The Philadelphia 76ers’ evening began with a desperate plea known far and wide across NBA Twitter, but from an unlikely source. Speaking to the media before Monday’s showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sixers head coach Brett Brown sighed in resignation regarding his star guard’s aversion to shooting 3s.
This is probably the biggest public plea from Brett Brown in regards to Ben Simmons attempting threes. It doesn’t get much more obvious than this. pic.twitter.com/35jAIFuFHe— Harrison Grimm (@HarrisonEGrimm) January 6, 2020
In early December, Brown revealed that he asked Ben Simmons to attempt at least one 3-pointer per game. “This is what I want,” Brown said after Simmons hit his second career 3, “and you can pass it along to his agent, his family, and friends. I want a 3-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up 2s ... I’m fine with whatever is open. But I’m interested in the 3-point shot.” A few days later, Simmons attempted another. It missed, and he hasn’t taken another shot from beyond the arc since.
Brown isn’t the only one frustrated with Simmons’s unwillingness to launch 3s. Last week, during a four-game losing streak, center Joel Embiid subtweeted (subspoke?) Simmons, telling reporters, “We’ve got to help each other even if it means being outside of your comfort zone … if you’ve got to space and shoot it, you’ve got to do it.”
On Monday, faced with criticism from his teammates, fans, and his head coach, Simmons put up one of his best games of the season … and still avoided taking a single 3. Philadelphia beat the visiting Thunder 120-113, thanks to the Aussie’s 17 points, a season-high 15 rebounds, and eight assists, but owed as much of its success to hot shooting as it did Simmons’s contributions. The Sixers shot 50 percent from beyond the arc (13-for-26) and 51.1 percent from the field, with Tobias Harris (18 points on 4-for-6 shooting from 3), Josh Richardson (23 on 2-for-4), Mike Scott (eight on 2-for-3), and Trey Burke (12 on 2-for-3) all filling it up multiple times. The collective hot hand was enough to make one forget about Embiid’s mangled one (seriously, don’t click if you’re the queasy type).
The last time the Sixers shot this well was on Christmas Day, when Philly drained 21 of 44 tries from beyond the arc en route to a 121-109 win. But hot shooting nights are fleeting with this squad. Entering Monday’s game, the Sixers were 22nd in made 3s per game and 14th in 3-point percentage. In their four losses following the statement win against Milwaukee—against Orlando, Miami, Indiana, and Houston—the 76ers shot 27.8 percent from 3, failed to break 100 points twice, and had as many one-point losses.
Philadelphia has one of the best defenses in the NBA. When healthy, the Sixers can run crunch-time lineups—Embiid, Al Horford, Simmons, Richardson, and Matisse Thybulle—that even the Dream Team might’ve struggled to score on. The defense is reliable too, and it showed up in the second quarter on Monday. After escaping the first frame tied at 31, Philly held OKC to just 21 points on 30.4 percent shooting to close the half, as Embiid, Simmons, James Ennis, and Richardson each played the lion’s share of minutes. Simmons was spectacular in the quarter as well, scoring seven points and pulling down five boards while running the fast break with ease. But a stout defense only goes so far without the firepower to match, and it wasn’t until Richardson knocked down his two 3s that Philadelphia truly began to pull away.
At his best, Simmons is a revelation. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, with a 7-foot wingspan, Simmons is bigger and stronger than every guard who tries to match him, and more agile than every forward or wing brought in to help. He’s a better passer than almost anyone else in the sport, and just as good on defense. His finishing at the rim is aspirational, and because of him, the 24-14 Sixers have one of the brightest presents and futures in the sport. But his failings beyond the arc lead many to wonder what could be.
Philadelphia’s offense has been mediocre thus far. Through 28 games, Philly ranks 14th in offensive efficiency—a far cry from their eighth-place finish last season. Some of that has to do with the departure of JJ Redick and his 39.7 percent 3-point shooting, as well as Landry Shamet’s absence and Mike Scott’s regression from deep. But just as much can be pinned on Simmons. Redick, Shamet, and Jimmy Butler—maybe last season’s best shot maker and creator—were replaced by Richardson, a defense-first guard, and Horford, a center. This roster needs a star who can space the floor for Embiid inside and for Simmons to drive at the rim. Tobias Harris can occasionally play the part, and Richardson leads the team in made 3s per game, but most possessions would improve if defenses considered Simmons a threat to score from 3.
As it stands, Simmons is a nonfactor from deep. With only two makes on 22 career attempts, there’s no reason for defenders to stay tight on Simmons before he crosses the arc. The result is clogged passing lanes and a packed-in defense, neither of which is conducive to scoring. Even the threat of sinking 3s would force defenders to guard Simmons closely, freeing up his teammates on each trip up the floor.
The Sixers didn’t need Simmons to shoot on Monday. His contributions across the game (he finished with a team-high plus-18) more than made up for his aversion to the long ball. But it’s not likely Philly can shoot as well as it did against Oklahoma City each time it takes the floor. The Sixers are talented enough, top to bottom, to win against any team in the league. Until Simmons can comfortably fire from long range, though, they might continue to stumble.