Sixers Thoughts: Ben Simmons' Plateau, Joel Embiid's MVP Chances, Shake Milton's Ascent
Can Simmons rebound from this slow start?
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
After a few days of non-stop James Harden rumors, things have largely returned to normalcy in Sixers world. Joel Embiid is still dominating, Ben Simmons has continued his early season struggles, and Shake Milton is building a strong Sixth Man of the Year case.
Here, I’ll dive into the nitty gritty of the major storylines of this past week and answer whether Embiid could really win the MVP.
What is going on with Ben Simmons?
Even the staunchest of Ben Simmons supporters couldn’t put a positive spin on his start to the year. He’s averaging a career low in scoring and a career high in turnovers, and has only made infantesimal improvement in 3-point attempts and free throw attempts. His defense is still world class, but the lack of offensive improvement since last year -- or since the start of his career, for that matter -- is startling.
Simmons deserves all the criticism that’s come his way in regards to his lack of improvement. It’s preposterous that in year four of his career, he’s still this timid and unpolished around the rim, is this careless with the ball, and is still this poor of a shooter. But here’s the thing: he’s still a far better basketball player than he’s showing right now, and that has to come around at some point.
It’s not like Simmons’ skill level or athleticism has regressed. And while defenses may now have an easier time defending him with their increased familiarity, they surely have not cracked some magic code that wasn’t there a year ago.
The biggest theme that stands out on film and in the stats is Simmons’ horrendous decision making around the rim. At the moment, he’s completely lost in regards to feeling out when he should try to finish, draw a foul, or pass. He’s shooting just 66 percent at the rim compared to 72 percent last season and 74 percent as a rookie, per basketball-reference.com. On the season, 8.2 percent of his drives to the rim are resulting in turnovers, compared to five percent last year, per NBA.com. These numbers are made even more perplexing by the fact that Simmons now has improved spacing to work with, along with a smaller offensive load compared to last season.
In other words: there’s just no chance that he continues to play this poorly. Unless Simmons’ instincts around the rim have undergone a Fultz jumper-esque disappearance, they’ll come back around. And to be clear, Simmons’ savviness around the rim has never been at the level you’d want it to be, but it’s proven to be a hell of a lot better than this.
In the big picture, yes, it’s a massive concern that a young player on a max contract is not showing any improvement. Simmons deserves (and is getting) a healthy heaping of criticism for his plateau. But at the same time, there’s almost no chance that he doesn’t rebound. If anything, it could be taken as a positive from a broad point of view that the Sixers have been as successful as they have with Simmons being as lost as he is.
Does Shake Milton need a bigger role in the offense?
Perhaps it sounds silly, but Shake Milton -- who is 3rd on the team in shot attempts and has a 24.2 percent usage rate -- clearly needs a bigger role on the offense. More play calls, more minutes, everything.
I’m fine with Doc Rivers keeping Milton in a sixth man role, but 26.8 minutes per game isn’t enough. There are obvious stretches in every game where Milton sits on the bench as the Sixers’ half court offense finds itself in dire need of perimeter shot creation. Even speaking as a big Tyrese Maxey fan, Milton deserves some of the run with the starting lineup that Maxey is getting currently.
Milton needs to be in the closing lineup every night, and needs to have more play calls come his way in the crunch time offense. It was a bit egregious that the Sixers went away from Milton in the closing minutes of the loss to Memphis on Saturday. He had been white hot throughout the entire second half, but got frozen out of the offense in the final two minutes.
Here’s a startling stat: when Milton is in the game, the Sixers percentage of shot attempts that come at the rim goes up by 5.4 percent, according to Cleaning The Glass. In other words, Milton helps put pressure on the rim to such an extent that it alters the team’s shot profile in a significant way.
It’s great that Rivers is turning Milton loose in a way that Brett Brown never quite did, but he needs to take this even further. Milton is currently averaging 16.8 points per game on 62 percent true shooting. Let’s up the volume on that until the efficiency starts to diminish.
Can Joel Embiid really win MVP?
The short answer: yes. I don’t know how Embiid couldn’t be considered the frontrunner at this stage in the season. So long as he stays healthy, I think the big fella deserves it.
While Ben Simmons has appeared to lose his instincts when trying to playmake and attack downhill, I feel like Embiid has undergone a transformation in the opposite direction -- I have never seen Embiid this comfortable and under control while attacking in the post. He has been nearly perfect in regards to deciding when to shoot, pass, or draw a foul.
All of that is happening while Embiid is thoroughly controlling the game on the defensive end. Teams are completely spooked to even attempt a shot when Embiid is in the vicinity. Opponents are shooting just 56.7 percent at the rim when Embiid is in the game, which would be the lowest mark of his career, per Cleaning The Glass.
So, back to the original question. Let’s run through Embiid’s potential competitors. I think it’s safe to say that Kevin Durant and James Harden being partnered up will work against either of them winning MVP. It’s unlikely that Giannis Antetokounmpo will win a third straight out of sheer voter fatigue. Stephen Curry could have a case but the Warriors likely won’t win enough games. Same for Damian Lillard. Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic could have a case later in the season, but their teams aren’t winning enough games for them to be in the discussion. LeBron James will be in the mix, but as of now, his numbers aren’t getting him over the top -- he’s averaging just 23.7 points per game, lowest since his rookie year.
At this exact moment, Embiid is clearly the best candidate, I would argue. His combination of numbers, two-way impact, and team success is the best there is. Durant, Harden, and Antetokounmpo have too many narrative factors working against them. Doncic, Jokic, LeBron, and perhaps Curry could all overtake him at some point, but as of now, Embiid stands ahead of them. One month in, it’s his award to lose.