The Sixers enter the 2021 NBA playoffs with a distinct advantage on the Eastern Conference. As the No. 1 seed, they have home-court advantage as far as they advance, until the NBA Finals.
That’s the expectations of the majority of the fan base: the NBA Finals.
What stands in the Sixers' way? The two teams that finished second and third in the conference — the Nets and Bucks — will give the Sixers their biggest challenge in the East. Both teams have shorter odds to win the East, despite finishing behind the Sixers in the standings.
There is, however, one weapon the Sixers have that can help them overcome their main conference rivals. It’s one that may or may not be used. One that hasn’t been used in months.
Ben Simmons’ aggressiveness at the offensive end of the floor.
Doc Rivers hasn’t come close to saying that the absence of Simmons’ aggressiveness on offense is a concern, but you better believe it is. I’m guessing he’s spent hours watching film, searching high and low for any sign of its return.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention anything about a jump shot, nothing about a midrange game. Most Sixers fans have given up on that pipe dream. This is about simply not fading into the woodwork, not being a road cone while the offense works around him.
Over the last eight weeks, Simmons has been a shell of himself on offense. This is not a small sample size that can be sloughed off; this is a 22-game span. Nearly one-third of this NBA season.
- 11.4 points per game and 8.2 field goal attempts per game; both of those figures are below that of bench player Shake Milton.
- 5.9 assists per game; nearly two per game fewer than his average to that point of the season.
- 55.1 percent free throw percentage; dead last in the league over that 22-game span, among players who take at least 2.5 free throws a game. Dead last.
While it’s true that the Sixers rolled through the regular season with few hiccups, despite MVP candidate Joel Embiid missing more than 20 games and Simmons missing 14, the postseason is a very different animal from regular-season NBA basketball.
It’s hard to beat a team four times in seven tries. Especially when it's desperate. As you go deeper into a playoff series, your opponent is learning. It figures you out. What you like to do and don’t like to do. It valiantly battles against your strengths and relentlessly attacks your weaknesses.
You can almost set your watch to what teams will do while the Sixers are on offense. They’ll double Embiid as soon as he puts the ball on the floor. The other three defenders will patrol the passing lanes. If Embiid reacts too slowly or his teammates don’t move to an open spot, it’s likely a contested Embiid fadeaway or a turnover.
A passive Simmons on offense increases the degree of difficulty. He stands, predictably, in the dunker spot, giving his assigned defender free rein to either attack Embiid or get into a chosen passing lane for a steal.
Just like you wouldn’t want to defend against the Nets or Bucks with a teammate who was a swinging gate, you can ill afford to run an offense 4-on-5.
Simmons’ playoff shortcomings are well-documented. In past years, he deferred to teammates and it led to underwhelming production, both for Simmons and the team as a whole. No more excuses. He is now a three-time All-Star, justified or not, and All-Stars show their mettle in the postseason.
If Simmons can find his groove again, it gives the Sixers a fully-loaded offensive arsenal, as well as forcing opponents to account for Simmons everywhere on the floor, 94 feet.
If not, it’s time to question how patient Daryl Morey will be with a player who fails to put forth his best when it truly counts.
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