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The Sixers Added Shooters, but There’s Still No Room for Ben Simmons

Philadelphia has addressed its spacing issues, but there’s no tweak that will make Simmons fit next to Joel Embiid. James Harden is off the table, but another trade shouldn’t be.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There will be no quick fix in Philadelphia. The 76ers came this close to swapping Ben Simmons for James Harden earlier this week, but were ultimately outbid by the Nets. New Sixers president Daryl Morey and coach Doc Rivers will have to keep tinkering around Simmons and Joel Embiid for now. Adding more 3-point shooting this offseason has allowed Philadelphia to jump out to the third-best record in the NBA (9-4) this season. But there is a red flag hanging over the team’s early success: Simmons is averaging career lows in scoring (12.4 per game) and field goal percentage (51.5 percent).

The Sixers’ 125-108 win over an undermanned Heat team on Thursday was a good reflection of their overall performance so far. Philly, which has played one of the easiest schedules, was led in scoring by Shake Milton, who totaled 31 points on 11-of-15 shooting and seven assists coming off the bench. Simmons was more of a pass first, second, and third point guard, with a triple-double of 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists. The question is whether that formula will work against elite competition in the playoffs.

Philadelphia’s goals for the offseason were to get smaller and put more shooters around Simmons. That would allow him to play in more space in the half court, and get out in transition more often. And they’ve done just that. The 76ers have increased their number of 3-point attempts while going from no. 20 in the NBA in pace to no. 4. Simmons is playing with more freedom on offense because the defense can’t just pack the paint and dare him to shoot. But despite all that freedom, he’s not looking to score. His field goal and free throw attempts per game (9.2 and 4.5, respectively) are down from last season. He created just one basket for himself in the half court on Thursday. His other three came from catching a lob, a putback on the offensive glass, and a run-out in transition after a steal.

The focus on Simmons’s refusal to shoot 3s misses the bigger point. Simmons attempted one 3 on Thursday, and already has hoisted almost half as many (three) as he did all of last season. The more glaring issue is that he struggles to score from anywhere outside of 3 feet from the basket. Simmons is shooting 33.3 percent between 3 and 10 feet and zero percent between 10 feet and the 3-point line. That trend goes back to his rookie season.

Simmons doesn’t really have a plan when he can’t get to the rim. He can’t shoot off the dribble, and has never had a consistent floater. The end result when he’s forced to shoot are off-balance shots that don’t have much chance. The 3-point shot may or may not come, but these are the ones that he has to make:

With his shot not falling, Simmons is looking to pass at every opportunity. Playmaking always has been the best part of his game, and he has more teammates who can shoot than ever before. Tobias Harris has been revitalized under Rivers, who coached him in Los Angeles, while Seth Curry, Danny Green, rookie Tyrese Maxey, and Milton have all scorched the nets on various nights this season. The biggest benefit of Simmons’s ability to run point at 6-foot-10 is that it allows smaller combo guards like Curry and Maxey to gun for shots without worrying about setting anyone else up. This is how the 76ers’ offense looks when everything is going right:

There are two long-term problems with that approach. The first is that most defenders naturally help when the ball gets into the paint. Look at how often the Heat players leave shooters to double Simmons in that last clip. That will be cleaned up as defenses lock in on their opponents in the playoffs. Simmons will not get easy kick-outs until he proves he can score one-on-one. Miami hid Kelly Olynyk on him for most of Thursday’s game, and the All-Star couldn’t make them pay.

Simmons has essentially played like a 6-foot-10 version of Lonzo Ball this season. He doesn’t threaten defenses as a scorer. He’s no. 7 in the NBA in touches per game (87.2) this season. But there’s a massive difference in points per touch between him and his peers:

NBA Touches

Player Touches Per Game Points Per Touch
Player Touches Per Game Points Per Touch
Steph Curry 86.4 0.329
Luka Doncic 94.7 0.29
James Harden 86 0.288
Trae Young 86.6 0.286
Julius Randle 89 0.256
Malcolm Brogdon 94.2 0.242
Nikola Jokic 104.8 0.231
Domantas Sabonis 104.5 0.21
Russell Westbrook 96.6 0.2
Ben Simmons 87.2 0.142

The second problem is that there’s still no great answer for how to utilize Simmons when Embiid has the ball. The center has been playing at an MVP level this season, averaging 25 points on 53.6 percent shooting, 11.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. Simmons can’t feed Embiid in the post or play with him in the pick-and-roll since defenses will just sag off him. He’s in just the 13th percentile of scorers leaguewide as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll. There are plenty of examples in each game when the lack of synergy between the Sixers’ two stars is clear:

It’s unclear what Rivers and Morey are supposed to do if they want to keep the tandem together. Embiid and Simmons always have been an uncomfortable fit. Playing more shooters around them was the obvious first step. There may not be a second.

One possible solution is to use Simmons like the Heat use Bam Adebayo. Bam (6-foot-9 and 255 pounds) is about the same size as Simmons (6-foot-10 and 240 pounds). Both can pass, handle the ball, and defend at a high level all over the floor. Bam made a leap in last season’s playoffs when Miami downsized and played him as a small-ball 5 with four shooters around him. They put him in a million pick-and-rolls on offense and used him to blow up those plays on defense. He’s not an elite scorer, either. But he took advantage of the driving lanes created when he rolled to the basket after screening for a shooter like Tyler Herro.

That’s how Simmons could be at his best. The easiest way to attack a defense hiding someone like Olynyk on him is to force Olynyk to defend a guard in the pick-and-roll and put three shooters behind the play. Simmons would get open lanes to the basket, and opportunities to make passes in four-on-three situations. While it might be a tough sell for a player who has always thought of himself as a point guard, “point center” has a nice ring to it, too.

But Simmons can’t be a point center when he’s playing next to one of the NBA’s best centers in Embiid. The logic of trading Simmons for Harden was sound. Breaking up Simmons and Embiid could unlock better versions of each player. That’s why Morey pursued the deal so aggressively despite spending his first few months in Philly saying that he wouldn’t.

Simmons has not fundamentally changed as a player in four seasons in the league. There’s no guarantee that he ever will. The best chance of getting more out of him is putting him in a different role with different players around him. That just can’t happen in Philadelphia.