76ers

Expect Ben Simmons' ascent to continue ... just don't expect jumpers

Expect Ben Simmons' ascent to continue ... just don't expect jumpers

It was awhile ago now, but Ben Simmons on media day was asked plainly if he’d be willing to take more threes as his head coach had encouraged.

Simmons, as usual, was short and concise.

“It’s just a part of the game,” Simmons said back in September. “If it’s open, I’ll take it.”

While Simmons did make the first two threes of his NBA career this season, it’s tough to say that he’s stuck to those words from September. Opponents have guarded Simmons the same way — sagging off, pretty much daring him to shoot — but Simmons’ shot selection hasn’t changed.

And yet, if you look at Simmons’ 2019-20 campaign, he’s improved.

In fact, in the last 19 games before he got hurt in Milwaukee, Simmons was playing the best basketball of his career. During that stretch, he was averaging 21.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 7.9 assists a game. And he was only further proving to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Where Simmons is getting his looks from hasn’t changed. Last season, 89.7 percent of Simmons’ shot attempts came within nine feet of the basket. This season isn’t that much different at 87.2 percent. We saw the work Simmons put in over the summer, so where did that show up?

More important than him launching threes or inefficient mid-range jumpers, Simmons was markedly improved at the free throw line (73.4 percent over his last 12 games). And it wasn't just a small sample size as Simmons was attempting almost eight free throws a game during that time.

The most comparable NBA player to Simmons is likely Giannis Antetokounmpo. While Simmons still has a long way to go to be on the level of the reigning MVP, they both are exceptionally skilled players with great size that struggle shooting from the outside. If you look at Antetokounmpo’s evolution over the years, it has little to do with his jumper. 

While he’s taken a career-high 4.8 threes a game, Antetokounmpo is only shooting 30.6 percent from beyond the arc. And look closely at the way team’s guard him — including the Sixers, who pride themselves on limiting three-point attempts.

Despite the added attempts, most teams have maintained the strategy of forcing Antetokounmpo to beat them with his jumper. If Simmons attempts and shoots at a similar clip, is that really what’s best for him and the Sixers?

The aspect of Antetokounmpo’s game that Simmons has adopted is the way the Greek Freak eats the space opponents give him and attacks the rim. When that space shrinks in the playoffs, it may not be as easy for Simmons to do that.

We call Simmons a point guard, but he isn't one in the traditional sense. It's 2020. We all need to accept that positionless basketball is a real thing. The way the Sixers have used Simmons as a screener and roller — far from the way you'd deploy a traditional point guard — has opened things up for the team offensively.

Brett Brown had another interesting player comparison when discussing Simmons in that capacity.

“[Simmons’] ability to roll out of that like a Blake Griffin and either catch and dunk, catch and pass, make plays as a roller, there's an area that we can tap into,” Brown said last month. “It's clear over the past 15 games, 20 games, especially what he really can do, where he's not just forced to dribble the ball up the floor 1,000 miles an hour and make people better and win games, high-level playoff games, some of those lessons will bleed into what I hope will end up another chance to play in the playoffs this year.”

The idea of Simmons opening up the floor for Joel Embiid with the occasional jumper sounds great. Still, it’s based much more in theory than reality. What we saw in the Sixers’ last game before the All-Star break in a win over the Clippers was the blueprint. On that night, both players had 26 points and played complementary basketball.

Even though it’s something we don’t like to do around these parts, give Brown credit for that night. For years he’s tried to use Simmons and Embiid in a snug pick-and-roll — essentially just a pick-and-roll on the low block with Simmons as the ball handler. And for years, the results weren’t there.

But Brown stuck with it, seeing it as a way to best utilize the unique combination of skill and size his young All-Stars possess. If Simmons and Embiid can bottle up that performance, it will go a long way.

Of course, none of this matters if Simmons isn’t healthy. The nerve impingement in his lower back cost him eight games before play was suspended.

Word on how he’s doing has ranged from GM Elton Brand being “optimistic” he’d play in the playoffs to Brown not expecting him to be “100%” to Simmons showing off an impressive physique and equally as impressive dunk repertoire. He’ll need the eight seeding games to get his feel back since he hasn’t played a full basketball game since before the All-Star Game. 

So, don’t get your hopes about Simmons suddenly rising up on a fast break and bombing a three.

But get excited that the Sixers are finding creative ways to use his special skill set and that Simmons’ ascension could — and should — continue.

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2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

Though they’re calling “seeding games,” the Sixers’ primary concern in the contests leading up to the playoffs is not seeding.

“How do you go into the playoffs … how can you go into that date feeling like we’re the best we can be?” Brett Brown said on July 12. “Worrying too much about moving up because you could play this team or avoid that team, I stay away from that.” 

Through three games at Disney World, Brown wishes the Sixers were playing at a higher level. The team has gone 2-1, but that record includes a fourth quarter in which the Sixers allowed the Pacers to score 46 points, a game-saving shot from Shake Milton vs. the Spurs and a win over the 24-44 Wizards that was tight until the end. Ben Simmons exited Wednesday’s game against Washington early with a left knee injury

It’s been slower coming than I would’ve thought,” Brown said Wednesday. “I liked our practices, I thought … the preseason games you saw at times a dominant defense. We’ve started these three games, I think, very inconsistently. I think we do some good things offensively, defensively, and then you see head-scratching stuff. It hasn’t gone as quickly as I had hoped. But I see where I think it can end. 

“We’re still figuring out some things with how we’re playing the team and Shake (Milton) coming in and so on. But I think, for the most part, we’re trending in the right direction, just not as quickly as I wished.

Here's where the Sixers sit in the Eastern Conference: 

3. Boston Celtics 45-23 GB: 9 
4. Miami Heat 43-25 GB: 11
5. Indiana Pacers 42-26 GB: 12
6. Sixers 41-27 GB: 13 

Boston technically still has a chance to surpass the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and the Sixers aren’t eliminated from contention for the No. 3 seed, but both outcomes are very improbable. Kemba Walker sat out the latter half of a back-to-back Wednesday, a 149-115 Celtics win over the Nets, as the All-Star guard works through a left knee issue. After playing Toronto on Friday night, the Celtics will face Orlando, Memphis and Washington.

The current No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play each other twice in the remaining seeding games, which should be interesting. The Heat’s other opponents are the Bucks, Suns and Thunder, while the Pacers’ are the Suns, Lakers and Rockets. Before the NBA’s hiatus, Miami was 2-0 against Indiana. In case you were curious, T.J. Warren hasn’t dropped off much after his 53-point performance vs. the Sixers. He leads all scorers at Disney World with 39.7 points per game. 

Despite having the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, the Sixers don’t have great odds of rising. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 72.8 percent chance at the No. 6 seed, 23.0 percent at No. 5 and just 4.1 percent at No. 4. Those probabilities are intuitive when you consider the Sixers have lost their season series vs. the Heat and Pacers. 

The Celtics are the Sixers’ most likely first-round opponent at the moment by a good margin, which would potentially leave the Sixers a path of Boston-Toronto-Milwaukee. One could make the argument that such a road is best for the Sixers, since the team won its season series over Boston, 3-1, and wouldn’t have to face the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing’s going to be easy for a No. 6 seed. 

We analyzed the Celtics, Heat and Pacers as possible first-round opponents for the Sixers here

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

When Ben Simmons flexed his left leg after lobbing a pass for Al Horford and immediately headed off the floor Wednesday during the Sixers’ win over the Wizards, it was logical to be concerned. But, according to a report, Simmons’ knee injury is not as severe as one might have feared watching him walk toward the locker room. 

An MRI on Simmons’ knee was clean and he’s expected to be day-to-day, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. It's worth noting this is not an official update from the Sixers, who Brett Brown said postgame he expected to issue an announcement soon about Simmons' status. 

The 24-year-old recovered from a nerve impingement in his lower back over the NBA’s hiatus, and he felt strong and explosive heading into the league’s restart. He’s now serving as the Sixers’ starting point forward, an adjustment Brown thinks he’s approached well.

“I do feel like Ben has been amazing,” Brown said before Wednesday’s game, “in regards to just being mature on ‘Put me wherever you think I can best help the team.’ At times maybe he hasn’t gotten a touch the way he needs to get a touch, sometimes — which was easier when he was always the primary ball carrier. And so I applaud him tremendously on being a great teammate, trying to accept a new type of ecosystem that we’re trying to use him in.”

Simmons looked for his shot often in Wednesday’s game, though with little success. He missed an open corner three-pointer in the first quarter, his first legitimate regular-season try from long distance since Dec. 7, and made 2 of 10 field goals overall in 23 minutes. 

If Simmons misses any games, Brown will have a few options for reshuffling his starting lineup. There’s a case to be made for just about every member of the current rotation, which Brown cut down to nine players on Wednesday. Al Horford could slide into the frontcourt if Brown wants to work on the Horford-Joel Embiid pairing, which has a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World after being the Sixers’ worst regular duo pre-hiatus.

Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Glenn Robinson III have all started games this year, though Robinson is dealing with an injury himself, having missed the team's first three seeding games with a left hip pointer. Perhaps Brown could go with Alec Burks if he’s looking for an extra ball handler and more time to evaluate his potential backup point guard in the playoffs.

The main takeaway here, however, is not the potential ripple effects on the Sixers' seeding game rotation. Rather, it's that a player the team will surely need to have available in order to make a deep playoff run reportedly has avoided a serious injury.

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