Tracking Ben Simmons' development shows encouraging signs for future

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Tracking Ben Simmons' development shows encouraging signs for future

An obvious narrative after the Sixers' loss Wednesday night to the Raptors, their 13th straight in Toronto, is that the team’s young stars still aren’t “ready for prime time,” still aren't capable of competing against the elite class of the NBA. 

Though Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons performed below expectations, one game is not proof that both players aren’t good enough to help the Sixers win late-round playoff series.

Embiid is in a mini-slump over the past three games but Simmons has shown noticeable development. Over the last nine games, he’s averaging 17 points, 8.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and shooting 62.6 percent from the floor. 

There are still legitimate questions about whether his game, specifically his lack of a jump shot, will be as effective in the postseason. Yet there are a few positive signs for Simmons in this recent stretch. Perhaps the most encouraging is his well-documented chemistry with Jimmy Butler.

Butler brings out the best in Simmons

With Butler in the fold, we’ve seen more of Simmons as a screener in the pick-and-roll. His size and strength make him difficult to stop in that role, and he’s finally getting to play with a competent perimeter pick-and-roll player in Butler. 

Butler and Simmons already appear to have a nuanced understanding of each other on the floor. On this play from Sunday's win over the Grizzlies, JJ Redick sets a clever back screen for Butler, and Simmons hits Butler with the lob.

Overall, Simmons has 27 assists to Butler in their first 11 games together. Butler has shot 40 for 80 on passes from Simmons.

It’s not as if Toronto snuffed out that chemistry. Simmons had four assists on Wednesday to Butler, who shot 8 for 11 off Simmons’ passes. This play below received the most attention for Simmons’ innovative behind-the-back pass, and for good reason. But it's also worth noting Butler stealthily cutting behind a good defender in Danny Green, who seemed mesmerized by Simmons’ moves, and giving Simmons an outlet.

Simmons’ efficiency in the post has been his biggest area of improvement this season.

He was poor in that category as a rookie, averaging 0.69 points per possession on post-ups, which was worse than 83.3 percent of players in the NBA.

This season, all of Simmons’ relevant numbers are much better in the post. He’s posting up more (12.4 percent frequency vs. 9.2 percent); getting to the free throw line a ton more (29.4 percent free throw frequency vs. 11.5 percent); and as you’d expect, scoring at a higher rate (1.0 points per possession vs. 0.69).

Butler’s presence on the perimeter gives Simmons more space in the post, and his ability as a cutter helps Simmons make the most of his unique point-forward skills. 

What to make of Simmons' struggles in Toronto

On Oct. 30 in Toronto, Simmons had a career-high 11 turnovers. There were plenty of plays like the one below, in which Simmons flew into the lane, realized he was in no man’s land, and forced a bad pass.

Simmons had seven turnovers Wednesday night. It’s better than 11, but it’s nothing to be thrilled about. 

A few of those turnovers were not unique to Simmons or his style of play — no matter how careful you are with the ball, chances are Kawhi Leonard is going to strip it away from you one or two times.

Simmons also had two offensive fouls, one on a moving screen, one while trying to establish post position. You can live with those kinds of turnovers.

What Simmons still needs to clean up are the plays where he attempts to make the perfect pass, like the one below. Butler has the right idea with his backdoor cut but there’s no window for Simmons to thread the ball through against a rangy defender like Pascal Siakam.

Against elite teams such as Toronto, Simmons can’t create as many plays simply by virtue of being a special athlete.

He tracked Marshon Brooks from behind and made a sensational steal Sunday night vs. the Grizzlies.

On the following play in Toronto, Simmons is freed up for an easy lay-up by Redick’s back screen. After his miss, he finds his way back into the play to tail Leonard. Unlike Brooks, Leonard doesn’t allow Simmons to make an improbable steal.

Without the luxury of a consistent, gaping athletic advantage against most playoff teams, Simmons will need to sharpen the other parts of his game — continuing to improve his post play; increasing his free throw percentage; cutting down on his turnovers; and maintaining the "defensive accountability" Brett Brown has seen from Simmons since Butler's arrival. 

In the long term, there’s zero doubt a jump shot would help. For the time being, though, Simmons is 3 for 24 on field goal attempts greater than 10 feet.

In the short term, he can maximize his efficiency if he keeps moving in the right direction with the other parts of his game.
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'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

'Potential' is a dangerous word, but Sixers have players to realize it

On paper, a lot of teams in the NBA look awfully good.

Both L.A. teams look like juggernauts. The Warriors lost Kevin Durant, but they’re still the Warriors. The Bucks have the reigning MVP and perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA.

Then there are the Sixers, who have as much potential as any team. Their starting five could be the best in the league. One prominent statistical model even gives them the best chance to win the Finals.

But the word “potential” can be dangerous. Al Horford may be the steadiest player there is. Joel Embiid is still ascending and has work to do, but is already arguably the best big man in the league. 

The other three members of the starting unit all have to tap into their full potential for the Sixers to accomplish their goals.

Does anyone in the league have more to prove than Ben Simmons? It seems weird typing that sentence for a 22-year-old who’s won Rookie of the Year and already made an All-Star team, but here we are. Simmons was given his rookie max extension Monday — which was 100 percent the right move — but questions still linger over his jump shot. He’s been working with famed trainer and shooting coach Chris Johnson in Los Angeles this summer. He also has decided not to play for the Australian national team in the FIBA World Cup so that he can focus on getting prepared for the NBA season.

Recently, Tobias Harris joined Simmons for a workout in L.A. and he came away impressed with Simmons’ progress.

“We played a lot of 1-on-1. He’s in the gym religiously every day – grinding, getting better. He’s in great shape,” Harris said at a press conference last Friday. “Everyone was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the three-point line. It was really because he hit two of them. I dared him to hit two of them and he hit two in a row that’s why I was there. He’s made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has confidence to shoot it. I just kept telling him there, even in these workouts when you’re playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don’t’ get discourage when you miss.”

Harris is another player with something to prove after being given the richest contract in franchise history. GM Elton Brand gave up a haul to acquire the 27-year-old from the Clippers and the results were mixed.

Harris came out on fire with the Sixers, averaging over 20 points a game and shooting 40 percent from three in his first 13 games. He then really struggled down the stretch, averaging 16.1 points a game and hitting only 23 percent of his threes. He was also inconsistent during the team’s postseason run.

Still, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding Harris’ fit with the team — especially with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick gone. He admitted that uncertainty surrounding his role affected his play, but these new pieces could unlock more of his potential. Harris had a borderline All-Star season and was one of the most prolific shooters in the league in a more featured role with the Clippers. He’s improved every season he’s been in the NBA and there’s hope that ascension will continue.

Harris hopes that ascension continues in Philadelphia — and only Philadelphia.

“Everybody knows over the course of my career I've been in a lot of situations,” Harris said. “Hearing in my meeting the possibility of getting these guys that are sitting up here with me was also one of the most appealing things in the pitch. For me, it was just a win-win, to come here in a situation where I can continue to develop and to be somewhere for many years to come. I'm excited for that and, obviously I signed a five-year deal, so I'll hopefully finish my career here, God willing."

It makes sense that Harris would be excited for the arrival of Josh Richardson. Other than Richardson proving to be a strong two-way player, the two have an existing relationship. While they missed playing with each other by a season at Tennessee, the two still crossed paths. Harris was stuck in Tennessee during the NBA lockout in his draft year so he took the incoming freshman Richardson out to dinner. 

Harris remembers an assistant coach saying around that time that Richardson “was going to be a pro” because of how hard he worked. It was a rather bold statement when you consider Richardson was a two-star recruit coming out of high school, but he made that unnamed coach look awfully prophetic.

Richardson, a second-round pick in 2015, had to earn his way onto the floor in the NBA with his tenacious defense and high energy. Much like Harris, Richardson’s offensive game has grown every season in the league. At times, he ran the Heat’s offense last season as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and took the most threes of his career by a healthy margin — though he was only right around league average percentage wise.

While the team looks like a defensive monster, spacing is still a question mark. The Sixers are relying on all three players — and really even Embiid and Horford — to have the best shooting seasons of their careers.

"I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Brand said. “Defensively, of course that's where we're going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we'll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben's working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we're looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it's going to take some time. It should take some time."

With how much work Simmons, Harris and Richardson have put in, all that potential could be realized.

That could make the Sixers a very dangerous team.

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This statistical model gives Sixers best chance of any team to win NBA Finals

This statistical model gives Sixers best chance of any team to win NBA Finals

The Sixers, according to the statistics-centric website FiveThirtyEight, have a 55 percent chance to make the NBA Finals and a 27 percent chance to win it all — both the highest of any NBA team.

FiveThirtyEight's "Way-Too-Early Projections" for the 2019-20 season give the Sixers a greater than 99 percent chance to make the playoffs. The Houston Rockets have the next-best odds to win the title at 24 percent.

It's important to note, of course, that teams' rosters will change between now and the start of the regular season, and we still don't have a schedule.

Its model incorporates heaps of data and does "50,000 simulations of the schedule." A new element this year is the DRAYMOND defensive metric, which gives greater weight to how a defender impacts opponents' shooting percentage.

The fact that Joel Embiid has the second-best DRAYMOND rating since the 2013-14 season might, in part, explain why this year's model is so high on the Sixers. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks (26 percent chance to win the East, 10 percent chance to win the championship) and star-studded Los Angeles Lakers (13 percent odds to win it all) and Clippers (5 percent chance to win it all) have a better shot than FiveThirtyEight gives them.

In case you somehow missed it, a lot has changed for the Sixers this offseason. The team's new starting unit of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Embiid is locked in for the long term, while Mike Scott and James Ennis are again expected to feature off the bench. It's a big, defensively imposing team.

Ennis has said he thinks the Sixers can "walk to the Finals in the East." If you trust FiveThirtyEight's model, his view might not be so outlandish.

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