Ben Simmons was better than ever in 2019-20. Even though he didn’t take a step forward with his jumper, he upped his efficiency (with a career-high 60.2 True Shooting Percentage), improved his driving and free throw rate as the season progressed, and became a truly elite defender. He made the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team as a result, and he’s looking to build on that next season.
Now that the Sixers have added shooters like Danny Green and Seth Curry, led by a quality new coaching staff to implement some stylistic changes, they’re ready to help Simmons embrace a few valuable changes moving forward.
Pushing the pace
There’s no doubt that new head coach Doc Rivers sees Simmons as his point guard. “Ben is clearly our facilitator, and Ben is special, man,” Rivers said after the Sixers’ practice at training camp on Monday. He made it clear that Simmons will be controlling the ball, as you’d expect. Rivers has stressed on multiple occasions that he wants to increase the Sixers’ pace. Getting Simmons going in transition will be a point of emphasis.
When Rivers was asked what kind of offensive role he envisions for Simmons, he had a simple answer. “Just being a terror. Playing, going downhill, making guys guard you, being aggressive, being a facilitator. In transition, we want to open the floor and get the ball to Ben and tell him to go make something happen.”
Rivers described Simmons’ performance in Monday’s practice as “off the charts”.
“When Ben has the ball, he’s very effective in open space. I think we all know that, right? When Ben doesn’t have the ball, we have to make someone guard him every single time. That means his cuts, his flashes, his setting picks. He was so active doing that today, it was amazing. Today, Joel [Embiid] had four or five post-ups where Ben got a dunk, or someone got a three. Because we have to work against traps on Joel every day. So Ben’s going to have a fun year this year.”
Having efficient shooters like Green and Curry (and rookie Isaiah Joe when he gets some run) who won’t hesitate to fire from deep when Simmons collapses defenses on fast breaks and kicks the ball out is just what Simmons needs to excel. Joel Embiid can play a part in a revamped transition attack as well.
Rivers, Simmons and Justin Anderson all mentioned at Monday’s practice that Embiid was keeping up well with the team’s increased tempo, running the floor, and matching Simmons’ pace.
“I encouraged everybody to get down the floor, especially Jo,” Simmons said following Monday’s session. “He’s been running the floor. Even if he doesn’t get it, when he’s the first one down there he’s getting somebody else open. So that kind of basketball leads to easy buckets and that’s something we’re big on this year.”
To start camp, Rivers has been happy with where Embiid is at fitness wise. There aren’t many breaks in Rivers’ practices, and he said that the team practiced for well over two hours on Sunday and Embiid took very few breaks, which was a good sign for the coach. If Embiid can stay in fine shape, maintain consistent intensity, and play his part in the team upping its tempo — giving opponents another headache in transition as he runs with Simmons to put pressure on the rim — it will make a real difference.
In addition to an increase in pace, Rivers has guaranteed the Sixers will run more pick-and-roll next season, including more pick-and-rolls with Simmons and Embiid. The Sixers typically ranked around the bottom of the NBA in pick-and-roll usage during Brett Brown’s tenure as head coach, so this will be one of the biggest stylistic transformations for the team’s offense as they move forward with Rivers.
Simmons being a part of this is ideal. Serving as the pick-and-roll ball-handler only accounted for 15 percent of his possessions last season. He was underused as a pick-and-roll roll man as well, recording just 35 such possessions. Even still, Simmons was at least used slightly more as a roller as the season progressed, and demonstrated more assertiveness as a roller and stronger screen setting. With increased usage, more shooters to space the floor around him, and another ball-handler and elite shooter in Seth Curry to work with when he’s operating as a roll man, Simmons should continue to develop in this area.
Simmons himself said that he’s looking forward to using more pick-and-roll when he spoke to media last Friday (December 4).
“Pick-and-roll, I can’t wait to get into that,” Simmons said. “I haven’t been able to run pick-and-roll since I’ve been with the Sixers, so that’s also a huge part of the game. So just developing that and working with Jo on pick-and-roll, I think it’s gonna be nice.”
Outside of Simmons and Embiid’s handful of snug pick-and-rolls (which can be effective when Embiid’s screen connects and Simmons is already so near the basket), they’ve hardly ran many pick-and-rolls together. Sure, Simmons’ lack of shooting presents a concern when he’s the ball-handler in a typical pick-and-roll farther from the basket. It’s far easier for defenders to go under the screen. But there are ways it can work — whether Embiid’s screen clears a lane for Simmons to build speed and drive, defenses send help on Simmons’ drive and he kicks to a shooter, or they force a favorable switch for either player. And again, if Simmons is working as a roller and short-roll passer as well, then there’s more potential to tap into.
Simmons even touched on Dwight Howard’s ability as a rim roller at Monday’s practice.
“He [Howard] can run and jump. If I’m getting to the rim, whether it’s a quick pick or a step-up in transition, I know he can go get a lob,” Simmons said. “But him rolling hard to the rim is also going to draw the defenders down, so I’ll also have that weak-side option. It could be Tyrese (Maxey), it could be (Matisse Thybulle), it could be Seth (Curry) or Danny (Green). Anybody could be on the opposite side, so it’s tough to guard.”
Two-man game with Embiid
While we know extra pick-and-roll will be in store, we’ll have to wait and see exactly how Rivers uses Simmons and Embiid together. The Sixers’ head coach was clearly excited by the play of his two young stars at Monday’s practice, and said that he wants them to start growing their two-man game.
“One thing I think we’re really trying to get them to do is to play more two-man games with each other,” Rivers added when talking about how Simmons and Embiid can play together. “They had a great one today that was just a distinctive action, that Dave Joerger and I were laughing, like, ‘You’re not stopping that.’ But they have to do it instinctively more than us always having to call it. And, if they can do that, they’re going to be tough to stop.”
The help of a new coaching staff
Rivers isn’t the only member of the Sixers’ coaching staff who’s working on Simmons’ offensive game. Rivers has had high praise for assistant coach Dave Joerger’s offensive background, and wants the players to hear just as much from Joerger on offense as they do from their head coach. Meanwhile, assistant Sam Cassell has been working with Simmons from a skill standpoint.
“I’m a very creative player,” Simmons said last Friday. “I’m able to make plays, whether it’s scoring or getting somebody open or just making the right play. I think [Rivers is] just allowing me to do that, and putting me in the right positions to do so. And then, on top of that, I’ve been working with Sam [Cassell] a lot, and he’s just been breaking it down, putting my game to a certain speed so where it’s not always downhill and attack. Sometimes it’s sizing guys up and taking my time.”
Simmons mentioned his training with Cassell again after the Sixers’ practice on Monday. Simmons explained that he and Cassell have been getting in lots of reps working on his mid-range game, corner threes, and finishing around the rim.
Getting to the free throw line more
Simmons started achieving this last season. Over a 29-game stretch before he injured his back in mid February, he averaged 6.5 free throw attempts per game. And over the final 12 games in that span, he ramped up his scoring even more to 22.1 points a night with 8.3 free throw attempts. Maintaining this aggressiveness and physicality is essential. Simmons said last week that he wants to get to the free throw line a lot more now, which would be a valuable development if he really makes it a focus of his.
Only time and real-game evidence will tell if Simmons is actually going to start shooting jumpers, whether it’s from mid-range or the corners. But with more shooters and added ball-handlers like Curry and rookie Maxey who can complement Simmons, the young star’s jumper isn’t nearly as much of an issue. And for Doc Rivers, it doesn’t matter.
“I care that he’s a great player and I’m going to let him play, I’m going to give him the keys and let him be free and play,” Rivers said in his first call with media at training camp. “If he takes no shots, I’m fine. If he takes 10 threes, I’m fine. If he gets to the line 15 times, I’m fine. Ben is brilliant enough for me to allow him to play and not get in his way and try to cloud his head up with a bunch of crap. It’s about winning, and that’s what I want Ben to focus on, how to make each other better and win.”
Obviously it’s very early, and establishing a new system with a reloaded roster in such a short offseason is tough. But the Sixers are starting to implement some positive changes. With a bolstered roster, improved spacing, the help of a new coaching staff, and some stylistic adjustments, there are plenty of changes that can help Simmons on offense next season.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.