The Great Ben Simmons Debate: Part 2
Let’s debate what is most insane about this debate.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He has been legally banned from covering the team in person, but that ban will be lifted in March of 2020. He is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
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.
1. What part of the Ben Simmons discourse is currently driving you the most insane?
AU: Man, where to even start with this. I already touched on a couple of my current Simmons-related brain-breakers in yesterday’s discussion -- namely, the idea that Simmons can only thrive when Embiid is injured / off the court (when in fact Ben was already playing some of the best ball of his career before Embiid went down), and the disproportionate attention Simmons’ lack of fourth-quarter attacking is receiving (when he’s already doing close to everything else, including defending and distributing in the fourth). Plus, as I complained about last week, trade deadline season invariably adds an extra layer or two of stupid to all Simmons-related discussion.
I’ll go with a variation on the Q4 one there. When I tweeted incredulously the other day (pre-Brooklyn game) about Sixers fans seeming more down on Simmons despite his incredible numbers recently, the most common explanation that I got in response (aside from variations on “fans are stupid”) was from folks who were sick of him “vanishing” or “disappearing” in the fourth quarter. And look: I’m not saying Ben’s played anywhere near optimal two-way ball late in games this month -- as Derek Bodner pointed out this week on the Athletic, there have certainly been times recently when Simmons failing to exploit matchups that should have been easily exploitable contributed to the Sixers’ final-12 malaise. Last night he was straight-up bad late. There’s a balance to be reached there, for sure.
But c’mon. “Disappearing”? He’s still setting his teammates up for a lot of open looks that they should be hitting (and even a couple that they actually are), no? He’s still playing all-world defense, causing game-sealing and momentum-swinging turnovers, completely consuming scorers who had previously been torturing our D, isn’t he? He’s still rebounding, pushing the ball, setting up the offense, all that good stuff? But because he isn’t ramming the ball down the defense’s throat, the Sixers may as well be playing 4-on-5 when he’s on the court late? These fans really won’t be satisfied until we replace Simmons with Jamal Crawford, will they?
SixersAdam: While what you’re saying is true (and it’s annoying as all hell) the most frustrating part of Ben discourse for me is the complete polarization that seems to have taken place. When Simmons struggles, like he did against Dallas, for example, it should not spark a flurry of trade machine ideas and angry tweets. Conversely, when Simmons has a career-day in Brooklyn, our Twitter timelines should not be flooded with sarcastic barbs along the lines of “BUT I WAS TOLD THEY SHOULD JUST CUT HIM” and “BeN sImMoNs HaS nEvEr ImPrOvEd ThOuGh.”
Ben is a terrific player who will deservedly make a second straight All-Star game, doing so in his third season in the NBA. His accomplishments this early into his career are incredible. He also has a SIGNIFICANT flaw that could derail the team’s championship aspirations if not addressed properly. Why can’t we all just acknowledge that both of these things are true? There is more than enough room for us to focus on both his stardom and his flaws.
AU: As someone who has been tempted to delve into those insufferable memes himself, I certainly hear you. I don’t know what it is about the Simmons debate exactly, but both sides seem to be driving the other one further to extreme and closer to outright insanity in the process (as has been happening on a regular basis between me and Spike over the last few weeks). I know most right-thinking Sixers fans can approach him logically enough to know that the truth lies in the middle, but the (not-inconsiderable) faction of the fanbase who is unreservedly out on him and let his lack of shooting and fourth-quarter aggression form the sum total of their impression of him do make me want to stan him unreservedly in response.
Basically, Simmons seems put on this earth to make basketball fans behave irrationally. He’s the NBA’s successor to Russell Westbrook in that regard.
2. What's something that Ben Simmons is currently doing for the Sixers that doesn't get enough credit?
AU: Undercut a good amount by his eight TOs last night, obviously, but the way Ben had cut down his turnovers over this recent stretch has been really impressive. After averaging close to four TOs a game for most of the season, he’d been down to just two a game since Embiid went down, while handing out eight dimes a contest -- a Chris Paul-like 4:1 A/TO ratio -- which is incredible given the amount he’d been handling the ball and how few of his teammates were hitting shots. What’s more, over those seven games, he’d also collected 15 steals. It’s pretty good news whenever your ball-dominant point guard is grabbing the ball back more often than he’s giving it away.
SixersAdam: I was also going to bring up the job he’s done taking care of the ball as well. Since you covered that, I’ll pivot…
We talk about the quality of Ben’s defense every night nowadays, and deservedly so: his performance on that end has been consistently elite. But what doesn’t get mentioned enough is that he’s doing this against all types of players -- in just the last four games, he’s had stretches of dominance defending Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, Zach LaVine and Marcus Morris. The Sixers have much more flexibility schematically because Simmons has simultaneously become an All-Defense caliber player and a full-fledged Swiss army knife. He has to be the most versatile defender in the entire NBA at this point.
3. What other storyline do you think isn't getting enough attention while everyone obsesses over Simmons’ stats, shooting and fourth-quarter production?
AU: Not like it’s really escaped fan notice that Al Horford has been single-handedly offsetting global warming in the DelCo area with his shooting of late -- the Uncut Gems memes have been fairly merciless. Still, I don’t think we talk enough about how much Horford’s cold streak from deep affects perception of Simmons, and of the Simmons-led team. The big man’s shooting was supposed to be the thing that really unlocked the offense with Ben at the controls, the floor-stretching weapon our point guard always lacked to open up the paint around him and properly punish defenses when he was descended upon.
Instead, Al’s gone 11-44 from three across the last eight games -- a large chunk being bricks on fairly wide-open looks -- good for a 25% clip that would be garish even from our supposed non-shooting big men. He’s not the only one on the team struggling with his shooting, certainly, and he’s doing other things in the meantime, but I can’t watch him without thinking how much easier things would be for the entire team (and Ben in particular) if he just hit one or two more of his open looks a night to release the pressure forever weighing on this offense, especially late.
SixersAdam: Since Ben debuted as a starting point guard, functioning in a role typically reserved for those nine inches shorter than he is, the skeptics have talked about how he needs to be featured in “a Draymond Green type of role,” which really means being weaponized as a roller on pick-and-roll actions and being a play finisher, not a play creator.
This all seemed great in theory, but the problem was that it never worked on the court. But now… it’s working? The shift became apparent to me in the Miami game that ended disastrously. It feels like every game he is making strides as an off-ball weapon, culminating in his utter destruction of the Brooklyn Nets on Monday.
While this won’t be the team’s go-to offense when Embiid and Horford are in the game, the Sixers have clearly found something worth exploring here -- for now, a nightly part of the game-plan, and later on, potentially a weapon to break out in critical moments. In any case, Simmons being a successful screener and roller in reality and not just in our heads is a huge development.
AU: I think it depends on the matchup. Not like it was a big-enough sample size to judge, but we saw what happened in the playoffs when we tried playing minutes against Toronto with Ben at center, and we’ve even seen it in stretches this regular season pre-Brooklyn -- it hasn’t gone well. I certainly don’t think it can be a full-time backup solution -- even just for while Joel is out -- but for stretches against teams like Brooklyn without a real post presence or Marc Gasol-like defensive anchor? When the other options are a flailing Jonah Bolden or a leash-choked Kyle O’Quinn, why not give it a four-minute run here and there?
SixersAdam: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I should have: as good as Simmons was at center in Brooklyn, it is actually the first time that has ever worked for an extended period. So let’s not put all of our eggs in that basket just yet.
4. Do you think Ben Simmons should be an All-Star starter, an All-Star reserve, or left off the team altogether?
AU: I’d have him as a starter -- especially with him being listed as a guard and Jimmy Butler counting as a forward. What two East guards could you possibly argue as being more All Star-worthy than Ben Simmons this season? Kemba Walker, fine: It’s not a lock, but he’s putting up good numbers and serving as a needed leader on a winning team. Beyond him, though, it’s a lot of quality one-way scorers on terrible teams (Trae Young, Zach LaVine) and reliable vets with good-not-great numbers on quality teams (Kyle Lowry, Malcolm Brogdon). Nobody is combining two-way production with winning like Simmons.
That said, my level of OK with whether he ends up a starter or reserve depends largely on what the deal is with Joel Embiid. Even though I feel like I could posit a decently convincing argument that Ben Simmons has been one of the five most valuable players in the conference this year regardless, I understand that an underachieving squad with four or five teams ahead of them in the standings may not deserve two spots in the starting lineup. So if Joel makes it as a starter and plays, I could live with Simmons coming off the bench. If Embiid’s clearly not going to be back in time for All-Star weekend, though? At that point I think you gotta put Ben in the East’s first five.
And if you don’t have Simmons on your ballot at all, you deserve whatever Full Detricking you have coming your way.
SixersAdam: I’m not sure I would look at the season Ben has had and think “that seems like an All-Star starter to me.” However, I can’t find two Eastern Conference guards to pick over him, so I guess that means he does seem like an All-Star starter to me! Unless we are both forgetting someone obvious, Walker and Simmons should the two picks. (Sidenote: it’s ridiculous that Jimmy counts as frontcourt. He’s essentially Miami’s point guard most of the time!)
I do agree with your closing points, though. It feels like Ben’s standing in the conference as a whole depends on how much time Embiid misses. And yes, if you don’t have Simmons on your ballot, you deserve to feel the wrath of Detrick and his army.
5. Do you think the Sixers can win a championship with Ben Simmons not shooting (or scoring in the fourth quarter)?
AU: That’s the real question, isn’t it? And man, as brilliant as I feel he’s been the past month, as much as I think he’s been underrated and underappreciated, as invested as I currently feel in defending him to the death of my sanity… this is the part I still have trouble getting around. Can the Sixers win at the absolute highest level with everyone in the building knowing that Simmons doesn’t have to be contested outside of five feet from the basket? I don’t know the answer to that, but I certainly wouldn’t feel confident answering with an unequivocal “yes.” The best defenses should still be able to make things pretty tough for Ben if he isn’t able to vary his scoring a little more, as demonstrated yet again by Toronto last night.
The best I can really do here is to say that the answer isn’t definitely no. After all, the Sixers were arguably a quadruple-doink away from being in very serious title contention last year, with Simmons basically playing the same way he is now. Maybe the more pressing question is if the Sixers can win a championship with this current roster and Ben Simmons not shooting -- it was one thing when we had Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick to pick up the offensive slack in terms of shot creation and floor-stretching, but it seems unlikely Josh Richardson and Al Horford will provide similar relief this postseason. If the answer in this year’s playoffs seems an emphatic no, though, Brett Brown might not be the only guy who’s not back next season.
SixersAdam: I agree that the answer is not a definitive no. However, I just can’t bring myself to say I think this team as currently constructed is ever going to win a championship -- at least not while Simmons and Embiid have their spacing curtailed by another center and are not afforded the luxury of playing with a legitimate guard playmaker.
My cop out answer is that it depends on how this roster evolves -- not just over the next few years, but even over the next month. If the front office can turn one of the non-Ben/Jo starters into the kind of reliable perimeter scorer that is needed (or if they can somehow add that player while maintaining this current group), then I would say that yes, they can win a championship with Ben Simmons not shooting. But I just don’t think this group has what it takes.