In the first few minutes of a game, Ben Simmons so frequently looks like the best player on the floor. He sometimes is for the duration of the game, too, but especially so during that opening burst when he tends to barrel at the rim and make a loud, early imprint.
Over the Sixers’ last three contests, he’s scored six of the team’s first nine points, eight of its first 17, and 10 of its first 18, respectively.
However, as NBC Sports national NBA insider Tom Haberstroh notes, Simmons’ usage has plummeted in fourth quarters. He has just a 15.4 usage rate in the fourth this season.
Haberstroh posits that, during the time Joel Embiid is sidelined after having surgery for a torn ligament in his left hand, the Sixers should “make Simmons a crunch-time scorer.”
The idea that Simmons should sustain his early aggressive mindset is certainly fair, and it seems hard to dispute.
The belief that he has the ability to be quite as effective late in fourth quarters, though, is a bit optimistic. His obvious limitations as a shooter allow defenses to play off him in the half court. The Sixers have been employing Simmons more as a screener when Josh Richardson or Tobias Harris are handling the ball, which has been promising. On Wednesday vs. the Nets, Brett Brown also encouraged Simmons to drive and quickly evaporate the open space the Nets were giving him. He called plenty of “12,” an action that begins with a wing coming up from the baseline to either set a ball screen for Simmons or take a handoff. Furkan Korkmaz got several good looks out of the action and scored nine points in the fourth quarter.
Though Simmons only had five of his 20 points against Brooklyn after halftime, the Sixers were at least able to put him in some impactful positions. It helped that Harris was tremendous in the fourth, too, hitting a string of tough, game-clinching shots and finishing with 34 points.
Brown admitted he had some regrets when asked before Wednesday's game about Simmons’ following up a 20-point first half Monday against the Pacers with a four-point second half.
If you got to the fourth period — because I will own the large majority of it in the third period — we played through J-Rich and he had it rolling. … I think in the third period I could have posted him more. I could have gotten him the ball more. Did I think that he shied away from anything? I did not. He was running some play calls that I asked him to run and in the light of day, probably I could have gotten him the ball more.
Another clear reason why Simmons might be limited late in games even if he adopts an attacking mentality is his poor free throw shooting. After a 2-for-7 performance Wednesday, he’s hitting 58.2 percent of his foul shots this year. He also hasn’t increased his free throw volume the way Brown said he hoped he would on Dec. 7.
On that night — on which Brown famously proclaimed that he wanted “a three-point shot a game, minimum" — he also said he wanted Simmons attempting eight free throws per game. He’s averaging 4.6 this year, 5.1 since that statement.
The bright spot for Simmons is that he’s made 10 of 13 “clutch” free throws this season, generally responding well when teams have turned to a “Hack-a-Simmons” strategy.
Like any team, the Sixers would love to have a diverse, dangerous array of late-game scoring options. But, if we’re being realistic, their fourth-quarter offense will likely run through Embiid when he returns, as it did before his injury. Richardson and Harris have also shown that they can create and make shots in crunch time.
Simmons should be be a more prominent figure than he is currently, but his value will likely stem more from his passing, screening and rolling, and ability to spark offense in the open floor as a result of elite defense than from his scoring.
As Haberstroh writes, the Sixers can find ways to develop while their All-Star big man is out. Maybe Simmons’ confidence in late-game situations will improve while Embiid is away, but he likely won’t be who the team centers its late-game offense around in the playoffs. He shouldn’t be, either.
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.