Ben Simmons is one of the en vogue NBA lightning rods, a player that otherwise reasonable people can disagree heartily about. Many think he’s a legitimate superstar. Some think he’s a run-of-the-mill high-hype athlete you can’t count on late or build a champion around. Usually, when it comes to players like this, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Not in this case. Don’t Ben Simmons fool you. He’s a legit superstar, even if he doesn’t put up gaudy scoring totals or have a highlight reels of clutch shots. What he does for the 76ers goes well beyond that, and if you refuse to acknowledge it, you’re fooling yourself.
Defensively, Simmons is among the top flight of star players. He hasn’t received serious All-Defense team consideration in the past, and the various adjusted plus-minus statistics don’t show him as a top defensive point guard at this point. But he passes the eye test with flying colors, and Philadelphia has had an elite defense in two of Simmons’ three NBA seasons.
You wouldn’t put Simmons among the 10 best defenders in the league, but you would say that he’s one of the best NBA stars on the defensive end — not as good as Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis on that end, but better than most. His league-leading penchant for steals (2.2 per game) opens up the best part of his game, too: transition offense.
On offense, as noted, Simmons doesn’t quite score like most others. He’s hovered around 16 points per game for his career, and his career high is 34. He doesn’t take three-pointers and plays with a high-scoring star in Joel Embiid plus other major scorers (Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick in the past, Tobias Harris now).
But Simmons is an elite passer (No. 5 in assists per game this season) and he gets to the rim frequently and finishes as well as anyone. Seven of Simmons’ 11 field goal attempts per game come at the rim, and he shoots 72 percent on those shots, per basketball-reference.com.
In theory, this is all belied by the fact that the Sixers have a mediocre offense this season, despite Simmons, Harris, and for 31 of the team’s 47 games, Embiid. But you can’t pin the team’s offensive underperformance on Simmons. In fact, the problem with the Sixers’ offense is what happens when Simmons isn’t on the floor.
Per stats.nba.com, the Sixers’ offensive rating (or points per 100 possessions) with Simmons on the floor is 109.6 (good). It’s a team-worst 103.1 (awful) when Simmons sits. To go a step further, the Sixers have an offensive rating of 106.7 (average) when Simmons and Embiid share the floor. The team’s offensive rating this season when Simmons is on the floor but Embiid is not is 108.8 (pretty good). When Simmons sits and Embiid is on the floor, it’s 105 (not very good).
Point guard depth is an issue here. But beyond that, you can’t reasonably review the data and come to the conclusion that Simmons is the problem with the Sixers’ offense: he’s the only thing keeping it in the vicinity of respectability.
This is where the eye test betrays Simmons’ contributions. Because he doesn’t space the floor or have big scoring takeovers, he can look passive and ineffectual. Sometimes, that is the case; it was especially the case when Butler would take over the offense for stretches last season. Butler’s not around anymore, though, and Josh Richardson is no Jimmy Butler.
Simmons does often defer to Embiid and now Harris, and he ought to do it less because he is by far the best playmaker and creator on the team. But the fact that he defers more than he should doesn’t detract from his heavy impact. It just means that he could be even more impactful! Don’t grade him against what he could be — grade him for what he is, which is a dynamite two-way point guard who plays differently than most.
The obsession with Simmons’ lack of a three-point shot has gotten a bit exhausting, especially since no point guard in the league gets to the rim like he does. Simmons can’t shoot and so he doesn’t. After years of griping about Russell Westbrook (an elite dribble-driver who couldn’t shoot efficiently but took loads of threes anyway), why would you want Simmons to start hoisting triples now? Bricking a few deep shots a game isn’t going to stop defenders from going under screens or packing the paint against the Sixers.
If Simmons were to suddenly become a 40-percent deep shooter, yes, of course the Sixers would be better. But Simmons is not a good shooter, so it’s highly unlikely him taking bad (for him) shots in lieu of good dribble-drives is going to help the Sixers. Making him fit the standard superstar mold in style a little bit more ignores the value of the gifts he offers. Appreciate what he is instead of wishing what he were.
Ben Simmons is not and has never been what keeps the Sixers from being a championship contender. (The Sixers were a fourth bounce away from the conference finals last season, and had a real shot to make the Finals given match-ups against the Bucks, and in the Finals, anything could and did happen. Of course, that was with Butler on the roster.) In fact, Simmons is the primary actor keeping the Sixers in the mix right now. Just because he’s different than the NBA’s other stars doesn’t mean he’s not a star. It’s foolish to suggest otherwise.