The Ben Simmons discourse has jumped the shark
Ben Simmons’ glaring refusal to shoot makes it nearly impossible to have a good-faith conversation about him.
Ben Simmons might be the most polarizing player in the NBA.
His strengths (defense, playmaking) have earned him three straight All-Star nods. But his primary weakness (shooting) has been repeatedly exposed in the playoffs, never more so than during the Philadelphia 76ers’ second-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks this past season.
Simmons’ decision to pass up a wide-open dunk late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 might wind up being the lasting memory of his Sixers tenure. All-Star center Joel Embiid later identified that as the turning point of the game, and Simmons recently informed the team that he doesn’t want to return, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Sixers have been shopping Simmons for the past few months, but no suitor has been willing to meet team president Daryl Morey’s astronomical reported asking price. They “have told teams they are comfortable bringing Simmons back” this season, per Shams Charania of The Athletic, but “rival executives believe it’s only a matter of when — not if — the All-Defensive team stalwart is moved.”
The never-ending trade speculation has turned Simmons into Basketball Twitter’s main offseason topic du jour. And between the Sixers’ inability to trade him yet, his playoff meltdown against the Hawks and his longtime shooting woes, the conversations surrounding him have grown increasingly reductive.
Why can we only see the negatives with Ben Simmons right now?
Any good-faith discussion about Simmons is undeniably complicated and layered. It’s unfair to discuss his regular-season success without bringing up his playoff shortcomings and vice versa. It might be best to think of Simmons as two separate entities — he’s both a regular-season All-Star and a potential playoff liability.
In the regular season, it’s easier to paper over Simmons’ refusal to attempt jump shots. Teams don’t have enough time to devise opponent-specific game plans, and they aren’t as locked in defensively, either. That enables Simmons to get out into transition more frequently, where he thrives as both a playmaker and a 6-foot-11 runaway freight train when there’s no one standing between him and the basket.
In the playoffs, especially in the later rounds, opponents can better exploit Simmons’ shooting woes. Since he’s a nonfactor in half-court settings without the ball in his hands, they feel comfortable sagging off him to send double-teams at Embiid or other teammates.
The Atlanta series was the most glaring example of Simmons’ playoff shortcomings, but he was similarly ineffective against the Boston Celtics in 2018 and Toronto Raptors in 2019.
In Game 2 of that Boston series, he scored one point on 0-of-4 shooting in what wound up being a five-point loss. He went from averaging nearly a triple-double in the first round against the Miami Heat —18.2 points on 50.0 percent shooting, 10.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists — to 14.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists against the Celtics.
A similar story unfolded in the following year’s playoffs. He dropped a triple-double in Game 2 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets and scored a playoff-career-high 31 points the following game. He then averaged only 11.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists in their second-round loss to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors.
At this point of Simmons’ career, a clear trend has emerged. And while Sixers head coach Doc Rivers spent all season trying to Jedi-mind-trick reporters into thinking Simmons’ lack of shooting wasn’t a major issue, that proved false against Atlanta.
“It’s funny—on his low-scoring nights, you look at the game film and he’s flying all over the place,” Rivers said in late January. “The stuff he does for us to help us win, the winning things he does, it’s hard to put into numbers. And unfortunately, we’re in this numbers generation where everything is numbers, and his brilliance sometimes is missed by a lot of people.”
Rivers is right to some extent. It’s far more difficult to quantify Simmons’ defensive impact than it is to highlight his miserable 34.2 percent free-throw clip in the playoffs. Then again, you can bring up his defensive versatility or how he’s among the league leaders in three-point assists over the past three seasons, but how much does any of that matter if he’s a liability in the fourth quarter of playoff games?
Team fit plays a role here, too. Would Simmons look better if he wasn’t playing alongside one of the league’s most dominant interior presences and instead had four shooters flanking him? Would he benefit from having a reliable secondary playmaker on the court with him so he could learn how to operate more effectively off the ball?
We won’t ever find that out in Philadelphia. The Sixers signed Embiid to a four-year supermax extension back in mid-August that runs through at least the 2025-26 season. Although Rivers expressed confidence heading into the playoffs that Simmons and Embiid had finally solved their half-court fit issues, Simmons’ offensive struggles against the Hawks suggested otherwise.
That doesn’t mean Simmons is irreparably broken, though. Wherever he winds up next, he figures to remain a fixture in All-Star Games for years to come. His refusal to shoot limits his playoff upside, but he’s still a dominant regular-season player even if he doesn’t continue to improve his game.
Simmons isn’t a plug-and-play option that can fit into any system. Teams that can’t build from the ground up around his specific strengths and weaknesses may not be able to maximize his upside. Given his repeated postseason collapses, it’s fair to wonder whether he’s worth that much trouble.
But even if he plateaus from here on out, he’ll likely remain a fringe top-25 player during the regular season. He might not be the No. 1 or No. 2 option on a title contender, but he’s helped guide the Sixers to four straight playoff appearances. He figures to do the same elsewhere.
The Sixers aren’t likely to fetch a James Harden- or Anthony Davis-esque trade package for Simmons because of his glaring flaws. However, he could be a godsend for teams stuck in lottery purgatory. While he might limit their championship upside, that’s less of an issue if their main priority is snapping a playoff drought.
Simmons is by no means a perfect player, but he also isn’t as terrible as he looked in the final few games against Atlanta. He won’t ever reach his ceiling unless he overcomes his shooting mental block, but most players would kill to have an All-Star floor.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.