The impending showdown between Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons has been fleshed out by my pal Matthew del Rio and further analyzed among Philadelphia 76ers fans and writers. Kawhi was a serious thorn in the side of Simmons this season, forcing nine turnovers and holding him to 7-of-15 shooting in their three matchups. I’ll try not to go into great detail about what Kawhi’s done to limit Simmons, as Matthew knocked that stuff out of the park with his piece.
Anyhow, the Sixers need their star point guard to play like one if they have any chance of defeating the Toronto Raptors. It seems like a simple-minded breakdown but when push comes to shove, the Sixers, which are at a matchup disadvantage at most positions against Toronto, need their best players to perform like it. Their talent level in the starting five outweighs Toronto’s and that must hold true throughout the series. There are obviously deeper intricacies than that but Simmons cannot have another playoff collapse like last season against the Boston Celtics. If that happens, Philadelphia is cooked. No way around it.
Despite 6-foot-8 Kawhi ceding two inches to the 6-foot-10 Simmons, Kawhi is one of the strongest wings in the league. He’s like if a bull played basketball. Few players can push him around. Simmons won’t be able to out-muscle his counterpart for buckets in the post or when going downhill, something he does against other smaller defenders. Kawhi can neutralize most of Simmons’ advantages as a lead ball-handler. So, to ensure Simmons remains an effective player, the Sixers should slide Jimmy Butler — maybe even Tobias Harris in spurts — into primary ball-handling duties in the halfcourt.
Brett Brown deployed Simmons as a big man more often in Game 3 and it worked wonders — 31 points, nine assists and four rebounds, to be exact. Granted, that came while Joel Embiid was sidelined, though Simmons still shared the court with traditional bigs like Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe for stretches. Of course, Embiid wields a much higher usage rate than those two but the point remains that such a strategy has proven effective without a stretch 5 next to Simmons. He won’t rattle off 31 points with Embiid in the lineup but he can still be effective in that role on a smaller scale.
If the Raptors are switching ball screens and Simmons is setting picks for Butler, who will likely have a smaller wing or guard on him, the Australian can steamroll to the rim. Nonetheless, Simmons must be more physical and willing to embrace contact in the paint if he’s going to thrive as a roller. We saw shades of this in round 1, as he attacked the chest of bigs more often when finishing at the cup. Or, if he so chooses, he can enact the switch, seal off his new assignment down low and operate as a post scorer and creator.
An added bonus to this tactic could be wearing down two of Toronto’s most active off-ball players in Danny Green and Kyle Lowry. If those two are regularly tasked with containing Simmons in the post, it might lessen their offensive motor and penchant for zooming around off the ball, hunting open jumpers.
Expecting Embiid to stand and watch from the corners/wings on a consistent basis isn’t realistic, though. Involving him and Simmons on some big-and-big actions could maximize their talents together. There were glimpses of Simmons functioning like a big while connecting with other tall fellas against the Brooklyn Nets:
Admittedly, the Raptors (fifth in defensive rating in the regular season) sport better defenders than Brooklyn (15th) virtually across the board. The plays above aren’t ones that project to flummox Toronto all series but they exemplify ways to involve Simmons and Embiid together in half-court sets where Simmons serves as a big man. And if Embiid shows a knack for cutting from the perimeter during Simmons’ post-ups, his man will begin to press up and eliminate the presence of a help defender inside — a plus for Simmons.
If Simmons is going to play the 4 with Butler (or Harris) manning the point, the Sixers must properly space the floor. While this seems like a rather obvious assertion, there have been plenty of possessions this season where guys meander to the block or the dunker’s spot when they should be camping out on the wing. Simmons is likely to share the court with another non-stretch big most of the time, so those who can bomb from deep have to draw defenders away from the paint and allow for Simmons to thrive as a big. No loafing around the key and clogging the paint. Philadelphia has enough floor-spacing issues as is. It can’t encounter more as the result of guys losing focus.
All of these suggestions aren’t meant to completely take the ball out of Simmons’ hands. There should be opportunities for him to control the action, particularly in transition or during non-Kawhi minutes. Amending a player’s entire usage, no matter how ideal it seems in theory, is a prime way to shake him out of rhythm. Simmons has grown more comfortable leaning into his big man traits this season but he’s still at his best conducting the orchestra. Don’t strip him of all those responsibilities at once.
On paper, the Sixers are up against a significant challenge. Toronto boasts high-level star power and is stocked with quality role players. If Philadelphia wants to pull out four wins, a litany of schematic tweaks must occur. Brett Brown will have coached his tail off if he leads his squad to a series victory. One of those alterations is finding ways to maximize Simmons and ensure Kawhi doesn’t neutralize him. Utilizing him as a 6-foot-10 big man in the half court and jet-powered engine in transition could be the proper buttons to push.
Simmons has dominated the first round in both seasons of his brief NBA career. Last year, the second round was a drastically different story. To reach the Eastern Conference Finals, the Sixers need him to play to his ceiling. But they have to help him do that. Tapping into his versatility is imperative. Stubborn game-planning won’t work.