When I think of NBA legends, I think of Wilt Chamberlain. The stories about him (here are just a few, which I would encourage everyone to read) are truly incredible. He also holds countless NBA records. If you ask my dad, he will tell you Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest basketball player to ever live. But I, like most people, can’t say if Wilt is the GOAT, because I’ve never actually seen him play. Most of what we know about Wilt, other than his absurd stats, comes from unverified stories passed down through word of mouth.
Oddly enough, despite living in a time when every game is available to watch for free on the internet (RIP r/nbaStreams), the dialogue around Ben Simmons is also full of tall tales. People make hyperbolic claims about him, both positive and negative, that make me question if we’re watching the same player.
Regardless of how you feel about Ben Simmons’ basketball ability, your opinion is probably very polar and one you hold very strongly. In the debates surrounding Simmons, the people who think he sucks are always 100% sure he sucks, and the people who think he’s great are always 100% sure he’s great. This baffles me, because if there’s ever been a Sixer whose play I’ve had mixed feelings about, it’s Benjamin David Simmons.
To set the record straight about who Ben Simmons really is, let’s go through some of these Ben Simmons myths and categorize them as either confirmed, busted, or plausible.
Ben Simmons is a center
This one comes courtesy of Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer. It’s an idea that almost anyone who has watched the Sixers regularly would disagree with, myself included. The Sixers have experimented with Ben Simmons at the small ball five. In his limited time defending bigs last season, he lacked the physicality and size to hang with opposing centers, and the team missed his perimeter defense. Essentially, moving Simmons inside took him from a positive to a negative defensively.
We’ve actually heard similar falsities before. Per Jeff Smith of Sixers Wire, Jimmy Butler said back in December that Simmons “can literally switch one through five.” He literally can’t. Someday, Ben Simmons could very well become a player capable of guarding fives. He certainly has the size and athleticism to hang with smaller centers. But he is not and likely will never be maximized as a center, which is good for the Sixers because every other player on the roster is a center.
Ben Simmons is unlikable
Some people just love to hate Ben Simmons, and it’s completely unwarranted. He shit-talked Free-Jah advocate Jared Dudley and then hung 31 points on his head. He dated Kendall Jenner. The entire state of Utah dislikes him. These are all inherently cool things for which people somehow criticize him.
Yes, it bothered me when Simmons lashed out at fans for booing the team when they played like garbage in the first game of the 2019 NBA playoffs, but that doesn’t make him unlikable. He apologized, and things moved on. Simmons, by all indications, is a quiet, focused basketball player who gets along well with teammates. If you interpret that as anything else, then that's on you.
Ben Simmons is an elite defender
This past season was, at times, a frustrating one for Ben Simmons. He has All-Defensive talent, but there are some games he seems to lack the edge to maximize his potential on that end. The 2019 NBA Playoffs were not an example of this issue. Simmons made D’Angelo Russell look like a genuinely bad basketball player, holding him to 97 points on 103 shots in five games.
In the next series, asked to stick with Kawhi Leonard during the hottest stretch of his future Hall of Fame career, Simmons was not dissuaded by Leonard’s high scoring clip. He continued to make him work hard and tired him out after three games, forcing other players to step up and nearly helping the Sixers to an upset series win.
Simmons’ ability to guard four positions very well, block shots from the perimeter, and quickly close gaps of open space makes him extremely valuable as a defender. He didn’t do quite enough to earn a spot on an All-Defense team last season, but with a bit more consistency, there’s no reason he can’t grab one in 2020.
Simmons isn’t worth a max contract
If Ben Simmons doesn’t improve over the course of this contract, he won’t be worth his cap hit in the deal’s final years. You sign him with the hope and expectation he will get better. But there are a lot of reasons this situation is different than the Timberwolves handing Andrew Wiggins a max and nicely asking him to try harder.
Ben Simmons is already a pillar on a championship contender. He’s consistently a net positive on both ends of the floor. If he never gets any better (improbable, but not impossible), he still brings value on the court. At 23, he is absolutely a worthwhile investment to be a long-term building block of the franchise.
Max contracts are weird. The max often causes elite players and very good players (and sometimes less than very good players) to get paid the same thing, so debating who’s worthy of one can be tricky (and extremely context-dependent). But of all the players to receive max contracts this summer, Ben Simmons is very far from the least deserving.
Ben Simmons actually can shoot
Someone tweeted a thread of Ben Simmons making jump shots and said that it was proof he can shoot. Ben Simmons can’t shoot. When someone says an NBA player “can’t” do something, it’s not that he’s physically incapable of ever performing that action. No one denies that Ben Simmons has shot the ball, or that the ball has occasionally gone in when he shot it. Even the worst player you play pick up with can make shots sometimes.
But Ben Simmons is an abysmal shooter. For his career, he’s shooting under 60 percent from the foul line. He’s shooting under 30 percent outside of ten feet. He has never made a 3. It’s his biggest weakness and everyone knows it.
Here is a recently released video of Ben Simmons putting up some shots this summer:
People are going to get very excited about a cherrypicked clip of three made jump shots. The form is slightly improved (he’s no longer shooting on the way down), but overall it’s still dreadful, and we can’t even tell if it’s consistent. I hate to be that guy who tells people not to get excited about something, but Simmons’ form looking like this after a summer of work is definitely a disappointment to me.
Ben Simmons should switch shooting hands
This theory has been pushed by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer for a while, and there’s a lot of evidence to say he’s right. Simmons finishes well at the basket with his right hand and shoots awkward jumpers lefty. He would benefit from massively altering his shot, but it’s not something he seems to have any interest in doing.
Liberty Ballers’ own Jackson Frank says that unless Ben is willing to switch shooting hands or completely change his mechanics (to make them correct), his work on his shot isn’t really doing much good. Repetition with bad form is just further instilling bad form.
Clearly, Ben has not overhauled his shot. There’s still sidespin on the ball, which is not a recipe for shooting success. If he won’t do what’s necessary to fix his broken shot, he would do more good by working on the rest of his game. Tom West wrote a great article after the playoffs of non-shooting improvements Simmons can make.
The Sixers need Ben Simmons to improve as a shooter
This is a commonly held belief, but I’ve also seen the counter-argument made: Ben Simmons doesn’t need to shoot. Ben Detrick of The Ringer (The Ringer has a lot of Ben Simmons opinions) says it all the time on Twitter. In a lot of ways, his argument makes sense; Simmons is already an effective player who can score at the rim, pass, dribble, and defend well. But for Simmons to make the most of the role he plays in Philly, he’s going to need to shoot. A working shot would allow him to spread the floor for others and maximize his own usefulness with the ball.
Last season, Ben Simmons led the Sixers in both touches (87.1) and time of possession (6.4 minutes) per game. Among all NBA players, he was fifth and tenth in these respective categories.
This becomes an issue when you consider how a lot of his time with the ball is used. He’s a very good passer and ball handler, so he does (and should) bring the ball down the floor. This means he’s already starting possessions on the perimeter, where he’s not an active threat to score without a shot. He’s often slow about getting the ball over half court, which is a terrible waste of time against good defenses. By the time he makes an initial pass to start the offense, he doesn’t always have that much time left on the clock to get to a spot where he’s comfortable scoring, and even then his moves inside are limited.
Sometimes this doesn’t matter. He’s a good player who’s going to beat up on bad players. But against a good defensive team like the Raptors, it very obviously held him back. In Game 7 against Toronto, for example, he had five assists, five turnovers, and only five field goal attempts in 42 minutes. It wasn’t even that bad of a game, but it’s easy to see him having a lot more impact than that. If Ben Simmons is going to control the ball as much as he does, and if the Sixers are going to reach their full potential, Simmons has to become a respectable shooter.
The Sixers should trade Joel Embiid and build around Simmons
Colin Cowherd said this on his television show. Colin Cowherd knows pretty much nothing about basketball. He’d never even heard of Bam Adebayo when his name came up in Jimmy Butler trade talks last season.
If that isn’t enough evidence to refute his thoughts, then there’s this: Joel Embiid was a plus-90 in 237 minutes versus Toronto. In the same series, in the same number of minutes, Ben Simmons was a minus-16. This isn’t so much a knock on Simmons as it is an indication of how great Embiid is. He will not and should not be traded. Simmons is a very good player, but the idea of getting rid of Embiid to create the perfect fit around Simmons is insane.
Ben Simmons struggles in the playoffs
This is kind of tricky. A quick look at last postseason tells a different story on each side of the ball. As was discussed earlier, his defense went from good to great in the playoffs. But his offense definitely took a hit.
His usage rate fell from 22.1 in the regular season to 16.6 in the playoffs as Jimmy Butler started to take over, and his points and assists per 100 possessions dropped a bit accordingly. But that’s not the end of the world.
The issue comes when looking at Simmons’ inability to consistently be a factor on offense. He had ten or fewer points in four of the seven games against Toronto. He didn’t have more than seven assists in any game that series despite his career regular season average of 7.9 per game. He has some glaring weaknesses that get taken advantage of by good teams.
Simmons doesn’t really do anything as a PnR roll man, so most of his off-ball threat to a defense comes from his special knack for cutting to the basket. Unfortunately, against good defenses that make fewer mistakes, that’s not going to amount to as many opportunities. Luckily, now that Butler has retired and moved to Florida, Simmons should be used in a capacity that suits him better offensively going forward.
Ultimately, I’m not sure whether or not Ben Simmons can be a major factor on offense throughout next year’s playoffs. I know his defense will be there, but he has to be great on both ends for the Sixers to reach their full potential.
When it comes to Ben Simmons, I find myself in the middle of the argument, which is very strange to me, because I don’t think I've ever taken the middle ground on any other debate in my life.
I can’t understand how Simmons haters don’t see all the things he’s good at — they’re not “the little things,” they’re very obvious things. And I can’t understand how most Sixers fans can’t see that his limitations (not just shooting, but also physicality and decision making) are things that good teams have been able to take advantage of thus far in his young career.
When I watch Ben Simmons, I don’t see a player anywhere near as amazing or as terrible as most people would make him out to be. Simmons is a very good basketball player who looks like he could one day be great. We shouldn’t have to act like he’s currently a star to appreciate him.