The Philadelphia 76ers have one of the most unique talents in the NBA in Ben Simmons, but haven’t always maximized everything he has to offer. As much as Simmons needs to develop his jumper to expand his game and raise the team’s offensive ceiling, the Sixers still need to embrace other parts of his skill-set that come with his rare playmaking and physical gifts.
The Sixers’ game against the Houston Rockets on January 3 was a great example of them tapping into everything Simmons can do. To accompany the impressive plays that were all down to Simmons — the 6 offensive rebounds, emphatic put-backs, and assertive drives to the rim — it may be the most the team has ever implemented him as a screener, roller and off-ball cutter. And, unsurprisingly, it worked.
Except for Jimmy Butler last season, the Sixers have lacked a high-level ball handler to pair with Simmons. Brett Brown's teams have typically ranked at the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll usage, too, again partly due to the personnel he's had. Another reason Simmons hasn’t (and shouldn’t have) been used too much as a roll man in the past is because he hasn’t always set strong enough screens and dived with intent down the lane. That’s been improving this season.
“I think Ben is a really good screen setter,” Brown said at practice on January 5, per Jason Blevins of The Painted Lines. “He’s physical, he embraces that side of it. And he’s a dynamic roller. He’s a lob guy, he’s a catch/go guy, and he can facilitate picking off corners as a passer.”
Simmons showcased this frequently against Houston, starting with the play below. Josh Richardson and Simmons are able to beat the Rockets' aggressive hedging as Simmons' screen sets Austin Rivers behind the play and PJ Tucker switches onto Richardson. At this point there's nothing Rivers can do to prevent Simmons from getting down the lane, which forces Clint Capela to step up and contest. Simmons makes the dump-off pass on time, and Joel Embiid is left in prime position to attack under the rim from the dunker's spot for an and-one:
Swapping Embiid and Simmons in this scenario, rather than the latter being kept in the dunker's spot, creates far better playmaking to complete the timely pass on the roll. Despite Embiid’s improvement as a playmaker this season, accurate passing and quick decision-making on the move isn't his speciality.
The next play shows some good manipulation of the defense from Richardson. He had a season-high 8 assists in this game, and here he effectively attracts Rivers and Simmons' defender, James Harden, after coming off the screen. Harden and Rivers stick with Richardson in the lane and as Simmons slips into the paint. Embiid clears space on the weak-side baseline by shifting to the strong-side and taking Capela with him, and Richardson wisely dribbles back a couple of steps to create more room for a lob to Simmons:
Letting Simmons roll downhill against a shifting defense is a good way to shake up his usage, rather than predictably keeping him in the dunker's spot as often.
The next lob play worked for similar reasons. Harden steps up and hedges to prevent an easy jumper for Richardson, and Capela has to stick with Embiid on the baseline to prevent an opening for a short jumper or cut to the rim. Meanwhile, Simmons is able to glide down the lane for an easy layup:
Swap Embiid for a better shooter on this play and slide them to the corner, and the Sixers have even better spacing to surround Simmons with.
The next play demonstrates this in action. Al Horford is spacing way beyond the arc to pull Isaiah Hartenstein far from the rim, while Furkan Korkmaz and Tobias Harris are set up in the corners. Along with Richardson, this combination of four shooters is the best spacing the Sixers can provide for Simmons. Richardson comes off Simmons’ screen and Harden has to cut off Richardson’s driving lane, which makes it easy to fling up a lob in the wide-open lane for Simmons to throw down a dunk:
In situations like this, with the floor spaced and the opposing rim protector pulled outside, it can be hard for smaller teams to match up and stop Simmons when two guards are left covering the pick-and-roll.
When Simmons and Horford are on the floor without Embiid, the Sixers have a 112.3 offensive rating in 524 minutes. In 355 minutes when all three are together, that number falls to just 101.9 (the offense has been at league-worst level with Horford and Embiid together). We all know Simmons is at his best with extra room to operate. Using him more as a roll man with these four-out lineups is another way to benefit from it.
Brett Brown has also given Simmons and the offense a boost by significantly increasing Simmons’ minutes with Trey Burke over the last two weeks. Letting Simmons operate alongside another ball handler takes some pressure off him to create, and provides more opportunities for him to cut and screen off the ball, and attack the offensive glass at will. He has 10 offensive rebounds in the last two games alone.
Burke comes off a screen from Horford on this play and brings multiple defenders into the paint. Meanwhile, Simmons’ defender, Tucker, leaves his assignment alone on the perimeter and is forced to cover the baseline to prevent a pass to Harris in the corner. In situations like this, with another ball handler to collapse a defense and create gaps for teammates, it’s easier for Simmons to fly inside for cuts:
In the small sample of 80 minutes that Burke and Simmons have shared the floor so far this season, the Sixers have a 119.3 offensive rating and +10.5 net rating. It’s fair to say this level of play is unsustainable and a lot of other factors — including the play of their three teammates — go into these numbers. Nevertheless, it’s an encouraging start, and one that’s understandable when considering how another complementary guard can bring out Simmons’ other strengths.
Of course, Simmons isn’t perfect operating as a roll man. He still isn't an elite finisher in terms of physicality, counters, footwork, or a reliable left hand around the rim. He doesn't consistently embrace contact to get to the free throw line either, although his attempts have started to increase recently. All of those traits would help him improve as a roll man who can relentlessly hurtle to the rim with success. It would also help if the Sixers had a better playmaker to work with Simmons. Even though Richardson, Harris and Burke can all operate as a ball handler alongside Simmons to varying degrees, someone who can make more advanced reads and quicker decisions than these three would be ideal for optimizing Simmons in this role. Ultimately, Philly's weird, massive roster just isn't constructed for maximizing the talent of Simmons (or Embiid).
That said, while Brett Brown deserves credit for increasing Simmons’ usage as a roll man recently and unleashing him against Houston, there's still no doubt that Simmons can do more. Especially in spacious lineups with Horford at center. After working so effectively against Houston, there was hardly much of this action in the Sixers’ next game on Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s been a pretty rare sight overall this season. Using this element of his skill-set more frequently and building chemistry with Richardson (and others) will only help Simmons and the offense develop a little more. Brown needs to ensure performances like the latest Rockets game aren’t blips, while Simmons needs to remain active and opportunistic as a screener and dive to the rim with authority.
“I think it’s been good,” Richardson said when discussing his pick-and-roll play with Simmons at Monday’s practice, per Blevins. “We are starting to figure out ways to use [Simmons’] athleticism. He has a radius around the rim, so when he rolls hard, I can just throw it up there and he can go catch it.”
The blend of athleticism and playmaking that Simmons provides as a screener and roller is something no one else on the team can match. His potential in this area is another thing that separates him from most players in the league. These recent flashes are a reminder of that, and an example of how he could diversify the Sixers' offense with enough opportunities.