Last season I wrote a series of articles looking at how a few members of the Philadelphia 76ers could improved based on the struggles they experienced in the NBA playoffs. Here is the first episode of the 2018-19 series.
Ben Simmons is one of the most divisive players in the NBA. Some laud his exceptional passing ability, athleticism and rare defensive versatility, while others have never been able to look past the main thing he lacks: a jump shot.
Concerns over Simmons’ jumper are more than fair when projecting his future upside. For a team that lacks a wealth of shooting and has accelerated championship aspirations after star hunting for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, there’s impatience for Simmons to correct his biggest flaw. And without any range, there’s no denying there’s a cap on his ceiling and how effective he can be in the playoffs moving forward.
But for this series, I’m not going to reiterate the obvious point that a jumper would be a huge help to Simmons and the Sixers. Instead, here’s a look at a variety of other ways he can improve. Because for all the attention his jump shot gets, developing a range of other weaknesses in his game could help him take a big step forward as well.
Simmons is highly efficient at the basket. He shot 70.1 percent at the rim this season and 73.3 percent as a rookie. There are plenty of occasions where he soars to the basket with ease, finishing over smaller opponents or bursting past slower bigs.
Nevertheless, his touch and control with floaters and more complex finishes — even simple ones at times — can leave far more to be desired.
Beyond misses like this, Simmons’ dependence on his right hand around the basket holds him back. It also continues to demonstrate how he’d likely be better off making the switch to shooting jumpers right handed, given his far higher level of comfort and touch with his right hand.
Last year I monitored how he shot with each hand in the playoffs (excluding two-handed attempts, he shot 9/31 with his left hand and 38/83 with his right). This postseason, there was an even larger disparity, as his jumpers decreased and his left-hand attempts fell as a result. Excluding two-handed attempts, his shooting with each hand emphasizes how dominant his right hand is with all shots in the paint:
- Left hand: 5/11 (45.4 percent)
- Right hand: 52/88 (59 percent)
Plays like the following demonstrate how Simmons goes out of his way to use his right hand. You can see in the first clip how he fails to recognize Marc Gasol arriving to help and unnecessarily uses his right, sending him straight into a good contest before badly missing the put-back. In the second play he could have risen for a two-handed dunk or finished with his left while shielding the ball with his body, rather than going for a right-handed reverse into the arms of Gasol and Danny Green:
Simmons softening his touch around the rim would take him up a level as long as he isn’t a threat from distance. Being able to go to his left more often would also aid his post game, especially as he basically always goes right with his go-to move: the jump hook. And if he can go one step farther and add another small trick to his arsenal, a reliable floater, he’ll have another counter to finish over smaller defenders or opponents who are dropping off him.
This is where Simmons bringing more physicality and off-ball activity can help his development and the Sixers’ offense, which should be using Butler (providing he re-signs) as a lead ball handler more next season after his success in the playoffs. Butler took over for TJ McConnell as the backup point guard and often served as the Sixers’ lead guard against Toronto, consequently lowering Simmons’ usage percentage to just 16.6 (down from 22.1 in the regular season and 22.1 in last year’s playoffs).
Simmons has improved in this area from a year ago, and there were flashes of how successful he can be. When he’s engaged, surveying the court, and instinctively setting screens or going to work in designed plays that utilize him, Simmons can easily free up teammates with his screens. His dribble hand-offs for JJ Redick can also work like a charm when his defender is sagging off.
Brett Brown has to ensure Simmons is used like he is in the following sets more often. This action was used a couple of times in Game 1 against Toronto, creating a dunk and a corner 3. As Butler and Embiid run a dribble hand-off (Embiid just keeps the ball in the first play), Simmons sets a weak-side flare screen to open up Redick in the corner. Simmons is able to nip behind the shifting defense on the first play for a dunk, while Redick doesn’t hesitate to shoot on the second play after Simmons’ screen stops Kyle Lowry:
Simmons needs to become more opportunistic when it comes to off-ball screening, too. While Brown can be held accountable for some of the time Simmons spends camping in the dunker’s spot, some blame for stretches of inactivity has to fall on Simmons as well.
If Simmons acts early enough here, as Butler draws Leonard and Gasol, he could have set a weak-side flare screen on Lowry for Redick to shift into space on the wing for either Butler or Embiid to find. Instead, as Embiid winds up driving past Gasol, Serge Ibaka is able to help as Simmons is hanging under the basket:
Then there are possessions like this. Simmons knows that Redick is curling around to the wing to receive a pass from Butler. But rather than passing to Butler and setting a pin-down screen for Redick, which would give him more time to get a clear shot off, Simmons drifts into the paint and Treveon Graham is able to close out on Redick:
Obviously, Simmons posing any threat as a shooter is the best way for him to clear out and create space for others inside. But until that’s possible, frequently finding screening opportunities for shooters is key. Everything comes down to consistent activity, which stems from both Brett’s creativity and Simmons’ energy.
And when Simmons does screen, always seeking out contact — in both free-flowing off-ball scenarios and designed sets — is something he needs to fully embrace. At 6’10” and 230 pounds, he has the size to wipe opponents out of plays, but can lack the physicality to do so at times, leading to missed chances for shooters to get open.
To follow on from all of this, there’s also his pick-and-roll play...
Rim rolling and cutting
Simmons’ screen-setting is one of the reasons he shouldn’t be viewed as a center for more than short bursts (for now, at least). He rarely plays like the hard-screening, rim-running hub of an offense. That’s not who he is.
This doesn’t mean he can’t improve to make it a more prominent part of his game, though.
Simmons spent more time than ever off the ball in this year’s playoffs. He set to work in this role with some encouraging moments against Brooklyn in round one, before Butler spent more time leading the way against Toronto and Kawhi Leonard.
There were possessions that showed how Simmons can be effective in this role. When he’s setting a solid ball screen, rolling down the lane without hesitation, and making plays for others or looking to finish, it opens up new value in his game:
That said, there are times when Simmons’ screens don’t connect, or he drifts to the perimeter or dunker’s spot rather than rolling downhill with purpose.
As Simmons picked up his dribble here (which he can do too early sometimes) and turns to Embiid for a hand-off, the Sixers could have essentially shifted into a 5-1 pick-and-roll. Once Embiid got past Ibaka thanks to Simmons’ screen, Simmons only needed to cut towards the basket to make himself open for an easy finish:
Embiid had Butler open in the corner and wound up committing a travel anyway, yet Simmons staying put would have served no purpose for the offense, taking away a perfect option to help out Embiid. When Simmons is used in pick-and-rolls as the screener, which should happen more next season, he needs to stay in attack mode: set a hard screen and dive to the rim.
As impressive as Simmons' playmaking is with his vision, creativity and pin-point accuracy to hit shooters exactly where they need the ball, there's room for refinement. Primarily, it comes down to reducing turnovers by cutting out some careless and forced passes.
Synergy stats can be misleading when it comes to transition play. Simmons only ranked in the 18th percentile in the regular season (and the 23rd in the playoffs) because that number includes his scoring and turnovers, but not his assists. When you do include his assists, he jumps to the 82nd percentile. That’s the transition terror Ben Simmons we know.
That said, his turnover rate is still high, with turnovers coming on 23.6 percent of his transition possessions in the regular season and 24.4 percent in the playoffs.
While Simmons can spot passing lanes that others can’t, he can have a tendency to force plays when there’s no window to make it work:
The same problem can also appear in his half-court play. He already has to navigate defenders that are able to sag off him, so if he doesn’t react quickly enough to rotations, the result can be some forced, careless passers to cutters that never stood a chance:
For a passer with so much talent, decision-making and composure should only improve with time for the 22-year-old.
Simmons is far more dynamic and crafty with the ball than most players his size, but that doesn’t mean he can’t tighten up his handle. At times his dribble can be a little too high or carefree. In situations where Kawhi Leonard is waiting to pounce, Simmons needs to know how securely he has to protect the ball to avoid sacrificing possessions this quickly:
Ensuring he doesn’t stick with predetermined moves is another way to help. Here he’s clearly intent on using a spin move to his right, but needs to recognize the risk of such a move when Caris LeVert is in perfect position to disrupt any drive down the lane:
Sometimes Simmons will drive straight at his man, hoping superior explosiveness and size will do most of the work for him. And in his defense, there are plenty of times it does. But if he can tighten his handle, add more creative dribble moves, and be more secure with the ball when venturing into traffic, it’s another way to help out his half-court offense.
Aggressiveness and attacking switches
Ben Simmons in attack mode is a different player. When he's assertively sealing off his man for duck-ins, barreling his way down the lane on drives and flying in for offensive rebounds, he puts pressure on the defense in a totally different way.
There were times he demonstrated what he can do when he puts his mind to it. From bullying his way past Danny Green or Pascal Siakam to a couple of impressive drives on Kawhi in Game 6, Simmons has it in him to score more when he wants to. He can be that hard to match up with physically.
The problem is that wasn’t always the case. There were multiple games where he wasn’t engaged as the active screener and cutter he needs to be off the ball, and he’d be uninterested in attacking mismatches.
For example, take the three plays in the following clip. Even though Kyle Lowry has rock-solid strength in the post and pesky hands, Simmons has opportunities to use crossmatches in transition to drive, or take him into the post and either try to finish or, at the very least, attract a second defender to make an extra pass to an open shooter:
Simmons deserves a lot of credit for the games he did attack in. He completely turned himself around against Brooklyn after a nonexistent offensive showing in Game 1, averaging 19.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 68.1 percent shooting over the last four games.
After some outings against Toronto where he again felt nonexistent on offense, including a rough Game 5, he closed the second round with two strong performances. He delivered one of the best nights of his career in Game 6, providing 21 points on 9/13 shooting, eight rebounds, six assists to zero turnovers, and excellent defense.
Simmons showed growth from last year’s Eastern Conference Semi Finals with games like this, his increased efficiency (a 52.1 True Shooting Percentage vs Boston compared to 60.1 percent vs Toronto), brilliant defense, and moments as a screener and roller.
Consistency is the key.
Of course, it's easier when you aren't facing a smothering Raptors defense. That's where all of these developments come into play. As much as Simmons can improve from adjusting his mindset at times, he has work to do in multiple areas of the game to give him more counters against playoff defenses.
This is where Brett Brown will step in, too. If Butler and Harris re-sign, Brown will have a full offseason to build chemistry among his stars and work to better integrate Simmons off the ball.
It’s time for Simmons to show some growth with his jumper — whether it’s another uptick in free throw percentage, a smoother floater, an increased mid-range game or more 3-point attempts. Hopefully for the Sixers, it will be a mixture of everything.
But whatever happens with his jumper this offseason, thinking it’s the only way for him to make a leap would be overlooking all other aspects of his game. If Simmons can emerge next season as a more polished player in these areas, and provide consistent All-Defensive caliber play, he’s significantly better even if the jumpers aren’t falling just yet.