Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

It is the third healthy season of Ben Simmons’ NBA career and he has made two three-point shots in the regular season. That fact is difficult to ignore and unfortunately tends to distort any evaluation of Simmons.

The 23-year-old is also, of course, a gifted player who leads the league in steals, is fifth in assists and, to put it simply, is very good at many parts of basketball besides shooting.

Instead of fixating on his shot or praising all his skills, let’s evaluate Simmons in half-court offense and examine, outside of the obvious, where he can get better. 

Making the most of all that room 

Normal NBA actions, like this 1-5 pick-and-roll at the end of the first half on Dec. 27, are sometimes less normal when Simmons is involved.

Going under a ball screen is a common scheme, but the way Aaron Gordon slid under Joel Embiid at the foul line before Simmons had even gone inside the arc is not. This defensive approach against Simmons can make it difficult to run conventional offense.

Since he hasn’t yet done it, we don’t know whether Simmons taking these near-omnipresent opportunities to shoot would change how teams defend him. The similar way opponents guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, now a very willing outside shooter (32.4 percent from three on 5.1 attempts per game), indicates it might not. 

One action the Sixers like as a means of exploiting the open space teams give Simmons is called “12,” and it begins with a wing rising up from the baseline to set a ball screen for Simmons, accept a handoff or slide out behind the arc, as Furkan Korkmaz did early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.

It got Josh Richardson a good look in the second quarter on Christmas. This is an odd way to produce a three in the modern NBA, but the Sixers managed an open one for Richardson because Donte DiVincenzo got caught under the sagging Antetokounmpo.

Simmons can chew up space well, and not just by sprinting at top speed. He countered the defense’s expectations and changed pace effectively on the play below, acting as if he was going to hand it off to James Ennis before accelerating.

A focus on spacing 

For the current version of Simmons, off-ball spacing is vital. When Al Horford posts up, Tobias Harris drives or two teammates run a pick-and-roll, it’s important that Simmons is in the proper floor spot.

Brett Brown said on Dec. 17 it’s something he often reviews with Simmons.

I spend so much time with Ben talking about spacing. … He uses the space to play downhill and so somewhere, the bottom line is we need to grow his perimeter game. And it starts with space. Out of a post, where is he? Out of a pick-and-roll, where is he? Not when he's in the post, not when he's in the pick-and-roll — when he's out of the action. Those are the areas that we've been talking a little bit about.

“He's been great. He sees it and he shares things with me, too, that I give him credit for. And so this is a partnership. I'm here to help him, help us, help himself. And that I'll continue to try to do. 

The Sixers are working to deprogram Simmons’ default mode of wanting to be as close to the basket as possible. On the play below, he stood in a no man’s land between the left block and left elbow instead of relocating behind the arc, didn’t look at the rim when Harris dropped the ball off to him and ultimately helped derail the trip. 

A positive possession for Simmons in terms of spacing is usually quite basic. Here, he recognized Embiid was in the “dunker spot,” walked back to the three-point line and stayed there as Harris drove.

The team just needs Simmons to be attentive, aware of both where his teammates are and where he should be once he gives up the ball. It didn’t have an impact on this particular play, but notice how Harris had to motion to Simmons as he stared at Horford posting up — “Move over to the corner.”


Pick-and-roll progress 

The pick-and-roll pairing of Richardson and Simmons has picked up steam over the past few weeks.

As Brown noted on Jan. 5, Simmons has many qualities that should make him a good screener and roller.

“I think Ben is a really good screen setter,” he said. “He’s physical — he embraces that side of it. And he’s a dynamic roller — he’s a lob guy, he’s a catch-go guy and he can facilitate picking off corners as a passer.”

The lob part of that equation is unique for a "point guard."

Richardson obviously made the right read to throw it up to Simmons when he noticed James Harden hadn’t fully recovered, but Simmons’ size and athleticism are why that pass was an option.

When Brown talks about “quarterbacking” a gym, he usually is referring to Embiid picking out passes from the low block. Simmons, though, can do something similar from the top of the key, like on this after-timeout play from Dec. 28. 

That’s an easy pass for Simmons to throw once he sees Kelly Olynyk front the post like the Sixers hoped he would.

Simmons can often gain that position against smaller players. The Sixers got Simmons a switch against the 6-foot Chris Paul on Jan. 6, essentially leaving him free to throw any pass he wanted. He picked out an excellent one, rifling it to Horford in the corner when he saw Danilo Gallinari briefly fall asleep. 

This season, Simmons is 7 of 30 from 10 feet and out (23.3 percent). He was 25 for 105 last season (23.8 percent).

His major weakness is unavoidable and an obstacle the Sixers must continue to confront in their half-court offense. Simmons has strengths in the half court, too — his downhill driving ability, the attention he draws, his passing, his screening and rolling. 

One aspect of the current formula for success is maximizing those positives. The others are being fastidious about spacing, and intelligent in countering opponents knowing Simmons’ jump shot is not a threat and playing him as such. 

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Sixers injury update: Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris available vs. Raptors

Sixers injury update: Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris available vs. Raptors

Joel Embiid is available for the Sixers’ game Wednesday night vs. the Raptors after missing Tuesday’s loss to the Suns with a left ankle injury. 

The three-time All-Star sustained the injury in the first quarter of the Sixers' game Sunday against the Trail Blazers. He appeared to grimace after his left foot landed awkwardly on the basket stanchion (see video above). 

Al Horford and Tobias Harris will also return after sitting out Tuesday's game with left knee soreness and right ankle soreness, respectively. Josh Richardson, who rested against Phoenix, is available as well. 

On Tuesday, Brett Brown said the players out vs. the Suns could've played in a postseason game, and the news that they're available for the team's penultimate seeding game clearly indicates that is indeed the case. The Sixers head into their game vs. the Raptors at 43-29, a game behind the No. 5 seed Pacers in the Eastern Conference. They're likely to face the No. 3 seed Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, and a Pacers win vs. the Rockets this afternoon and/or Sixers loss to Toronto would finalize that matchup. 

Alec Burks is out for the game against Toronto with left foot soreness, an injury that The Inquirer's Keith Pompey reports is not a "long-term concern." He's performed well at Disney World, averaging 14.3 points and shooting 57.1 percent over the Sixers' six games, and looks primed to play a key role in the playoffs as the Sixers forge ahead with Ben Simmons sidelined by a left knee injury. Simmons had successful surgery to remove a loose body from his knee on Monday.

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How to watch Sixers vs. Raptors: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers vs. Raptors: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

Updated: 2:14 p.m. 

The Sixers on Tuesday lost to the only team without a defeat in the NBA's "bubble," falling to the Suns. Wednesday, they'll play the team with the second-best record at Disney World. The Toronto Raptors are 5-1 in Orlando and 51-19 overall.

Here are the essentials:

When: 6:30 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 6
Where: The Field House at The Wide World of Sports Complex 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Factors behind the rest 

Before the Sixers’ loss Tuesday, Brett Brown was asked about the team not having any of its opening night starting lineup available. Josh Richardson rested, while Tobias Harris (right ankle soreness), Al Horford (left knee soreness) and Joel Embiid (left ankle injury) were listed as out with injuries. We won’t see Ben Simmons for some time after he had surgery on his left knee. 

Initially, Brown didn’t have much to add.

“I’m sure they could play (if it was a playoff game), but it isn’t,” he said.

He then expanded on the thinking behind so many of the team’s top players being out.

“If you went to any coach in the NBA, you’re going to get that,” he said. “What ends up happening, also, is it gets doubled down on with the medical people and it ends up a cumulative decision that’s collaborated on with the players. Living in this world that we’re in down here I don’t think changes — we could be in Philadelphia, I bet we would’ve done the same thing. 

“But I feel like, when you sort of feel the physical side of our team and some of the subtle injuries, the fact that you don’t have the depth that you used to with Ben, all those things added up have influenced this decision.”

For the team’s penultimate seeding game, the Sixers will be near full strength. Simmons remains out, of course, and Alec Burks is sidelined with left foot soreness, but everyone else who missed Tuesday's game is available.

2nd-round preview?

Toronto is locked into the No. 2 seed, while the Sixers are a game behind the No. 5 Pacers. According to Basketball Reference, there’s a 94.8 percent chance the Sixers finish as the No. 6 seed. It’s possible, therefore, that the Sixers could play the Raptors in the second round in consecutive years.

The Raptors were the first team to travel to Florida and have wins there over the Lakers, Heat and Bucks. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are not on the injury report after missing Monday’s win over Milwaukee, while Serge Ibaka (right knee contusion) and OG Anunoby (right knee soreness) are questionable, but Toronto has no reason to push any key players. Pascal Siakam’s 28 minutes were the most of any Raptors starter vs. the Bucks. 

The Sixers can even the regular-season series against Toronto at 2-2 with a win. Notable moments against the Raptors this season include Embiid being held scoreless on Nov. 25 and Matisse Thybulle putting up a career-high 20 points on Dec. 8 in a game the Sixers kept interesting until the end with a flurry of late turnovers. 

More playoff prep for Thybulle 

Time is running out, but Thybulle should have another chance here to fine-tune his defense, which Brown and the Sixers expect to count on, before the postseason.

He was frustrated by fouls Tuesday, picking up a technical and accruing five fouls by early in the third quarter. Brown thought there were lessons to take away for the rookie about how to play in those situations. 

“I think one of the areas that he can learn from the most is how do you play with five fouls,” Brown said. “I thought that he was so trying to do the right thing and trying not to foul out that (Devin) Booker could kind of score easily. And I get why he would think that. But when we go into the next world of the playoffs, when I look at who are my best defensive wings now that you don’t have Ben, Matisse is clearly amongst that. I think Glenn Robinson’s got a shot at being in that group. I know J-Rich is a part of that group. 

“You start playing that game in the event that foul trouble happens, how can you play with foul trouble? Because sometimes you’re just going to have to. And I thought that in general, he was pretty good. I thought that specific thing that I’m talking about, that’s a transferrable lesson, especially as the playoffs become closer.”

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