Ben Simmons is a defensive juggernaut but remains a conundrum on offense for Philadelphia 76ers
After most Philadelphia 76ers games, opinion is split on the performance of Ben Simmons.
Tuesday night was no different.
After Game 1 of Philly's Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the Atlanta Hawks – a loss for the top-seeded Sixers – Simmons said he wanted to spend more time guarding Atlanta orchestrator Trae Young in Game 2.
Young had just torched Philly, scoring 35 points and dishing out 11 assists in a 128-124 win for the ATL. Simmons put up 17 points, 10 assists and four steals but felt that defensively, he was needed.
Before Game 2, Sixers coach Doc Rivers was torn on whether he would allow Simmons to take the brunt of the responsibility for guarding Young.
It seems, however, that Rivers acquiesced, and when Game 2 arrived, Simmons was granted the task of sticking Young.
And his presence was immediately felt and recognized.
Young still finished the night with 21 points and 11 assists, but he shot 6-for-16 from the field and 1-for-7 from distance. He also committed four turnovers for a second straight game.
When Simmons was defending him, things didn't go particularly well for Young.
The mixture of Matisse Thybulle and Simmons, because of their length and athleticism, seemed to be nightmarish for Young. While Young is listed at 6-foot-1, Thybulle is listed at 6-foot-5, and Simmons clocks in at a massive 6-foot-11.
On one notable play from Tuesday, Thybulle was assigned to Young, while Simmons was assigned to 6-foot-10 Atlanta forward Danilo Gallinari.
Young got the ball between half court and the 3-point line, where Gallinari came to set a screen on Thybulle. Even though Thybulle was able to get over the screen, he stuck with Gallo, and Simmons switched off onto Young, several feet behind the arc.
Young attempted to put up a deep 3 over Simmons, but Philly's All-Star PG blocked it and recovered the ball.
That play in particular is a testament to the versatility of both Thybulle and Simmons. In that moment, the Sixers were running with a lineup of Simmons, Thybulle, George Hill, Danny Green and Joel Embiid, meaning at least four guys on the court were capable of switching off onto Young.
Considering that Thybulle got over the screen initially, if Embiid's man – rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu – came to screen for Young, the assumption is that Thybulle would have fought tooth and nail to get over the screen, even if it meant leaving Okongwu open for a split second while Embiid hedged on Young.
However, while Thybulle and Simmons might be interchangeable on defense, as we noticed above, the two are not supposed to be equal on offense.
Thybulle is known as a defender – he won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and '19, and he was the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 – but Simmons is a three-time NBA All-Star.
While Simmons led the NBA in steals (2.1) and was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team in 2020, he carries a burden to produce for Philly on the offensive end. This season, he put up 14.3 points, 6.9 assists and 7.2 rebounds – respectable numbers but all career lows for Simmons.
Simmons shot 55.7% from the field this season, a great percentage but the worst since his rookie season in 2017-18. He shot 61.3% from the free-throw line and 30% from 3, connecting on three of his 10 attempts from distance.
He's 0-for-1 from 3 in the postseason, and on Tuesday, despite his stellar defense, Simmons put up only four points in 35 minutes, shooting 2-for-3 from the field and 0-for-2 from the free-throw line. He dished out seven assists.
Some came to the defense of Simmons on Tuesday, saying that his defensive outing, as opposed to his lack of production on offense, was the story of the night.
On the season, Simmons was indeed remarkable on the defensive end. His 106.1 defensive rating was tied for fourth in the NBA, and his 3.3 defensive win shares tied for sixth.
He finished fifth in steals, with 1.6 per game, and with him on the court this season, the 76ers had a 107.4 defensive rating, which would have been second-best in the NBA.
But there is still that lingering issue of offense, and on Wednesday, Colin Cowherd had something to say about Simmons' apparent lack of dedication to becoming a better shooter.
"I'm ashamed of myself. … I fell for Ben Simmons. I grew up with Magic Johnson. A 6-foot-11 point guard? Great defense. Swagger. Great ball handler. He's got Magic Johnson's vision. He can finish at the rim. I know he can't shoot. Magic wasn't a great shooter when he came in either. And I've always said I'd take Simmons over Embiid because Embiid, I know he's gonna fall apart. He's already got a torn meniscus now in this series. I'm ashamed of myself.
"I'm gonna go with Embiid. I decided last night."
As cause for pause, Cowherd pointed to not only Simmons' taking just three shots last night but also the fact that Simmons has been abysmal from the free-throw line, shooting 3-for-12 in the series, and seems "indifferent" toward the game and his development as a player.
"Total nonfactor. 35 minutes last night – four points, three shots. He just doesn't care. … I have no problem when people make mistakes out of passion. Indifference? I hate it. … You can have ‘too cool’ guy. Ben Simmons is too cool. He won't work on his game."
Cowherd also pointed toward Embiid as the pillar of the franchise moving forward, as opposed to Simmons. Embiid finished second to Denver's Nikola Jokic in MVP voting this season, helping the Sixers nab the top seed in the East for the first time since the 2000-01 season, which was also the last time they made it to the NBA Finals.
On Tuesday, Embiid obliterated Atlanta.
This season, Simmons scored a season-high 42 points on Feb. 15 in a loss at Utah – a game in which Embiid didn't play – and eight times this year, he scored 20 or more points. He scored 10 or fewer points 13 times during the regular season.
Through seven playoff games, he's averaging 13.6 points, 9.0 assists and 8.3 rebounds. While he's shooting 69.5% from the field, he's shooting 32.5% from the free-throw line, connecting on 13 of 40 free throws in seven games so far.
Embiid is putting up 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds in six playoff games – he missed one due to injury – and shooting 51.3% from the field and 85.9% from the line.
Said Cowherd: "Here's the thing with Embiid. There's one thing I worry about, and it's a huge thing: the injury. … But that's all I worry about with Embiid! … I'm looking at Ben Simmons' numbers last night. After I watched that game, I'm like, ‘He’s invisible.' He took three shots. Three shots? That's it?"
Simmons' defense was key in Philly's Game 2 win over Atlanta. But if the Sixers hope to take down the likes of Brooklyn or Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference – if they get past the Hawks – Embiid will need help carrying the scoring load.
Meaning the "cool guy" might need to drop in a cool 20 or more per game for Philly.
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