Sixers film review

Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

Ben Simmons film review: Making the most of Sixers point guard's game in half-court offense

It is the third healthy season of Ben Simmons’ NBA career and he has made two three-point shots in the regular season. That fact is difficult to ignore and unfortunately tends to distort any evaluation of Simmons.

The 23-year-old is also, of course, a gifted player who leads the league in steals, is fifth in assists and, to put it simply, is very good at many parts of basketball besides shooting.

Instead of fixating on his shot or praising all his skills, let’s evaluate Simmons in half-court offense and examine, outside of the obvious, where he can get better. 

Making the most of all that room 

Normal NBA actions, like this 1-5 pick-and-roll at the end of the first half on Dec. 27, are sometimes less normal when Simmons is involved.

Going under a ball screen is a common scheme, but the way Aaron Gordon slid under Joel Embiid at the foul line before Simmons had even gone inside the arc is not. This defensive approach against Simmons can make it difficult to run conventional offense.

Since he hasn’t yet done it, we don’t know whether Simmons taking these near-omnipresent opportunities to shoot would change how teams defend him. The similar way opponents guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, now a very willing outside shooter (32.4 percent from three on 5.1 attempts per game), indicates it might not. 

One action the Sixers like as a means of exploiting the open space teams give Simmons is called “12,” and it begins with a wing rising up from the baseline to set a ball screen for Simmons, accept a handoff or slide out behind the arc, as Furkan Korkmaz did early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.

It got Josh Richardson a good look in the second quarter on Christmas. This is an odd way to produce a three in the modern NBA, but the Sixers managed an open one for Richardson because Donte DiVincenzo got caught under the sagging Antetokounmpo.

Simmons can chew up space well, and not just by sprinting at top speed. He countered the defense’s expectations and changed pace effectively on the play below, acting as if he was going to hand it off to James Ennis before accelerating.

A focus on spacing 

For the current version of Simmons, off-ball spacing is vital. When Al Horford posts up, Tobias Harris drives or two teammates run a pick-and-roll, it’s important that Simmons is in the proper floor spot.

Brett Brown said on Dec. 17 it’s something he often reviews with Simmons.

I spend so much time with Ben talking about spacing. … He uses the space to play downhill and so somewhere, the bottom line is we need to grow his perimeter game. And it starts with space. Out of a post, where is he? Out of a pick-and-roll, where is he? Not when he's in the post, not when he's in the pick-and-roll — when he's out of the action. Those are the areas that we've been talking a little bit about.

“He's been great. He sees it and he shares things with me, too, that I give him credit for. And so this is a partnership. I'm here to help him, help us, help himself. And that I'll continue to try to do. 

The Sixers are working to deprogram Simmons’ default mode of wanting to be as close to the basket as possible. On the play below, he stood in a no man’s land between the left block and left elbow instead of relocating behind the arc, didn’t look at the rim when Harris dropped the ball off to him and ultimately helped derail the trip. 

A positive possession for Simmons in terms of spacing is usually quite basic. Here, he recognized Embiid was in the “dunker spot,” walked back to the three-point line and stayed there as Harris drove.

The team just needs Simmons to be attentive, aware of both where his teammates are and where he should be once he gives up the ball. It didn’t have an impact on this particular play, but notice how Harris had to motion to Simmons as he stared at Horford posting up — “Move over to the corner.”

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Pick-and-roll progress 

The pick-and-roll pairing of Richardson and Simmons has picked up steam over the past few weeks.

As Brown noted on Jan. 5, Simmons has many qualities that should make him a good screener and roller.

“I think Ben is a really good screen setter,” he said. “He’s physical — he embraces that side of it. And he’s a dynamic roller — he’s a lob guy, he’s a catch-go guy and he can facilitate picking off corners as a passer.”

The lob part of that equation is unique for a "point guard."

Richardson obviously made the right read to throw it up to Simmons when he noticed James Harden hadn’t fully recovered, but Simmons’ size and athleticism are why that pass was an option.

When Brown talks about “quarterbacking” a gym, he usually is referring to Embiid picking out passes from the low block. Simmons, though, can do something similar from the top of the key, like on this after-timeout play from Dec. 28. 

That’s an easy pass for Simmons to throw once he sees Kelly Olynyk front the post like the Sixers hoped he would.

Simmons can often gain that position against smaller players. The Sixers got Simmons a switch against the 6-foot Chris Paul on Jan. 6, essentially leaving him free to throw any pass he wanted. He picked out an excellent one, rifling it to Horford in the corner when he saw Danilo Gallinari briefly fall asleep. 

This season, Simmons is 7 of 30 from 10 feet and out (23.3 percent). He was 25 for 105 last season (23.8 percent).

His major weakness is unavoidable and an obstacle the Sixers must continue to confront in their half-court offense. Simmons has strengths in the half court, too — his downhill driving ability, the attention he draws, his passing, his screening and rolling. 

One aspect of the current formula for success is maximizing those positives. The others are being fastidious about spacing, and intelligent in countering opponents knowing Simmons’ jump shot is not a threat and playing him as such. 



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How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 



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Would Ben Simmons making 3s help with any of the Sixers' spacing issues?

Would Ben Simmons making 3s help with any of the Sixers' spacing issues?

Ben Simmons’ first made three-pointer in a regular-season NBA game Wednesday night did not suddenly solve the Sixers’ spacing concerns. In fact, the Sixers didn’t score for the opening 5:34 of the third quarter in their win over the Knicks, and Brett Brown and Al Horford were both frank Thursday about the state of the Sixers’ offense.

“I’m prepared to be patient and try to fix spatial things, more than anything,” Brown said. “It’s not like a magic bean — here it is, here’s the play — it ain’t that. Space in pick-and-rolls, space in post, space in early offense — space.”

Horford described the issues as stemming from a team-wide desire to play aggressively.

“I just think that we have the mentality that we want to attack, we want to get in the paint, we all want to get in there and score,” he said. “Whether I have a mismatch or Ben has a mismatch, and we’re all in there. It’s just recognizing in the middle of the game if you see someone else, then you kind of find your place and re-space. I think it’s all good intentions. That’s why I keep saying, the more games we play, I feel the better that things will get."

The play below illustrates Horford’s point.

The sequence starts with Embiid rolling to the rim, then setting a down screen for Horford. When the high-low between Horford and Embiid isn’t available, Horford comes out to the left wing and hands it off to Tobias Harris, who attempts to drive to the rim. Julius Randle, though, leaves Horford to help, and Taj Gibson muddies the paint as well.

Gibson sneaks into the lane because he’s guarding Simmons, who sets a weak side flare screen for Shake Milton inside the arc on the right wing instead of planting himself in the corner. 

The idea of Simmons freeing up a teammate on occasion by catching an opponent with a surprise screen is fair enough, but that’s not where Brown typically prefers him to be placed.

Brown wants Simmons to either be in a corner or in the “dunker spot,” hovering in the region near the low block and behind the backboard. When Simmons is in the dunker spot, that tends to relegate his teammates to the perimeter.

On the play above, Simmons starts in the left corner while Harris and Embiid run a middle pick-and-roll, but he leaks down into the dunker spot. Once he's rolled, Embiid discovers the dunker spot is already occupied, meaning he needs to retreat to the corner. An unsightly possession ends with a fadeaway three-point attempt by Embiid at the end of the shot clock. 

Simmons situating himself in the corner more regularly could, in theory, leave that space open for Embiid and create more room for the offense.

“For the obvious space reasons, it helps,” Brown said of how Simmons taking and making threes might benefit the Sixers. “To have him grow to a different floor spot — we’ve talked lots about getting him out of the dunker into a corner. His current world is you will either be in two places — an extreme corner or playing peekaboo behind the backboard in a dunker, because he’s still very good at that. And I think that he’s growing those two areas. 

“He understands when he’s not on the ball, this is my home, this is my world, along those areas. … I think he’s been fantastic at embracing that and I believe that if he can continue to work in that world, that side of it will certainly help us as time unfolds.”

How many threes would Simmons need to hit — and at what rate — in order to merit consistent respect from opposing defenses? 

Even now, defenders will often stay in his vicinity when he’s behind the arc. The play below goes wrong because of Furkan Korkmaz’s drive into trouble, but notice that RJ Barrett guards Simmons close to the way one would play an average outside shooter. He doesn’t entirely abandon a player who’s yet to make a single NBA three from where he’s standing on the left wing.

The court is generally more congested and the distance required to send a double team is shorter when Simmons is in the dunker spot. 

With Simmons deciding to go to the dunker spot on the play above, Randle didn’t have far to travel to wrestle the ball away from Horford. If Simmons had been in the corner and if he’d established himself as something beyond a novice as a three-point shooter, would Horford have had more time and space to post up? Perhaps.

“I think it will open things up even more,” Horford said of Simmons adding a three-point shot. “It will make us more dangerous because teams won’t be able to help as much and clog the lane and things like that. I was just happy to see Ben — he’s been doing it every day in practice. And in different situations I’ve seen him, he’s shooting it comfortably. I was just glad that he took a shot, got it to go down and now we can kind of move forward.”

For the time being, the Sixers’ offense looks most fluid and makes most sense in transition, where one player's instinct to score in the paint tends not to butt heads with another’s insistence on posting up a smaller defender.

There was nothing complicated about the Sixers’ first points of the second half Thursday. Simmons threw the ball ahead to James Ennis, who dropped it off to Horford in an area where he could attack Randle.

Half-court spacing is currently less comfortable. Simmons’ outside shot — were it to become a regular threat — and him permanently shifting to the corners might change things. At the moment, the notion that both those things will happen seems highly hopeful.

We can predict with more confidence, however, that more minutes for this group of players together will help. Time won’t magically make a supersized lineup work offensively, but it should allow teammates to grow a better understanding of each other. 

“As a coach, the first thing I go to is space,” Brown said. “How do you help with space? And then at that point on, you create a gym that can breathe, and their skillsets should be able to shine. And then from that point on, it’s on them.”

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