense?
This season, Simmons has already undergone a major change within the offense. He’s gone from being plopped in the dunker’s spot to being moved around as an on-and-off-ball screener. In a starting lineup of Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, Joel Embiid, and Al Horford, Simmons has the lowest usage (18.9%).
In Philadelphia’s horns-based offense, Simmons initiates the offense with a swing pass or an elbow pass, then either sets an away screen, runs a hand-off, or, most of all, sets a down-screen for Embiid.
Somehow or another, however, Simmons needs the ball in his hands more. When Simmons has been used in post-ups — the Sixers implemented a “duck-in” wrinkle last season — for 3.5 possessions per game, he shoots a measly 35.3 percent. Instead of right-hook prayers, Simmons often can shake-and-bake past his defender facing-up from the short-corner.
There needs to be more spacing for the Sixers, which is especially helpful to Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ future, of course, depends on the rapport between Embiid and Simmons. Despite contrary belief, Simmons does not need to be separated with Embiid to be maximized. That the duo has a plus-21 net rating when both of them are on the court versus a plus-1.7 with one off provides merit. Simmons can be elite at attacking space, but if he doesn’t do so, then he becomes a non-factor. When Embiid is double-teamed, Simmons needs to be aggressive.
“I think if you’re looking at the spacing and the running to the corners or to the dunker,” Brett Brown said after the Kings game. “I think they’re available shots that perhaps he should look at more. I think his ability to catch and attack is elite and so I see space. In general, I want him to shoot more.”
Surrounding their two stars with the right role players is also important. Staggering Simmons and dispersing one of (or sometimes both) Harris and Richardson — both capable secondary creators — in bench lineups has worked. After the starting lineup, their next two most common lineups sub in Korkmaz and Ennis III for Harris and Richardson. More importantly, those are their two highest-scoring lineups. Since the starting lineup offense pales in comparison to last season’s — a 110 offensive rating versus last season’s 121.5 — spreading out the starters will pay dividends.
Though there is work to be done, the Sixers are at least trying to do their part. Now is the time for Simmons to do his. That means, in the interim, doing what he can to improve his ball-handling. On the other side, he’s All-Defensive worthy, having added on-ball tenacity to his already staunch off-ball awareness. If he can improve as a ball-handler, he will enter superstar territory, even absent a jump shot.
(Editor’s Note: Some of the advanced statistics in this piece are correct prior to Wednesday night’s Sixers-Kings game.)