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Ben Simmons Is Not Holding the Sixers Back

His coach wants him to shoot; Joel Embiid wants him to shoot; the fans want him to shoot; the media doesn’t think he can shoot. But what if the Philly playmaker doesn’t need a jumper for the team to get to the next level?

Elias Stein/Getty Images

To Sixers Nation, the overtime Christmas Day loss to the reviled Celtics triggered painful memories of last postseason’s butchering at the hands of the same Boston cagers. The target of vinegary disdain, again, was second-year star Ben Simmons, who put up 11 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists but missed a late layup and was barricaded from the rim by defenders. “I’m a Sixers fan, so please don’t kill me when I say this,” wrote Twitter user @ckcmay3, “BEN SIMMONS IS OVERRATED.”

Negativity toward Simmons has become part of the 2018-19 Philadelphia experiment. In recent weeks, he has been the target of repeated trade suggestions, a petition to ban his celebrity girlfriend from the Wells Fargo Center, and attempts by the media to incite a feud between him and star center Joel Embiid after they collided while chasing after a rebound.

Where is this acrimony coming from? This is the same dude who breezed to the Rookie of the Year award last season, led the Sixers to nine straight wins without Embiid, and was the best player on the court in a playoff series against the chippy Miami Heat.

As of Monday, Simmons is averaging 16.4 points and shooting 57.4 percent from the floor, accurate enough for 14th in the NBA. He ranks sixth in assists (7.9) and 20th in rebounds (9.2). He’s seen meaningful bumps in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and, particularly, free throw rate; he’s now getting to the stripe, proportionate to shot attempts, as much as James Harden. Advanced metrics like BPM and PIE place him among the league’s top 20 players. At 22, Simmons is already wonderful.

Meanwhile, the Sixers are 26-14, only three games behind the Eastern Conference–leading Raptors, and on pace to equal last season’s 52-win breakout. Since Jimmy Butler sauntered into town in mid-November, Philadelphia has sported a top-eight offensive rating (his reported “aggressive challenging” of coach Brett Brown’s system notwithstanding). And among leaguewide lineups that have logged more than 200 minutes, Sixers starters have been outstanding; their net rating of 15.3 is third best in the NBA.

But beneath this smooth surface, a growing fungal mycelium is threaded into every Sixers conversation. It’s not the thin bench, the backcourt stuffed with unitaskers, or the lack of a defensive-oriented backup center. It’s much, much worse. That’s right, Ben Simmons won’t take jumpers.

In a public show of faith, every strain of basketball theologian has linked arms in unity against Simmons’s apostasy. Modernists claim that his lack of range is a liability in the pace-and-space era. Traditionalists, eager to relitigate arguments lost a decade ago, complain that his refusal to toss up midrange jumpers is an affront to Kobestani craftsmanship. After Simmons decisively outplayed Luka Doncic in Saturday night’s victory over the Mavericks, Brown said he hoped Simmons would attempt “a jumper a quarter.” Somehow Simmons, a gleaming Swiss army knife of a player, has become viewed as the missing plastic toothpick.

Depending on who you ask, Simmons’s behavior is evidence of fear, poor work ethic, arrogance, eroding upside, using the wrong hand, and the hazards of letting a member of the Kardashian brood infiltrate your Fortnite Twitch stream. Even optimists who insist that he’s young enough to still one day develop a jumper concede that this hole in his offensive portfolio threatens his blue-chip future.

Thankfully, there’s a more progressive position to embrace: Simmons doesn’t need to shoot 3s or take jumpers. Ever. Furthermore, his improvement in that area has little bearing on his fit in Philadelphia and does not significantly lower the ceiling of a franchise with championship aspirations. And, if everyone relaxes a bit, the momentum that seems to be snowballing toward a franchise-destroying blunder will harmlessly melt away.

People fear what they do not understand. And Simmons is a curiosity who defies our philosophical, positional, and spatial ideas about contemporary basketball. What if the seething hostility has nothing to do with facts, stats, or fit? What if it’s the visceral and emotional reaction to watching a professional athlete turn down shots that 40-somethings with bulky knee braces let fly at the Tuesday-night run? What if everything is, like, you know, OK?

Coincidentally enough, this kind of hand-wringing predates Simmons’s arrival in Philadelphia. When the rebuilding Sixers, under then-GM Sam Hinkie, wobbled through two and a half seasons of losing (paralleled only by multiple recent teams), critics belched about a “losing culture,” the perils of a veteran-free locker room, and other chimerical menaces.

Similarly, Simmons’s refusal to take open jumpers chafes at the vulcanized hide of our basketball belief system. Watching him spurn open looks a dozen feet from the hoop is jarring. In a way, it’s unsurprising that criticism mostly spews from people who routinely see him play (as opposed to those who sift through his stat lines). But the discomfort some viewers experience from watching Simmons doesn’t mean concerns about spacing, cohabitation with other Sixers stars, or his passion for greatness are legitimate.

Over the last decade, conventional wisdom has embraced the concept that midrange jumpers are low-value attempts. Players like DeMar DeRozan and Carmelo Anthony are now derided as Silurian armored fish by every House of Hoops follower. Each offseason, more NBA offenses modernize by adopting systems that emphasize shots in the paint and beyond the arc, while winnowing out long 2s. It’s so ingrained in mainstream basketball theory that teams like the Spurs might be strategically reversing course by zigging when everyone else zags.

And yet, in the case of Simmons, critics are not only angry that a player refuses to take bad shots, they’re angry that he refuses to miss them. This one-man “Moreyball” shot chart—a bruiser who scores at the rim, muscles to the foul line, and feeds teammates for layups and 3s—is being crucified for diligently generating the best shots in basketball. In Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers, Simmons bricked a 17-footer early in the shot clock and the response from the online commentariat was giddy celebration. People are encouraging a basketball genius to play like Jordan Clarkson.

It’s not as if Simmons’s range is some tantalizing mystery. He took roughly 20 percent of his attempts from beyond 10 feet as a rookie and made about a third of them. This season, half of those shots are now coming at the rim, where he shoots 71.3 percent. That shift is part of the reason his efficiency has soared.

Another way Simmons could placate the howling mobs would be to catapult a few 3s like Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose 17.6 percent rate from deep has the graceful touch of a Plymouth Voyager tumbling down a mountain. But Simmons is an uncompromising artist. To him, the notion of taking lousy, performative shots instead of creating better ones must seem obscenely dumb. Maybe he’s an unemotional ice queen who would rather be IG-Storying Chateau Marmont’s shakshuka with Jonathan Cheban, but he’s right.

Simmons’s reluctance to take the shots the defense wants him to shoot is not a concession. It’s a “fuck you.”

One root of confusion involves Simmons’s position. He calls himself a point guard. His coach calls him a point guard. Stat keepers with the NBA, ESPN, and Basketball-Reference call him a point guard. But that’s just his role. On a nightly basis, Simmons checks forwards and is checked by forwards. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he—like Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Draymond Green—is a hulking person who handles distribution duties and leads his team in assists. In fact, Simmons has far more in common with Denver center Nikola Jokic than Kemba Walker or Steph Curry. He’s 20th in the league in post-ups and shoots 50 percent on his attempts from the trenches, comparable to lugs like Enes Kanter and Blake Griffin. He’s currently tied with Embiid for 13th in the league in dunks.

Rather than regarding Simmons as a supersize Rondo, think of him as a big man who executes Shammgods midstride, runs like a wildebeest, and possesses unholy passing abilities. No one gets bent out of shape when Montrezl Harrell or Steven Adams eschews uncontested jumpers. Instead, one might ponder, “How do we build a circus around this remarkable sideshow attraction?” Conveniently, this year’s Bucks supply the cheat sheet: surround your playmaking, nonshooting freak with a center, a mobile wing, and two guards. Then clear out of the way.

Philly knows who that center will be. To many critics, Simmons’s Achilles’ heel is that he ostensibly doesn’t complement Embiid, the chatty behemoth who averages 26.9 points and 13.5 rebounds a game. Embiid is an iso-heavy post player who requires swaths of real estate to trample and has a usage rate higher than prime Shaquille O’Neal. Putting him on the floor with a nonshooter like Simmons, some allege, suffocates offensive oxygen and allows defenders to double-team with impunity.

The numbers don’t back it up. When Simmons is on the court, Embiid shoots better from the restricted area, in the paint, midrange, and 3-point land. The real concern is separating the pair from guards who struggle to shoot; according to NBAWowy’s numbers, lineups with Simmons and Embiid on the floor but Markelle Fultz and T.J. McConnell sidelined have an offensive rating of 116.4 in 560 minutes.

As much as we obsess over the importance of spacing, not every player needs to drill 3s. The Warriors, owners of the best offense in the NBA, have four rotational guys who don’t shoot from distance, and start one of them, Kevon Looney, alongside Green, who is making 23.7 percent of his attempts from deep. Among other elite offenses, the Rockets start Clint Capela and the Clippers start Marcin Gortat.

When Philly puts three shooting threats on the court, pairing Simmons and Embiid is a relative nonissue. And it’s not like Embiid is cemented in the paint; 30 percent of his attempts are from beyond 16 feet, and he’s made 31.7 percent of his career 3s. In the Christmas Day game against the Celtics, guess how many of Embiid’s 17 shot attempts drew a double-team from Simmons’s defender? Zero. When Simmons is in the “dunker” spot on the weakside short corner, his man stays glued to his hip. While a possession-devouring monster like Embiid doesn’t fit with most ball-dominant NBA stars, maybe a guy like Simmons, who takes the eighth-most shots per 36 minutes on the team, can play the perfect courtier.

Would Simmons be a better player with a jumper? Yes. He’d be the closest thing we have to another LeBron James, the greatest player in basketball history. And there’s a very good chance he’ll improve as he gets older, as 22-year-old phenoms who have played just 120 career games usually do. Let him do it on his own terms.

But Simmons doesn’t need an outside shot to be a key cog in a championship machine. The inconvenient quirks in his game should be recognized and schemed around, but are a bargain to exchange for a generational skill set of size, speed, vision, defensive versatility, and shot creation.

Ben Simmons is fine, really.