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Is Ben Simmons the only All-NBA Caliber X-Factor in the NBA? The challenge of unlocking a unique star

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GMs, coaches, analysts, and fans have long been searching for ways to optimize Ben Simmons... can the Sixers figure it out in time?

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“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia Ben Simmons. IT He is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is the key. That key is Russian national interest the Philadelphia 76ers’ title quest.”

-Winston Churchill (basically)

Would any other NBA All-Star besides Ben Simmons be considered an X-factor?

If we take the second definition from Oxford quite literally, it’s “a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.” In that case, I suppose almost every player could be considered one. But the connotation of the term is more often geared towards nonsuperstar players who don’t garner the lion share of our attention- or the attention of an opposing defense for that matter.

We don’t think of LeBron James as this highly volatile variable because he’s always the best, under all circumstances.

In a recent ‘livechat’ for “The Athletic,” Sixers senior writer Derek Bodner was asked “What player do you see as the team’s X-Factor for the playoffs?”

Bodner’s answer:

“I mean, the answer is Ben. It’s always Ben. And it’s not even about individual scoring, but when the game slows down and coaches have a chance to game plan over a 7 game series, great playoff defenses have shown that they can utilize his lack of shooting and passive play to disrupt the rest of the team’s half-court offense.”

And that’s sort of the rub, right? In a halfcourt situation, it’s true that Ben doesn’t always demand a defense’s full attention. So when the playoffs inevitably decelerate into that laborious drudgery that has defined many of the Eastern Conference wars Doc Rivers himself fought in decades ago, might that necessarily slow the 6’10, 240-pound Kangaroonicorn?

The Sixers have not appeared to maximize Ben Simmons’ ability to the same degree they have the other two members of their “big 3,” at least offensively. They absolutely need to if they want to win the championship.

Teams like the Bucks, Nets and Clippers may just prove too good for this current version of Philadelphia.

This season Doc Rivers has been “The Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris whisperer”

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

What more can you say about Joel Embiid? When on the floor, he’s been worthy of the league’s MVP award.

Then there is Tobias Harris, who has forced apologies from fans all season long.

We wouldn’t consider Embiid an X-Factor because he’s been so consistently dominant. And Harris, while he may have the occasional off-shooting night like in San Antonio, has been a stalwart and dependable borderline All-Star level player.

But Ben can fluctuate (on a given day or given 6-week span) from a one-man-wrecking crew on both sides of the floor to “merely” one of the 3 best defenders in the game who offers little besides best-in-class transition offense.

Simmons has had such an up and down season that a major media outlet that covers sports may have completely forgotten (or worse didn’t forget) to include him in their top 25 rankings! Can’t make it up.

So is he this brooding moody artist? Is it simply that this season is a grueling slog everyone just wants to be done with? Does he need to add more tools in the off-season? Is there something Doc can do to help Ben bring the heat more consistently on offense?

Ben Simmons, the league’s only All-Star X factor

Oklahoma City Thunder v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

“...we want Ben to be a daffodil who can flourish easily in any condition but he’s more of an orchid who requires a compatible environment and lots of care.”

-@franciszomes

By now, if you’re reading this, it means you’ve probably read a slew of pieces that might fall into a category of “how to optimize Ben Simmons” articles. A couple of my favorites include “Why Ben Simmons’ next step is about more than his jump shot,” by Rich Hofmann of The Athletic back in 2018.

Last summer, heading into the bubble, many fans were excited for former Head Coach Brett Brown to utilize Simmons more as a roll-man. Our Tom West covered it, as did Matt Moore of The Action Network, both with some great insights about how to fully tap the 76ers’ matchup nightmare out of Melbourne, Australia’s potential.

The tale of Ben’s current season might go something like this:

After back and knee injuries derailed him in 2020, after a tornado of trade rumors finally subsided, he started 2021 slowly, but then began to Sizzle by mid-January.

But then Joel Embiid’s mid-march knee injury appeared to coincide with a few things that derailed the Simmons-Express: a) Ben popped back up on the injury report with a sore knee following a loss against Milwaukee b) Ben hinted at some stuff that might be going on off the court c) Ben’s role and composition in the halfcourt offense appeared to change.

Remember rule number one with Ben Simmons: he’s a playmaker who needs space to operate. Joel Embiid opened the season shooting 41.6 percent from 3 prior to getting hurt. He became a bona fide stretch big, capable of providing enough gravity to truly “Let Ben Cook.” Ben benefits from that type of spread floor where the paint is wide open.

It allows him to get halfcourt looks that replicate what he often sees in transition, downhill like Derrick Henry but with a cross-over:

But those looks were few and far between when Embiid was out of the lineup. Ben spent most of his minutes forced to play alongside one of Tony Bradley or Dwight Howard. Now we have plenty of evidence that lineups with Ben don’t work as well when he is paired with bigs who can’t shoot. Because of the spacing issues the team had, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Shake Milton took on more ball-handling duties; and Simmons got less of the high-quality spread looks he had enjoyed between mid-January to early March.

Outer Spacing

“Ask not what spacing can do for Ben Simmons, ask what Ben Simmons can do for spacing.”

Everything is better in the halfcourt offense when you give Simmons an open floor. His passing is better:

His screen setting leads to better looks for himself and his pals:

Per Rich Hofmann of The Athletic:

“I just like anybody with Ben as a roller,” Rivers said. “Tonight it happened in our movement that it was Danny in that corner. That could be Seth or Tobias. Teams go under, they’re so off Ben. And so that guy comes off Ben’s screen for a shot, that always brings up Ben’s guy and Ben slips behind it.”

His post-ups (when Dwight Howard’s man is not also covering him) can make players like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or Clint Capela look like they need a protein shake:

And perhaps most importantly, when Simmons gets a spread floor like a Giannis, like a Zion routinely gets, there is almost nobody in the entire league whose hips can keep up with that shimmy-shake from south of Sydney, while also providing enough body to thwart the finish.

Ben’s eyes get especially big when there is a center alone in an empty paint. Notice stellar defenders like LeBron James, Nerlens Noel, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis have all been thrown like shrimp on Ben’s Barbie:

So why are we not seeing more of this? It’s a little weird. We saw a fair amount of these looks against the Hawks a few nights ago. But then we had to watch an entire agonizing game against the Spurs where Ben would casually bring it up, then hand it off and set a half-hearted screen before retreating harmlessly into his dunker’s spot.

It’s like the basketball equivalent of watching Russell Wilson hand the ball off for two yards every 1st and 2nd down in between Marshawn Lynch’s retirement and D.K. Metcalf’s rookie season:

I would have felt better about that Spurs game if Doc was caught yelling at Ben for not being more aggressive. (Remember earlier in the year he said he should never have to call a timeout to suggest throwing Joel Embiid the ball?) Or if Ben was seen waving off players looking for post-ups and hand-offs from him, just once or twice so that he could involve himself offensively. But it seemed like none of the offense called for him to attack a spread floor and he seemed relatively (who really knows he’s inscrutable) content with that. Weird.

“To Make Honey, Young Bee Need Young Flower, Not Old Prune.”

-Mr. Miyagi, “The Karate Kid”

So what’s the answer?

Doc Rivers MUST abandon non-playoff-viable lineups unless it’s truly garbage time

Doc Rivers has appeared to suss out that Ben and Dwight Howard equals no Bueno. The pair have only totaled 6 minutes on the floor together over the last 4 games. But as an alternative, Doc has played combo guard George Hill instead of Simmons. Hill, in many ways the perfect unifying fit for the roster’s starting and bench units, has logged 167 minutes across 9 games.

Of those, 98 have come with Howard and just 11 have come with Simmons.

Panicked “Stranger Things” voice: ELEVEN!!!

Now that doesn’t seem very playoffy, does it?

The duo of Hill and Howard fared quite well racking up a +38 plus-minus against the Thunder and in two against those wounded Hawks. But in more recent games, the Sixers all-bench units have really struggled, blowing huge leads.

I’m very curious: assuming Joel Embiid plays above 36 minutes per game during the playoffs, and assuming Rivers will want to tread water during the minutes Embiid is not in, then why not begin to pair Simmons in more of the playoff-viable non-Embiid lineups?

And why not run a few more plays where he gets to attack a mismatch from top of the key with a spread floor? Mixing in a steady dose of those along with using him as a roll-man, a post player, and a dunker-spot game-winning tip-in dynamo make the Sixers highly unpredictable.

These Simmons-and-shooters-without-Embiid lineups haven’t totaled many minutes on the year, but I do suspect inserting Hill over perhaps the now injured Furkan Korkmaz (or Mike Scott or Shake Milton) might squeeze even more juice out of them. With Matisse Thybulle passing early tests defending bigger players, hopefully, Rivers is gaining confidence in potential small-ball lineups:

If the Sixers as currently constructed want to win the title, a few things must happen. Joel Embiid must continue his MVP caliber play. Tobias Harris must remain the punishing mismatch hunting closer he’s been all year long. And Ben needs to remain every bit of the Defensive Player of the Year he has been while also attacking a spread floor; both in the half-court and transition. Simmons is the team’s second-best player. And he is not a daffodil. He’s not this basic thing that can grow anywhere, nor should anyone in Philadelphia want him to be. He is more like a rare and stunning orchid, or in a “Karate Kid” metaphor, more like a bonsai tree. Stay present and give it what it needs and you will be rewarded. Like Giannis, Ben needs a certain environment to thrive but he has proven worthy of the effort it takes. He is the Sixers’ X-Factor. He is the variable that will swing this season. Provide him with the environment he thrives in, and I’m guessing he’ll flourish and the gardeners and fans will enjoy the journey all the more.

Statistics credit to Cleaningtheglass.com and nba.com.

Cover art credit to Zainab Javed @zrjaved