Sixers can’t win it all until Ben Simmons gives us more

Sixers can’t win it all until Ben Simmons gives us more

Ben Simmons is a very good basketball player. This is an indisputable fact. Great? Nope. A star? Sorry. Transcendent? Laughable.

Simmons is a man of many talents on the basketball court. He’s among the fastest players in recent memory baseline-to-baseline with the basketball. Court vision is near the top of the league. His defense is among the best in the game. He’s a willing and active rebounder. But Simmons has one thing that is holding him back from being great. And that one thing is Ben Simmons.

Brett Brown and his assistants have beaten their heads against the wall for three seasons, trying to coax a jump shot out of their point guard, with minimal results. We see him at practice and pregame shootaround, knocking down outside shots like it’s his job. So why don’t we see it during games?

Is it because Simmons doesn’t think he can make the shot? Can’t be. He’s as confident as any player in the league with the ball in his hands. Some believe it’s because he’s afraid of looking bad, that his mid-range game is not his strongest suit. But it’s hampering his game, and, moreover, his unwillingness to assert himself is hurting his team late in games.

Nobody concentrated on it when he was cooking NBA players in the open court as a rookie, running roughshod through the best the league had to offer. We didn’t really think much about the fact that his shot chart looked like a game of Nerfhoop we played in our bedroom when we were nine years old: dunks and lay-ups only. No sign of a mid-range game, let alone a three-pointer. 

Over this past summer, Simmons teased fans with videos from open runs in Los Angeles, drilling mid-range Js and threes from every angle. Visions of a parade danced in their heads. Could this be the year?

He said all the right things. This quote from Simmons to the Associated Press in late September reads like he was ready to go next-level:

“I feel like this summer I fell in love with the game again. I kind of got back to who I was and having fun with the game … I’ve been in the gym every day working and the results have been paying off so I’m excited for the season to start.”

Terrific. Maybe he could fall in love with an 18-footer?

He toyed with us when he dropped a three in the preseason opener against a Chinese league team. In the regular season? He’s played in 39 games and taken 30 shots from more than 10 feet from the basket, making seven (23.3 percent). 

After Simmons made his second (and most recent) three of the season in a 34-point night against Cleveland on Dec. 7, Brown made public what he has certainly shared with Simmons ad nauseum in private: “I want a three-point a shot a game, minimum.”

Maybe Simmons misheard. In the 18 games since, he’s taken one 3-pointer, period.

The NBA is a game of adjustments. The league figures out what your team does well and tries to take it away from you. We’ve seen, time and time again, teams wall off Simmons at the free throw line, knowing he won’t shoot a pull-up jumper. Heck, Celtics fans made a T-shirt out of it

With the ball in his hands, Simmons is a force. But as the Sixers “walk down the game,” as they say, teams work to get the ball out of his hands. Once they achieve that, Simmons is largely a spectator, content to set screens or hang in the “dunker” spot while his teammates play 4-on-5. In the Sixers' last two games, losses to the Mavericks and Pacers, Simmons went a combined 0 for 4 for zero points in the fourth quarter.

The man’s game has no ceiling, if he’s willing to embrace the game. The answer lies within Simmons, and until he’s willing to give all of himself on the court, he, and the Sixers, are doomed to second-round playoff exits. Which is exactly where the team began The Process.

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'It's a gift and a curse' — Steve Nash shares his thoughts on Ben Simmons

'It's a gift and a curse' — Steve Nash shares his thoughts on Ben Simmons

On the surface, Steve Nash and Ben Simmons don’t have a ton in common. 

Nash, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, shot 42.8 percent from three-point range and 90.4 percent from the foul line in his NBA career. Simmons’ shooting is not a strength.

However, the two chatted Saturday night at Madison Square Garden after Simmons’ 21-point, eight-assist performance in the Sixers’ win over the Knicks (see observations).

Simmons told reporters he talked with Nash, a co-owner of the MLS’ Vancouver Whitecaps FC, about soccer.

“He was such a great leader, a competitive spirit,” Simmons said. “Just watching highlights and some of his games, the way he played, he was just relentless. He played through anything." 

Nash sees a lot to admire in Simmons’ game, too. He said he thinks Simmons is worthy of being an All-Star for the second straight season.

Ben’s a generational talent. Crazy athlete, can play multiple positions on offense and defense. Obviously his glaring weakness is the shooting, but he’s so gifted that he can make up for it in other ways, and it’s about finding a way for him to be at his best for this group. And that’s a challenge for this club, is how do all the pieces fit together? Ben’s ability at both ends of the floor is unique and he’s a special, special player. 

“I wouldn’t put it past him to become a reliable shooter at some stage in his career, but he still does so many things at both ends of the floor that if you could find a way as an organization to promote that, you have an incredible, incredible piece. That is a huge challenge — how do all the pieces fit? … I think it’s something that Brett [Brown] and everyone are working through every day. It’s a gift and a curse.

Though his game isn’t much like Nash’s, Simmons said he can still take a lot from the 2004-05 NBA MVP. 

“He’s a legend, so definitely,” Simmons said. “I definitely want to talk to him and pick up things.”

Nash was asked whether Simmons can keep going as an infrequent jump shooter. 

“He can, in the right environment,” Nash said. “If he can figure out how to make some shots in some parts of the court, it can change everything. … He can do so many things. He can change positions four or five times in a game. That in itself is huge. So, how do you absorb that? That’s the challenge. Like I said, it’s a gift and a curse, and they’ll have to figure that out.”

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Tobias Harris trolls Ben Simmons before and after Sixers' win

Tobias Harris trolls Ben Simmons before and after Sixers' win

There are probably quite a few people that would like to be Ben Simmons.

Tobias Harris took that a step further before the Sixers game Saturday night against the Knicks, rocking Simmons' expensive looking neckwear.

The Sixers sweated out a win and snapped their six-game road losing streak at Madison Square Garden Saturday (see observations). Harris had a rough night, going 5 of 13 overall, but he did hit a huge three with 28.2 seconds left off a Simmons’ inbounds pass to give the Sixers a two-point lead.

“I was just trying to get it in,” Simmons told reporters postgame. “I don’t think we had any timeouts left, so I’m glad he came to the ball and put up a great shot. He made it look good.”

The chemistry between the two seems to be paying off on the court.

“He’s locked in,” Simmons said. “He’s been aggressive taking shots. We want him to keep shooting the ball and taking those open looks. He’s a great player."

Postgame, Harris went back into Simmons mode.

The team also had a little fun with Harris’ “Fresh Prince” impersonation.

Simmons had a big night, posting 20 points for the fourth straight game — the first time in his career he's done so. The duo of Harris and Simmons also combined for the biggest defensive play of the game, trapping Julius Randle and causing a turnover with 7.6 seconds left.

Even though Harris accidentally gave Simmons a smack in the face in his haste while celebrating.

The Sixers have won three games in a row and it looks like they’re having fun again.

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