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How Sixers need to utilize Ben Simmons at the elbows

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Philadelphia 76ers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the main ways Ben Simmons’ role has adjusted in the Philadelphia 76ers’ new starting lineup is that he’s spending more time attacking from the elbows. Even though he didn’t have a good offensive game in the Sixers’ third scrimmage, tallying just 2 assists and 4 points on 2-of-10 shooting in 19 minutes, the first two scrimmages in particular helped demonstrate how he can be used and find success in his new role.

Brett Brown wants Simmons receiving the ball off every defensive rebound, giving him opportunities to push the pace in transition. When that isn’t the case, Shake Milton will typically be bringing the ball up the floor. And while Milton will still be initiating some offense, there will be plenty of times he’ll hit Simmons at the elbow and let the latter go to work.

Before even considering anything else, this immediately makes it much harder for defenders to sag off Simmons. If he’s above the arc, you can sit back to cut down driving lanes. If he’s at the elbow with a live dribble, sagging off gives him a runway to accelerate and get to the rim in just a couple of strides.

The Sixers have another playmaker to work with him now in Milton, which creates more chances to utilize Simmons’ verticality, from pick-and-rolls to lobs like those below (obviously this didn’t go so well in the Sixers’ first real game against the Indiana Pacers — simply put, Milton had a terrible night). On the following play Simmons takes advantage of Danilo Gallinari guarding him closely at the elbow by using a back cut and soaring to the rim. Milton delivers a spot-on lob over the defense to create the dunk:

Another way to create scoring opportunities is by Simmons serving as a screener from the elbow, with the option for him to either flow into a quick pick-and-roll or a hand-off.

Here, Simmons uses his body to shield the ball as Milton appears to be cutting inside. This prompts Jaren Jackson Jr. to go under Simmons, which gives Milton plenty of space to pop out to the arc for three:

This play against the Pacers is another good example of Simmons working as a screener. He wisely turns and uses his body to take Aaron Holiday out of the play as Raul Neto cuts, then finds Neto for the easy layup:

The following play stresses the importance of the Sixers’ shooters being more willing to fire right away. Simmons takes the ball after OKC’s miss, and heads straight into a post-up at the elbow after Josh Richardson slips out of a screen to the top of the arc. As Simmons eyes up the lane and the Thunder have to worry about helping on a possible drive, Dennis Schroder sags off Richardson to the free throw line. At this point, it’s easy for Simmons to set up Richardson for a wide-open three. If Richardson hesitates, though, Schroder can recover and the Sixers have to start searching for a good shot again.

(On the subject of shooters being aggressive, Brett Brown was asked about Tobias Harris’ play at last Thursday’s practice, and how Harris has said he thinks he needs to slow his game down a little. One thing Brown mentioned is that he’d like Harris to keep firing from deep and hunt for threes. To beat defenses that send too much pressure at Simmons on drives or at the elbows, shooters firing as soon as they get space is essential to the Sixers’ maximizing their offense.)

Having plenty of activity on the wings is also key to maximizing the passing reads Simmons can make. Hammer screens to send shooters into space in the corners or pin-down screens to free up guys on the wings can both work well. The Sixers running multiple screening actions at the same times helps spread the defense out around Simmons, and creates more passing windows. Similarly to a Joel Embiid post-up, you don’t just want guys standing around while he’s set up inside.

Simmons sees lots of off-ball activity as one of the ways he and the offense as a whole can benefit with him at the elbow, and one of the differences between operating as a point guard bringing the ball up the floor.

“As a point guard you have to kind of find guys and get guys situated into whatever sets you want to call or whatever coach is calling,” Simmons said at Friday’s practice when discussing his role. “So, for me to be able to run down the floor and get to where I want to be on the elbow and have somebody guarding me one-on-one, and then know my guys are there doing a lot of stuff on the backside, it helps a lot. There are so many different possibilities offensively for us to go towards.”

Tobias Harris has described Simmons as more of an isolation player now that he’s spending more time at the elbows, and Simmons agrees this is a fair assessment of how his game has changed. Simmons’ performance against the Pacers wasn’t great (primarily due to surprisingly bad defense, some messy turnovers and a lack of aggression at times), but he still racked up 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 13 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards. Simmons displayed good physicality on some of his face-up drives, using his speed and strength to power towards the rim.

Again, it’s easier for Simmons to put his speed and first step to use from the elbow than in the post. As long as his teammates aren’t having a ton of trouble completing entry passes just to get him the ball, as they did against Indiana.

“I think in general Ben has been incredible being excited about accepting the role,” Brown said at Thursday’s practice when I asked about Simmons’ play at the elbows and how it can help the offense.

“And I’m just seeing this tremendous partnership with Joel grow when those two are next to each other. I’m learning some stuff as it relates to, you know, Ben as a primary ball carrier vs. Ben as sort of, like, a buddy ball brother to another interior player, and those two playing off each other. And there’s growth there, and there’s a spirit. There’s a feeling I have that I would have underestimated.

“And I think to your point, about him playing out of elbows and screening and rolling, I think he’s been great. I think he’s been great. I think he, too, has found maybe a new toy, another way to just put his thumbprint all over the game. I still will put him in some pick-and-rolls for sure, but in general I think Ben Simmons has been really, just mature and excited how he has embraced trying to look at this new type of role.”

Even though Simmons wasn’t used in many pick-and-rolls in the Sixers’ scrimmages, we still saw flashes of how easily he can make an impact and fly down the lane as a roll man with plays like those below.

In the next play against the Pacers, Simmons uses his short-roll passing to beat their zone. He makes a quick read to find Alec Burks on the wing after the zone shifts, and from here it’s easy for Burks to hit Matisse Thybulle for an open corner three. As I’ve written about many times before, the Sixers need to go to Simmons as a roll man more often.

Simmons agrees with Brown that his adjusted role and play from the elbows is like a new toy for him in the Sixers’ offense.

“I’m just continuing to add different things to my game,” Simmons added at Friday’s practice. “So, you know, over time it’s all gonna come. I’ve just got to stay in the gym, stay working and things will happen. But I’ve enjoyed playing this new role.”

While the starting lineup change and Simmons’ new role can help the offense, these adjustments can’t totally make up for some of their biggest weaknesses: a lack of quick-trigger shooting, playmaking, and perimeter creation.

The Sixers’ issues against the Pacers, such as their 21 turnovers, poor entry passes to Simmons at the elbow, a mere 25 three-point attempts, spells of stagnant off-ball movement, and rough offensive play from Milton and Richardson as ball handlers were reminders of these limitations.

Philly’s guards and wings need to get Simmons the ball with care, move around him, and provide more confident shooting to keep the offense moving as smoothly as possible. The latter is easier said than done for the Sixers, but it’s the result of the flawed roster they’ve built.

Even still, there are plenty of positives that can come from Simmons operating at the elbows. Using him in the ways discussed above mixes up the offense and taps into other areas of his skillset, and that’s what this team needs to do.

We’ll soon see if the new-look Sixers can bounce back and establish more fluidity as their seeding games continue.