Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

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NBC Sports

Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t messing around. On Tuesday, Ben Simmons signed a full maximum extension, worth $170 million over five years, to remain with the team that drafted him No.1 overall in 2017. With Joel Embiid already under contract through 2022-23, Philly GM Elton Brand locks in one of the best young duos in the NBA for at least the next four seasons.

Simmons’ extension isn’t a total surprise, but it’s still an enormous commitment from the Sixers once you account for the rest of the core’s price tag. The 22-year-old’s salary will jump from $8.1 million in 2019-20 to $29.3 million in 2020-21 and escalate gradually to $38.6 million in 2024-25. 

Haberstroh: Sixers smart to reload with Harris, Horford

With the re-signing of Tobias Harris and the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson, the Sixers will be paying $131.5 million to just five players in 2020-21. To illustrate how steep that outlay is, consider that the salary cap is projected to be $116 million. (CBA 101: teams can go over the cap to re-sign its own players, generally speaking). According to ESPN, all five years are guaranteed with significant bonuses tied to All-NBA honors in 2019-20. 

Is paying all that guaranteed money to Simmons a wise investment? 

I wouldn’t think twice about it. He deserves it. Simmons is an elite NBA player, even at age 22 (he turns 23 next week). He averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 56 percent shooting in his second season in the league, becoming the youngest player in this past season’s All-Star Game in Charlotte.

Still, Simmons remains a basketball riddle. Consider that his top statistical comparables in FiveThirtyEight’s model include names like James Worthy, Grant Hill, Bernard King, Brad Daugherty, Blake Griffin and Andrew Bogut. All over the place. If you asked a Magic 8 Ball about Simmons’ future, it’d probably read, “Cannot Predict Now.”

Who is Ben Simmons? The irony is he’s himself, to a T. Simmons’ first two seasons in the league were just about carbon copies of one another. To wit:

In 2017-18, he played 2,732 minutes. 
In 2018-19, he played 2,700 minutes.

In 2017-18, he took 12.3 shots per game and made 6.8.
In 2018-19, he took 12.2 shots per game and made 6.7. 

In 2017-18, he averaged 8.2 assists and 3.5 turnovers.
In 2018-19, he averaged 7.7 assists and 3.6 turnovers.

In 2017-18, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.
In 2018-19, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.

And his other advanced metrics were eerily similar, too. 

Some might call that uncanny consistency. Others might call it a red flag. But criticizing Simmons’ plateau in Year 2 ignores the fact that most of the players on the All-Rookie teams had either even or down years. Most everyone expected huge things from Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball in 2018-19. None of them took a huge step forward. (Mitchell came on strong late in the regular season, but struggled mightily in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets.)

Simmons’ postseason saw wild swings from clear superstar to critically flawed. The best game of his young career notably came in a playoff setting, one in which Embiid sat out with a sore knee. Entering Game 3 tied 1-1 in the series against the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons erupted for 31 points and nine assists on the road without his co-star. That virtuoso performance came on the heels of Jared Dudley saying Simmons was “average” in the halfcourt. Simmons responded in a big way.

That’s the Simmons that Philly fans want to see every night. But over the next nine games, Simmons averaged just 12.1 points, including four straight games without making a free throw.

Look, he’s 22. We want Simmons to be a finished product who dominates every playoff game he’s in, but he’s years away from his prime, and the Sixers just locked in his age 24 to age 28 seasons.

The most tantalizing aspect of Simmons’ game is his defense. Thanks to his versatility, it’s possible Simmons will win a Defensive Player of the Year award by the time this contract is done. At 6-foot-10 with point guard speed and instincts, Simmons has the ability to thwart just about any player in the game. According to research by Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu, Simmons was one of nine starters who guarded all five positions at least 10 percent of the time on the floor last season. None of them were as young as Simmons.

It’s rare for a player to show a knack for defense at Simmons’ age. It was Simmons, not Jimmy Butler, that took on the Kawhi Leonard assignment in critical moments of the playoffs. There were lapses, to be sure, but he was 22 freaking years old going against the best player in the world. Getting young players to commit defensively in the NBA is like pulling teeth. Simmons wants to be a Defensive Player of the Year one day, which is a huge win in and of itself.

Simmons’ lack of a jumper has many folks howling about how Embiid and Simmons are horrible fits next to each other. The numbers don’t agree. With the two young stars on the floor this postseason, the Sixers outscored opponents by 19.5 points per 100 possessions. Here are some postseason net ratings for star duos (net rating is points ahead/behind every 100 possessions while on the floor): Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, minus-1.3; Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, plus-3.0; Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, plus-7.8; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, plus-9.6. Again: Simmons and Embiid, plus-19.5.

Some of that juggernaut rating is a reflection of JJ Redick, Harris and Butler often being on the floor as well, but it’s undeniable that the Sixers have thrived with Simmons and Embiid on the court. The fit isn’t perfect, but Simmons and Embiid complement each other in other ways. 

While Embiid lumbers up the floor, Simmons blitzes past defenders in the open court. Simmons’ ability to execute high-level passes in tight spaces has resulted in Embiid shooting 45.5 percent on 2-pointers off of Simmons’ passes compared to 41.5 percent on 2-pointers from all other teammates, per NBA.com tracking. Simmons assisted more of Embiid’s buckets than Butler and T.J. McConnell combined. (Side note: the Sixers are going to miss Redick’s playmaking next season).

Would a reliable jumper help Simmons’ impact? Of course it would. But you could say that about a lot of players -- most valuable ones, too.

The reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has shot 26.5 percent from downtown over the last five seasons. Russell Westbrook, another MVP, has shot above 30 percent on 3-pointers once in the last five seasons. Westbrook has made 216 more 3-pointers than Simmons has over the last two seasons, but he’s also missed 504 more 3-pointers than Simmons over the last two seasons. Those misses matter, too.

Taking more 3-pointers would probably be good both for Simmons’ development and the Sixers’ spacing. But excessive 3-point shooting from bad shooters can be just as hurtful to NBA offense. Yes, the offense can become clogged when it slows to the halfcourt and playoff teams can exploit that. But even with the iffy shot and fit with Embiid, the Sixers were the eighth-best offense in the NBA. Not historic, but pretty darn good. And they were a bounce or two from the Eastern Conference Finals.

Simmons’ lack of range has generated some polarizing opinions on the player. Some think Simmons is another Michael Carter-Williams (there are a lot of blue check marks here). But that’s incredibly unfair to an elite finisher like Simmons, who owns a 57.0 true-shooting percentage in his career compared to Carter-Williams’ 47.1 percent over his first two seasons -- not even in the same sphere. Simmons is much closer to Magic than MCW.

While I think many go overboard on Simmons’ lack of a jumper, I am not holding my breath that he’ll add one. Brook Lopez famously didn’t make a 3-pointer until his seventh year in the league and he’s now one of the NBA’s most prolific 3-point shooters. But Lopez was an excellent free throw shooter (81 percent in his first two seasons) and regularly exhibited a knockdown mid-range shot. 

Simmons’ lack of a single made 3-pointer in his two seasons grabs headlines, but it’s his poor free throw shooting (58.3 percent) and lack of mid-range game that make me skeptical it’ll ever become a go-to weapon. Since 2000, there are 25 players who have zero 3-pointers in at least 3,000 minutes over their first two seasons. The list is almost exclusively centers. The ones that eventually added a 3-point shot -- Lopez, Marc Gasol and Horford -- all shot at least 70 percent from the line. 

Simmons, however, owns a free-throw shooting percentage that ranks 23rd of 25 players, just ahead of Mason Plumlee and Bismack Biyombo and just behind fellow Klutch client and workout buddy Tristan Thompson. I probably don’t have to tell you that Plumlee, Biyombo and Thompson have yet to add any semblance of a 3-point shot. 

But Simmons does outrank all of those non-shooting centers in one category: total win shares. Again, just because Simmons doesn’t have a jump shot doesn’t mean he can’t be a dominant player. 

It all boils down to this: Simmons instantly vaults into the MVP conversation if he adds a jumper to his game. Players that are one skill away from MVP talk absolutely deserve the max. Players in that realm are almost never 22 years old. Simmons is already there.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

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NBC Sports

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

Bradley Beal isn’t going anywhere.

That was the message Washington Wizards officials insisted on for months even when it seemed, from the outside, that Beal was facing an unpalatable situation, at best.

Consider the ominous backdrop. The Wizards missed the playoffs in 2018-19 despite Beal’s career year. The search to replace Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards’ chief decision maker took nearly four months. Fellow backcourt star John Wall tore his Achilles and likely will miss the entire 2019-20 season. 

Not only that, but Anthony Davis -- who was picked two spots ahead of Beal in the 2012 draft -- just orchestrated an ugly exit from the franchise that drafted him. All the while, Beal’s name kept surfacing in the rumor mill as a potential trade target following a historic free agency bonanza that was sure to leave some teams desperate for a splashy move. 

Beal must have had his bags packed, right? 

Quite the contrary. The message I was hearing from the Wizards’ side of things was steadfast: We’re going to keep Beal -- not just for the season. He’s going to want to commit to what we’re building long-term.

On Thursday morning, that level of confidence was justified. Beal agreed to a two-year extension, first reported by ESPN, totalling $72 million through 2022-23 and lining him up for a potential record-breaking five-year, $266 million contract when he’s eligible for the 10-year pay bump in 2022, if he exercises a player option following the 2021-22 season.

This is an absolute home run for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and his revamped front office structure led by general manager Tommy Sheppard and chief operations and planning officer Sashi Brown. Selling Beal on the team’s vision going forward was the top priority of the franchise.

Not only does it mean, by league rule, that Beal can’t be traded until July 2020, but the extension avoids the sticky situation of Beal becoming eligible for supermax money next summer if he landed on an All-NBA team this upcoming season (or won MVP or Defensive Player of the Year). In 2021-22, Beal is set to earn $34.5 million, about $10 million less than he could have gotten if he inked the supermax contract, a la Wall.

Beal could have demanded a trade like his draft classmate Davis. He could have tabled talks and gunned for an All-NBA selection this season to maximize his earnings. He could have kept this hanging over the Wizards all season. But instead, he signed off on the pitch outlined by Leonsis, Sheppard and the Wizards’ front office. 

Getting Beal’s commitment wasn’t going to be easy considering the strong league-wide current pulling the other way. Beal had to be assured that things would be different going forward. Beal had, at times, been frustrated about the lack of accountability in the front office, according to sources. Those feelings reportedly boiled over in a November practice in which he levied strong words at Grunfeld.

Leonsis’ decision to promote from within was met with surprise by some around the league. While Sheppard was highly-regarded throughout league circles, he also stood loyally by Grunfeld’s side for 16 years. Could Sheppard really convince Beal in a short time that he’s not Grunfeld 2.0?

The answer to that question is loud and clear. After years of shedding longer-term assets for quick fixes, Sheppard and the front office made a play for decade-long sustainability. 

They drafted Rui Hachimura with the No. 9 overall pick and added Admiral Schofield at No. 42 via a deal with Philadelphia. What followed draft night was three shrewd cap moves to acquire talent for next to nothing. The team plucked Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones and a second-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, who needed to offload money to acquire Davis. Then, Sheppard absorbed former Spurs sharpshooter Davis Bertans when San Antonio needed to move salary in order to sign Marcus Morris, who ended up backing out of the deal to sign with the Knicks. 

To further establish a new culture, the team swapped Dwight Howard’s contract for another veteran sharpshooter who was rehabbing from injury in C.J. Miles. In a season where several contenders will likely look to add talent at the deadline, both Bertans and Miles could be moved for picks.

Sheppard and the front office weren’t done making plays with the long-term future in mind. Rather than pay big money to retain restricted free agents Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, the team moved on. They inked 22-year-old Thomas Bryant to a three-year deal for backup money after an impressive season as the team’s starting center. The final tally at the outset of free agency: The Wizards acquired seven players under the age of 23 (Jones was waived Wednesday).

Evidently, Beal was impressed with the reset, turning down the opportunity to be the biggest name on the market this season and signing for less than he could have if he made All-NBA. 

At the age of 26, Beal is a consummate franchise pillar. The two-time All-Star averaged 25.6 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds last season, one of six players to reach those marks last season. The other five -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Kevin Durant -- have all won MVP awards. Beal has played all 82 games in each of the last two seasons, a feat almost no one thought was possible after he battled stress fractures early in his career. 

The extension will take Beal under contract through his age-29 season, when he will be reaching the apex of his career, about the same phase that Curry, Harden and Kawhi Leonard are in now. The Wizards may not make the playoffs this season, but under revamped leadership, there’s at least a roadmap to contention. The Wizards just needed to buy some time to see it through. Beal’s extension, which at multiple points seemed unlikely, gives them that. And affirmation that the Wizards have something here.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.