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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