Ben Simmons is right to target the Boston Celtics. Now he needs to expand his game to a point where the 76ers can top Boston in the East.
The departure of LeBron James from the Eastern Conference has multiple teams setting their rights on a trip to the NBA Finals. Ben Simmons is very realistic about his team’s chances of climbing the mountain. He knows the Sixers have to knock off the Celtics to reach the promised land.
Simmons freely admits that Boston is “at the top right now” but he isn’t giving the Celtics an inch. He’s already made it his next goal to knock Brad Stevens’ team off their perch. To do that, Simmons is going to need to do a lot of work on his individual game.
The Australian point guard deserves a lot of credit for having an excellent rookie season. Putting up a PER of 20 at the game’s most taxing position is an excellent start to Simmons’ career. He did a good job of getting into the lane to score and his passing ability is an amazing thing to watch.
His game isn’t anywhere close to complete though. The biggest challenge he’ll face against the Celtics is improving his perimeter shooting to the point where Boston’s defense will feel compelled to close out hard to defend him from distance.
Simmons wasn’t just a bad shooter last season, he was a non-shooter. He only took 11 three pointers during the regular season. Opposing defenses felt zero pressure to rush at Simmons when he was open from the outside.
That deficiency will cripple the Sixers against the Celtics defense in the playoffs. Stevens’ defensive scheme is based around allowing his player to fly around and make plays. Giving the player who guards Simmons a free pass to harass Philadelphia’s other ball handlers would be a huge luxury for Boston. It would likely be enough to bounce the Sixers from the postseason.
Expecting Simmons to go from a non-shooter to Reggie Miller overnight would be unreasonable. He needs to take baby steps to ultimately become a competent threat on the perimeter. The first thing he needs to work on is establishing a consistent set shot. Simmons should study tape of Jason Kidd’s evolution as an NBA point guard to see just how this might look. When Kidd first broke into the league he was a horrific three-point shooter. Gradually he turned himself into a really efficient shooter throughout the course of his career.
If Simmons can do the same thing, he’s going to be impossible to guard. He already managed to get to the rim at will last year without the threat of a reliable jump shot. If defenses are forced to close out on him in the future, he’ll find it even easier to get to the rim with the ball in his hands. He isn’t a great finisher yet, but he’s got plenty of time to work on that aspect of his game as well.
Simmons will also need to improve his defense on the perimeter to help propel his team past the Celtics. Brett Brown doesn’t need him to match up against Kyrie Irving, but he has to find someone on Boston’s roster to guard. That likely means he’ll need to be able to contain someone like Jaylen Brown off the dribble. Playing with a lower center of gravity on the defensive end of the floor would make Simmons much more effective.
The reality here is that the Sixers will continue to be an underdog to the Celtics unless their stars can enjoy significant internal improvement. Simmons is the player on the roster with the most untapped potential. He may need to become Philadelphia’s best player if they’re going to reach the NBA Finals next year.