The 76ers have a Ben Simmons problem. He has gotten worse as the playoffs have gone on—from averages of 17.2 points and 7.6 assists against the Nets in the first round to 9.4 points and 4.6 assists against the Raptors in the second. The same thing happened last year, when he played like a superstar against the Heat and was invisible against the Celtics. There’s a simple explanation, one Philadelphia can no longer ignore: Simmons can dominate on talent alone against lesser competition, but the holes in his game get exposed against elite teams. And nothing about that will change until the Sixers change his role. The truth is Simmons has spent his first two NBA seasons playing out of position. He’s not a point guard; he’s a center.
Sixers coach Brett Brown made a point of labeling Simmons a point guard before his first season, but the 22-year-old has the shooting profile of a traditional big man. He takes the vast majority of his shots within 5 feet of the rim, and he can’t score outside the paint:
Ben Simmons’s Shooting Profile
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That doesn’t matter in the regular season. Simmons can use his incredible combination of size (6-foot-10 and 230 pounds), speed, and athleticism to get wherever he wants to go on the court. He can dictate the types of shots that he takes. He doesn’t necessarily want to shoot: He’s a pass-first player with a high basketball IQ who can pick apart the defense on the move. But the threat of his scoring ability unlocks the rest of his game.
The equation changes in the playoffs. There isn’t much that Simmons can do against teams that can control the tempo of the game, pack the paint, and take away his ability to drive. The 76ers run an unorthodox offense in the regular season to maximize the abilities of their young star: They were tied for no. 2 in the NBA in the percentage of their offense that comes from dribble handoffs (8.2), and in the bottom two in the percentage of their offense that comes from pick-and-roll ball handlers (11.5) and roll men (3.5). Those numbers normalize in the playoffs: Dribble handoffs have dropped to 6.1 percent of their total offense, while the percentage that comes from ball handlers in the pick-and-roll increases to 15.3. It all goes back to Simmons. Philadelphia isn’t running as much offense through him against Toronto as it did in the regular season.
One of the big adjustments that Brown has made in the series is to empower Jimmy Butler. The Sixers acquired Butler, a 6-foot-8 and 232-pound wing who can shoot off the dribble from all over the floor, to give themselves a Plan B that they didn’t have last season. He has handled the ball about as much as Simmons over the past four games. He went from averaging 51.6 touches per game in the regular season, with an average time of possession of 3.0 seconds, to 68.0 touches per game against the Raptors, with an average time of possession of 5.6 seconds. Butler has been everything they could have hoped for, averaging 25.8 points on 46.5 percent shooting and 6.3 assists in the past four games.
The downside of making that switch is that Simmons doesn’t have much to do. There are a lot of possessions where he brings the ball up the court, gives it to Butler, and then hangs out on the baseline. His poor shooting means that he can’t play on the perimeter without the ball in his hands, and the lack of shooting around him means that he can’t make cuts to the basket, either. Butler has encouraged Simmons to be more aggressive on offense, but the way he’s being used doesn’t give him many avenues to funnel his aggression. The result is a player who looks passive and indecisive. Simmons has not made an impact on the series: The 76ers have a net rating of minus-5 in his 178 minutes on the floor.
There is a Plan C, one that would move Simmons off the ball and still allow him to contribute on offense: using him as a screener in the pick-and-roll. That role would unlock the best aspects of his game and keep defenses from sagging off him. Simmons would have a counter for everything—he could post up smaller defenders if they switched the screen, roll to the rim and catch lobs against a drop coverage, and make plays in four-on-three situations if they blitzed the screen. He could be a bigger and more athletic version of Draymond Green with more scoring ability. A player can be only as good as the role that he is used in. Draymond wouldn’t be anywhere near as valuable on a team that played only conventional lineups. Spending time at the 5 is even more important for Simmons because he can’t shoot. He wouldn’t have to become a role player. He could do everything that Draymond does while also averaging 20 to 25 points a game.
The problem is the 76ers’ roster construction makes such a role almost impossible. Simmons was used as the roll man only 17 times in the regular season. There is simply no room for him to do it when he’s playing next to a big man who can’t space the floor. Joel Embiid shot 30 percent from 3 on 4.1 attempts per game this season, and defenses will gladly leave him open if it prevents Simmons from getting an open lane to the rim. Philadelphia has more centers than it could ever need: Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, Amir Johnson, and Jonah Bolden have all gotten minutes in the playoffs. They moved their only reliable floor-stretching big man (Mike Muscala) in the Tobias Harris trade.
The obvious solution is to go small with Simmons at the 5. However, they haven’t gone to those lineups much: They have a net rating of plus-11.2 in 39 minutes in the regular season, and minus-16.8 in 14 minutes in the playoffs. The sample size in each of the Sixers’ playoff series this year is tiny: Those lineups were plus-37.0 in nine minutes against the Nets, and minus-136.4 in five minutes against the Raptors. What happened in the Brooklyn series is fascinating, though. Philadelphia closed the fourth quarter of Game 3, which Embiid missed with a knee injury, with Simmons at the 5. It was the best game of his playoff career: He finished with 31 points on 11-for-13 shooting, nine assists, four rebounds, three blocks, and two steals. Look at how much space he has on these plays:
Simmons has the physical tools to play at the 5. He’s one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA: He’s guarded D’Angelo Russell and Kawhi Leonard this postseason; there’s no reason that he couldn’t hold his own against even the biggest centers, too. Simmons towers over both Draymond and P.J. Tucker, the two small-ball 5s in the second-round series between the Warriors and the Rockets. That said, it wouldn’t be an easy transition. Draymond and Tucker were second-round picks who fought their way into the league. They were willing to do whatever it took, even if it meant giving up their bodies to bang against bigger players in the paint. Simmons would have to be willing to do the same, and he would have to learn how to protect the rim and quarterback the defense. It’s unglamorous work that a 22-year-old who was taken no. 1 overall in the draft might not want to do. Simmons might need to learn the hard way through repeated playoff failures before he’s willing to change his approach to the game.
The only other option is for him to learn how to shoot. My colleague Kevin O’Connor has spent the past few years saying that Simmons is shooting with the wrong hand. He might be right, but changing shooting hands at this stage in a career is a radical adjustment that few NBA players have ever tried. The ones who have, like Tristan Thompson, have not had much success. I don’t have much faith in Simmons’s ability to ever figure it out. He doesn’t have much natural touch: He’s a career 58.3 percent free throw shooter on 4.8 attempts per game. The easier solution is to move him to a position where shooting isn’t as important.
The big issue with moving Simmons to center is that the 76ers already have a superstar center. Embiid, not Simmons, is the face of their franchise, and he’s played at an MVP-caliber level this season. He would have to stop posting up and dedicate himself to spacing the floor to create enough room for Simmons to roll to the basket. Their games just don’t fit well together: Simmons can’t space the floor for Embiid, and Embiid can’t run the floor with Simmons. Simmons should be playing with four players who can switch screens and fly around the court. Doing so would make him a mismatch nightmare—there aren’t many traditional centers in the NBA who could keep up with him, and he would have a huge edge in size against most small-ball 5s. The best version of Simmons isn’t playing next to Embiid—it’s running players like Embiid off the floor.
There are no easy answers for Philadelphia. It could trade Simmons for players who better complement Embiid, but that would leave the Sixers with no insurance if Embiid breaks down again. And Embiid’s uncertain health status means there is no way to get equal value for him in a trade. They will probably just keep asking Simmons to sacrifice for now. They’ve shown at times this postseason that they don’t have to maximize Simmons’s individual game to be successful: They won games 2 and 3 against Toronto by stuffing him into a smaller role and featuring Embiid and Butler. The question is how long will he be willing to do that. Simmons is getting killed for disappearing in the playoffs, but there’s only so much he can do given his role on his team. He will never reach his potential until he’s playing at center. It just might not happen with the 76ers.