The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.
With the Philadelphia 76ers leading the Guangzhou Long-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association by 38 points just before halftime of an October preseason game, Ben Simmons hit the shot heard around the world.
Simmons had never made a 3 in the NBA before. Not during the preseason. Not during the regular season. Not during the playoffs. He’d tried and missed two 3-pointers in his first two seasons, and his other 19 attempts were heaves he had to throw up to beat the buzzer. The last time Simmons made a 3 before this was on November 30, 2015, back when he was a college freshman at LSU, Sam Hinkie was still running the Process, and Elton Brand was still playing for the Sixers. It was a long time coming—1,408 days—which explains why every person associated with the Sixers reacted like they had just won the championship. Except for Simmons. As Joel Embiid bear-hugged him on the court and the crowd roared, Simmons kept his Mona Lisa stare.
After the game, Simmons had little to say. Why’d he take the shot? “The time went down. I had the ball. So I had to take a shot.” Did he hear the crowd encouraging him to shoot a 3? “I didn’t really hear anything.” What did it feel like to make the shot? “I work every day, so to me, it shows. I’m in the gym every day, putting in work. I feel like it’s paying off.” You can’t blame Simmons for his apathetic responses. He’s one of the best young players in the NBA: He’s a 6-foot-10 athletic specimen, a magnificent passer who generates open shots for his teammates, and a multi-positional defender with the speed and length to envelop guards and the size and strength to battle bigs. But he’s also a meme for his wrong-handedness and reluctance to even try 3s during an era when the deep ball is undeniably important to team success. Often, the criticism sounds louder than the praise. Why play into that noise by joining in on the reaction to a simple 3-pointer in an exhibition game against a team from overseas that has a 6-24 record?
Actions speak louder than words, anyway. Since that game, Simmons hasn’t had much 3-point action: He has six attempts during the season, four of which were heaves; he’s tried only two real 3s since that night in October.
Simmons made both of his real 3-point attempts; his first in November against the New York Knicks, then his second in December against the Cleveland Cavaliers. After the game in December, Sixers head coach Brett Brown publicly challenged Simmons: “This is what I want, OK? You can pass this along to his agent, his family, his friends, and to him: I want a 3-point shot a game, minimum.” Since then? Zero makes. Zero takes. Simmons rarely even stood behind the arc. Weeks later, Brown said, “Evidently, I have failed.”
Brown failed to reach Simmons. But Brand has thus far failed to properly build around Simmons and Embiid, investing hundreds of millions in Al Horford and Tobias Harris instead of in shooters or downhill pick-and-roll playmakers who could better complement Philly’s stars. And Simmons failed, too, for not simply trying to spot up and shoot more 3s like his coach hoped he would for the greater good of the team. No one person can be blamed here. It’s just a shame, because the 3-pointer doesn’t need to be part of his game for him to be a successful player. He’s already a great player despite less than ideal circumstances. Simmons would be best utilized if he traded places with Giannis Antetokounmpo and was surrounded by shooters on the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis has Khris Middleton, George Hill, and Eric Bledsoe, all of whom can effectively run a pick-and-roll and deliver the ball to the reigning MVP. If Simmons screened for them, we’d see he has the athleticism to score with power around the rim and the passing ability to pick apart defenses like Bam Adebayo or Draymond Green. Simmons isn’t a Shaq-esque finisher like Giannis, but he’d benefit from the space by using his playmaking to set up devastating drives.
But Simmons isn’t just a victim of his circumstances; he’s also a victim of his own hubris. As much as he deserves credit for becoming such a defender worthy of Defensive Player of the Year consideration, he also deserves criticism for his unwillingness to simply spot up from 3. Not even take a shot—just spot up from the corner and make himself available for a kick-out pass. If those shots began to fall, it would force defenses to respect him, and as a result, help all of his teammates. It would unlock the paint for Embiid post-ups. It would open driving lanes for Josh Richardson and Harris. It would help Simmons, as defenders would have to close out on his shot, thus creating opportunities for him to attack a scrambled defense.
Through Simmons’s first three seasons, he’s shooting an excellent 61 percent when attacking closeouts off a spot-up jumper opportunity, per Synergy Sports; his volume and efficiency would increase if those drives began from behind the arc instead of from midrange.
Incremental improvements could add up and put Philadelphia over the top. Even with a shaky fit on the roster and plenty of personnel screwups, the Sixers have been close. They’ve won more than 60 percent of their regular-season games since the 2017-18 season and went to a Game 7 against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors last May. The Sixers might have underwhelmed before the season was suspended, but it’s not like they’re out of contention.
“I think the drama of [Simmons shooting 3s] is overblown,” Brown said on December 7. “It’s going to need to come into his game in a more pronounced way just from an attempt standpoint—that’s not overblown. … He will be liberated. His world will open up. And I think, in many ways, so will ours.” Simmons does need to shoot more 3s. If Giannis can do it even after winning an MVP, so should Simmons. Sacrifice is integral to winning at the highest level, and for Simmons, that means taking 3s. But that alone won’t be the cure for the Sixers. Brand needs to find a shot creator who can run pick-and-roll and higher-end players who can shoot, not just bargain-bin pickups at the deadline. Brown needs to do a better job of holding his players accountable if they don’t do what he requests, and if he can’t, he’ll need to be replaced. Simmons shouldn’t have to smile when he makes a 3; there’s much more than his shot that needs to change in Philadelphia.