The Great Ben Simmons Debate: Part 1
AU vs. Sixers Adam for Ben Simmons supremacy.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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With any conversation about the Sixers the past few weeks being dominated by one player, RTRS decided that it was time to hold the first ever Normal Column-meets-If Not Pick Will Convey as Two Second Rounders crossover summit. This week, SixersAdam and AU debate all things Ben Simmons -- a two-day event, starting below with discussion of Ben’s non-shooting, his fourth-quarter performance and more. You can read Part Two in Normal Column.
1. Has Ben Simmons been better, worse, or about even to what you expected since taking the reins on the team after the Embiid injury?
SixersAdam: In the six games between Embiid’s injury and this writing, Simmons is averaging 21.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.1 steals per game on 62.8 percent true shooting. For just about the entire league save for maybe a few guys, this is by any measure an excellent stretch, so I’m not sure how I could answer with anything other than “better.” Yes, we all know he often looks better without Joel Embiid (why that is and what it means is its own discussion), but even then, his improved scoring to go with everything else he brings to the table on a nightly basis has been a sight for sore eyes.
AU: Yeah, I think a lot of us expected a pretty solid Simmons stretch following Embiid's injury, particularly flashing back to that famous stretch to close the 2017-'18 season when he played some of the best ball of his career after Markelle Fultz broke JoJo's face, leading the team to eight straight wins heading into the playoffs. But particularly following Monday's game against Brooklyn, it's undeniable that he's exceeded even those high expectations. He was already in the midst of one of his best statistical stretches as a pro, and that performance -- not just the best box score of his career, but one of the best posted by anyone this season, and one even more impressive viewed in person at Barclays than it looked on the stat sheet -- seals this run for me as the highest level we've ever seen Ben play at.
At the risk of sounding like the other B. Simmons, though, my question is this: Are we sure Ben wasn't headed here even before the Joel injury? The narrative is unsurprisingly becoming that Simmons' play has taken off in the seven games with Embiid out of the lineup, but here were his numbers in his last seven games alongside JoJo: 17.0/10.3/11.3 on 56% shooting, with 2.6 steals, 1.0 blocks and 3.0 turnovers. His scoring and efficiency are up now, but his assists, boards and steals are down. He didn't have a game as dominant as in Brooklyn, but his Houston performance was closer than you might remember: 29-13-11 on 13-20 FG with three steals and four blocks, the fourth-best performance of his career according to Basketball-Reference's Game Score.
The main difference between the two stretches? The Sixers were 4-3 in the seven games with Embiid, and are 5-2 in the seven without. But that's more about level of competition than anything: The three losses with Embiid were all on the same week-long road trip, and all against playoff teams. Philly is 1-2 in three such games during this stretch without Joel, with the one W being Monday against an injury-stricken, under-.500 Nets squad. (This isn’t even counting the blowout loss to Indy they suffered without Joel when he was essentially on a rest day in the middle of that last Simmons/Embiid run.) I'm not convinced either the Sixers collectively or Simmons individually are playing all that much better sans Jo.
SixersAdam: I don’t disagree with you there, and I think the more important point to make is this: optimizing Ben Simmons is not the same thing as optimizing the Sixers. Simmons being better without Embiid does not mean the Sixers are better without Embiid.
2. What's your best guess as to the primary reason why Simmons still won't shoot?
SixersAdam: I’m not going to try to psychoanalyze Simmons here, as we are obviously witness to a very small portion of his life. But from watching him play in the NBA for three years and listening intently to what he says for four or five, there definitely seems to be some sort of stubborness at play here. I mean, he’s the primary initiator of a basketball team and will not consider shooting jumpers. There just has to be some sort of stubborness.
Beyond that, we can only guess what Simmons feels when he steps to the free throw line, or is left wide open at the top of the key. Perhaps he feels completely calm -- Ben does come off as a pretty stoic guy, at least externally -- but it’s hard to imagine potential discomfort not existing in scenarios like those. So, basketball Xs and Os aside, I’d chalk it up to stubbornness and discomfort more than anything else. But you can never know for sure with something like this.
AU: I'd lean more towards discomfort than stubbornness. You're certainly right that we can't know for sure what's going on in Simmons' head, but I find it increasingly unbelievable that his objection to shooting is one based out of feeling like he doesn't actually have to. He's too smart, and he's too hard-working. I guess I can't deny that is stark how his already-minimal shooting efforts have disappeared entirely since Brett publicly challenged him to shoot a three a game, so it's possible there is some obstinance there. But I just can't really buy that he looks at all the stats, all the team half-court struggles, all the quotes from his coach and his teammates, and just goes "Fuck 'em for thinking they know what's best for me." He's smug, but he's not that smug. I don't think.
Discomfort, though? I can more easily buy that, in some extreme version. I wrote about this a couple weeks ago but what helped me turn the corner with Ben was the general recognition of that feeling of wanting to do something but just being unable to bring yourself to do it, for reasons that you couldn't even explain if you wanted to. It seems more like something for a sports psychologist / therapist to unlock than Brett or Ben himself alone -- and I guess if you want to say it's stubbornness at play, maybe it's in Ben not acknowledging that and at least trying to get help. And maybe he is trying -- again, we can't know what's actually going on there. But in any event, I don't think he's not doing it simply because he's choosing not to.
3. Do you still have hope that Simmons will start shooting more at some point this year? How about ever?
SixersAdam: This year? Definitely not. If Ben was going to start shooting this year, he already would have. He’s had ample opportunity to try it out: each of the threes he made could have served as a launching point of sorts into a new version of his game -- especially the second one, which was followed up by Brett Brown publicly pleading for him to shoot a three in each game. If there was ever a time to begin expanding in this department, it would have been then, right?
The “ever” question is much more interesting to me. Ben proudly stakes his claim as an All-Star and max contract level player without having a jumper. And to his credit, he is unquestionably both of those things. But unless there are changes made to this team’s roster construction that are significant and come soon, the Sixers may need him to, well, figure it out before it’s too late! Maybe their defensive potential finally forms into reality and the wonky offensive fit becomes less pressing of an issue. But it is in the realm of possibility that his shooting issues, compounded by him being asked to play with two centers and without any real guards, become a ceiling-capper for this team.
So, to get back to the question, I think at some point he will become at least a bit more assertive. It will probably never be as much as we want, but Simmons has demonstrated in many ways his strong desire to win, and we know that he thinks the game of basketball at a high level. I’m not sure if he needs some sort of Come-to-Jesus moment or if it’s possible that one day he wakes up with a new mentality. But if I had to guess, I would say that Ben will one day shoot considerably more than the frequency with which he does now (basically zero), yet still considerably less than what many will ask of him.
AU: Agreed that this year is almost certainly a wash. Ben is unpredictable enough in this respect that we couldn't totally rule out the possibility of him unleashing a ten-jumper game against the Hornets sometime in a month just because who knows, but you'd have to be pretty masochistic to still be actively hoping for it at this point. Even Brett has to be managing his expectations there at this point.
And I agree that "ever" is the more interesting question, and the one that the Sixers should probably be more concerned with at this point. I couldn't proclaim one way or the other, but tying back to the last Q, I would also hesitate to predict any results-based changes in Simmons' play at this point. In other words, I don't think he'll start shooting because, say, the Sixers flame out in the playoffs due to spacing-cramped offensive struggles. I think it's a psychological block he has to get through, and doing that isn't as simple as just deciding it would be a good idea to do so. He still may one day, and I certainly hope he does -- for him and for us -- but I just don't know if it's something the Sixers can bank on, even long-term.
4. What's your best guess as to the primary reason why Ben Simmons stops attacking in the fourth quarter?
SixersAdam: Before I answer, because this remains an issue, I should say for the sake of clarity that this question was posed before Simmons dominated the Nets, and I am answering after it. But even in the Brooklyn game, which was the best performance I have ever seen from Simmons, he did drift away from the heart of the action for most of the final minutes. To be abundantly clear, that should in no way cloud what was an incredible performance, easily the best single-game outing any Sixer has had all season. But it shows that even when at his best, Simmons is not foolproof at the ends of games.
I wish I had a firm response here, but truthfully I’m not sure what the primary reason is. It could be a hesitance to shoot free throws. It could be because Horford and Embiid are also on the floor at the ends of games. It could even be the coaching staff simply not trusting a non-shooter to initiate crunch time offense. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of these factors plus several others. The only thing I do know for sure is that this is a real thing. I’ll leave you with Simmons’ per 36 minute stats in each quarter (according to NBA.com). They don’t paint a particularly flattering picture:
First quarter: 19.9 points, 62.9 FG%
Second quarter: 16.8 points, 55.4 FG%
Third quarter: 15.6 points, 55.0 FG%
Fourth quarter: 10.6 points, 52.9 FG%
AU: It is indeed a real thing, and I also think it's due to a combination of likely factors that you mention: free-throw fear, teammate deference, sideline play-calling. I'll throw in another one, though: Energy conservation. I know we view Ben as a LeBron-like superhuman as an athlete, capable of going whole hog for 48 minutes and still hitting the gym for a couple extra hours of cardio afterwards. But is it unreasonable to suggest that following two to three quarters of relentless attacking on offense -- and knowing that his defensive versatility is absolutely the key to the Sixers defending late, particularly with Embiid out -- that he saves his remaining fuel largely for that end of the floor in the fourth?
And that of course leads to my next question: Would that really be such a bad or selfish decision on his part? Yes, Ben has been dynamite on offense for the last month when he's aggressive, but did any of us go into this season really thinking that he was going to be our go-to guy late? That's what Harris and Richardson -- and to a lesser extent, Horford -- should be there for. He's right that we don't really want him plowing into traffic late, right that we aren't necessarily comfortable with him going to the line down two or even one in a crucial spot. Meanwhile, there's no denying that he has absolutely saved games for us with his fourth-quarter defense, including both recent contests in New York -- not to mention that he's been setting up his teammates for good looks on big shots that they just haven't been hitting, for the most part.
I know, I know: You should be able to trust your best player to have the ball in his hands and the game on the line. But considering how much else Ben is doing for this team right now -- pretty close to literally everything else -- to focus so much on his fourth-quarter scoring stats feels unfair. Maybe just ungrateful.
SixersAdam: And this all takes us to roster construction, right? I’ll keep this brief, because we’re going to touch on it soon, but this is why we all scoffed when late-June reports of Al Horford’s mystery team being the Sixers started to surface. The Sixers had a star who showed the ability to handle the job of closer and an all-time great shooter who was at the center of their most reliable regions of the playbook. They replaced those two with a second center and Josh Richardson -- and they did it knowing that Simmons can’t function as a ball-handler in the most pivotal moments of games. In any discussion about the Sixers struggling to score late in games, that needs to be mentioned.
AU: Sure, though I’ll own up being too amused by the novelty of the Sixers pursuing Horford (and to a lesser extent, enticed by the floor-stretching possibilities of him playing alongside Simmons) to actually have scoffed at those reports last June. But yeah, let’s hold that thought for now.
5. How much do you think Brett Brown should be held responsible for Simmons' lack of shooting of fourth-quarter scoring? How much do you think he *will* be held responsible?
SixersAdam: This is a tricky one. Because when players, especially in the early years of their career, don’t focus on fixing a noticeable weakness, it typically does not speak well to their coach. But I’m just not sure what more Brett Brown could be doing right now. He has abided by Ben’s wish to be the point guard, even doing so too much sometimes. He has managed to walk the line of defending his star from the constant annoyance while simultaneously affirming that becoming a willing shooter is a necessary development for his future. So, I’m not sure what he could be at fault for.
We’ll see how much of this is because of overall disappointment or the Simmons issue in particular, but I would expect that if the season doesn’t end in at least a Finals berth, Brown will be “held responsible.” While imperfect, it’s fairly evident to me that the issues with this team stem much more from roster-building mistakes than coaching errors. But the reality of sports is that when teams fall short of expectations, it is usually the coach who goes first. Whether it will be incited specifically by Ben’s refusal or one of a plethora of potential issues this team is facing, I don’t know. But I feel reasonably confident that Brett Brown will be next to fall on the sword.
AU: I'm quite sure that Brett Brown isn't sure what Brett Brown could be doing right now. Even the haters gotta feel for Brett a little here: What other coach in history has been blessed with a player who has the skill set that Ben Simmons has -- the kind that helps turn a bubbling-up team into semi-legit championship contenders in his rookie season -- and yet also such a glaring, unavoidable, frustratingly elemental flaw that his best will never quite be good enough, in public perception and maybe also in reality? Brett's trying, but really, the situation just shows how little leverage a beleaguered coach ultimately has with a star player. He can't really bench, fine or discipline Simmons, and there's no way management would ever side with him if he ever gave them a me-or-Ben ultimatum. The best he can do is keep finding different ways to gently prod.
Honestly, I'm not sure that even a finals berth will ensure Brett's job security this offseason. It sucks, but as long as Simmons isn't shooting, and as long as the team is ultimately losing, it'll be too easy to connect one to the other, and then back to Brett for not managing to fix the (potentially unfixable) situation. And who knows? Maybe the next guy will know the magic password that unlocks Ben Simmons' jumper, turning the Sixers' half-court offense into a garden of earthly delights in the process. But don't be shocked if we're calling for new guy’s job a summer or two later instead.