Ben Simmons took a 3-pointer Monday when the Sixers faced the Pelicans. He didn’t make the 3-pointer, but if he had, it would have been the first of his two-season, 141-game NBA career, and the city of Philadelphia would’ve flooded with tears, beer, and overrun celebration dumpster pools. The attempt was Simmons’s fourth from deep this season, a campaign during which 3-point shooting has continued its leaguewide explosion. This year, Brook Lopez has shot the 14th-most 3s, with 393 total attempts, and Houston set a single-game record for 3-point attempts with 70 against Brooklyn. When Simmons was drafted in 2016, Lopez was a career .097 percent deep shooter, and the Rockets were five months away from taking even 50 3s in a game. Both player and team pivoted unabashedly and without hesitation. It was a matter of survival.
OH SIMMONS TRIED IT.— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) February 26, 2019
Ben Simmons attempts another legitimate NBA triple, it was a miss, but we know Sixers fans have to be happy with the progress. He turns the miss into a bucket, though. pic.twitter.com/sC1KzZHqLo
What could’ve implored Simmons to shoot a 3, when he’s passed up similar opportunities hundreds of times before? He let it fly on the Sixers’ second possession of the game. Jimmy Butler inbounded to Simmons, who was wholly ignored by the Pelicans defense. But being wide open isn’t enough. Simmons is frequently left alone above the break. The shot clock wasn’t expiring. Thirteen of Simmons’s 14 prior 3-point shots were throwaways at the buzzer, making this just the second true triple attempt of his career. And although it was technically a good look, with his closest defender jogging in the other direction and not defending him at all, Simmons rushed the shot instead of getting set.
The shot could have been spawned from Jusuf Nurkic’s mind games during the Sixers’ previous matchup. After Simmons bricked a free throw against Portland, Nurkic yelled, “Hell no!” then remained unfazed as Simmons told him, “You talk a lot of shit for being ass.” After Philly lost, Nurkic told reporters, “I think I’m better shooter than him. I mean, I’m for sure [a better shooter]. The way he’s able to shoot, or not able to shoot, is ridiculous.”
Where Nurkic gets it wrong is calling Simmons unable rather than unwilling. The 6-foot-10 ball handler is one skill away from being uniquely transcendent in an era of positional transcendence, but he has shrugged that skill aside. Simmons is an idiosyncrasy both ways—a futuristic big and an antiquated guard—whose most “ridiculous” quality, other than refusing to shoot outright, is finding ways to thrive without a shot.
The second round of last season’s playoffs against Boston erased the mirage that the Sixers could survive without their point guard as a shooting threat. In that series, Simmons looked like he was scared of being made a fool of, and that nonchalance carried over to this season. “[Shooting 3s] isn’t my main goal at all,” he said in October. “I mean, I’m not even where I want to be when it comes to finishing at the rim or my post finishes. I’m still getting better at that. Once I’m good at that, then I’ll probably expand my game.” Coach Brett Brown isn’t under the same illusions. Simmons has been meekly expanding his midrange shooting in the latter half of the season under pressure from his coach.
“His jump shot is going to come on his own terms,” Brown said in January. “Never have I pivoted away from saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to see a jump shot.’ [...] He’s aware that we’re not going to do what we want to do unless he [takes jump shots]. To me, it’s not anything else but a mentality.”
Earlier in February, in a game against the Lakers, Simmons took the first 3-point shot of his professional career that didn’t come at the end of a shot clock or during warm-ups. The Sixers’ lead was a healthy 78-67 with 11:07 left in the third when Simmons dribbled just a touch to the right and pulled up with his left. His primary defender, LeBron James, had been sagging off him all game. “I might as well come down and pull it,” he said after the game. “I didn’t really think about it.”
Yet Brown told reporters after the Lakers game that he and Simmons had been talking about “this notion” over the past 24 hours. “What’s going to happen in the third third of the regular season? What can we do to prepare you for the playoffs, and what’s coming?” With 20 games left and only two legitimate 3-point attempts on the season, preparation still means talking about the next step instead of taking it. Simmons said he “didn’t really think about it,” but nothing in basketball seems as concocted as his decision to pull up for 3.