Given the extreme nature of Ben Simmons game, and of our minds’ inherent bias toward defining observations by their extremes, and of the scarcity of extreme talent in the NBA, I think it’d be helpful for all of us to begin the upcoming Hot Take season by attempting to contextualize who Simmons is. After all, we have six months to carry on with our business about who he should be.
The inspiration for this approach is four-fold. One, the Sixers are three weeks away from tipping off a season that will have dramatic implications on the future that their new front office and coaching staff will attempt to chart. Two, there are plenty of people within the media and the fan base who seem to have mistaken the absence of evidence for the evidence of absence. Because the Sixers have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs in the first three years of Simmons’ partnership with Joel Embiid, and because human beings are susceptible to defining things by their extremes, the temptation is to conclude that the flaws we see in each players are disqualifying in nature. Three, our microscopic focus on Embiid and Simmons lays the foundation for a sort of parochial fallacy where we not only define these players by their flaws but lose sight of where their strengths rank in the NBA at large. Four, the NBA offseason just produced a trade involving two players who are emblematic of the player that Simmons critics’ accuse him of being.
So, who is Simmons? On a granular level, he is very much the player his detractors suggest. The irony is that the weakness upon which they fixate, his reluctance to shoot, is just as much a function of his strengths. Will he need to emerge as a more assertive scorer in order to anchor a championship team? Sure. Would the ability to shoot outside the paint help him become that scorer? No doubt. But basketball is a game that is as much about efficiency as it is about volume, and Simmons’ efficiency over his first three seasons is one of the primary reasons the Sixers’ efficiency in winning games has been so high when he is on the court.
Consider the trade we mentioned earlier in this piece. On a holistic level, the dominant critique of Simmons is that he is a talented player who puts up impressive numbers but whose flaws make it difficult to build a championship team around him. In other words, they envision him in much the same way the NBA has come to regard John Wall and Russell Westbrook.
Like Simmons, John Wall and Russell Westbrook are former top five draft picks with elite physical abilities. In fact, they are two of only three active players to average 16-plus points, 7-plus assists, and 4-plus rebounds in their first three seasons in the league, with the third being Simmons. Yet Wall and Westbrook are players who have spent their most recent seasons colliding with the ceilings that their deficiencies have placed above their heads (and above the heads of their teams). As a result, their value on this year’s trade market was limited to each other.
The difference with Simmons is his efficiency. Compare his effective field goal percentage (.560) to those of Wall (.432) and Westbrook (.434) in their first three seasons. Essentially, 56 percent of the time Simmons has shot the ball, the result has been two points for his team. On the other hand, 56 percent of the time Wall and Westbrook shot the ball, the result was zero points.
Look at it another way. Simmons has scored 2,920 points on 2,605 field goal attempts (not including those that resulted in foul shots). Every time he has shot the ball, it has been worth 1.12 points. Every time Wall shot the ball during his first three seasons, it was worth 0.87 points. This is a crucial distinction when you consider that every shot that an individual player takes is a shot that somebody else didn’t take.
You can conceptualize that by imagining a team consisting entirely of league average players except for Wall. During Wall’s first three seasons, NBA players combined to average about 0.99 points per field goal attempt. Every time he shot the ball instead of someone else, it would cost his team minus-0.12 points. Or, think of Simmons within the context of his team. Over the last three seasons, the Sixers have averaged 1.07 points per field goal attempt. Which means each shot by Simmons netted positive points.
The application of the math above is not meant to be scientific. But it illustrates an important concept for which Simmons does not get enough credit. In Wall and Westbrook, you have two players whose lack of self-awareness has been their biggest downfall. Anybody who wants Simmons to just shoot the ball should be careful for what they wish for, which is why coaches like Doc Rivers and assistant Sam Cassell will answer questions about the topic the same way their predecessors did.
“It’s important to make shots, but it’s more important to win,” Simmons said on Friday, “so however the winning happens, I know Doc and Sam are going to put me in the right positions to do that and be dominant.”
Who is Simmons?
He is a player who is a net positive on both ends of the court. You can put together almost any realistic combination of NBA players and that team will be better on both ends of the court when Simmons is one of the five players on it. That’s an extraordinarily rare quality in a player, let alone one who is 24 years old and has the physical toolset to get better by magnitudes.
“I think [Embiid] and I both realize how unique and special this moment is for two guys like us to be on the same team at such a young age,” Simmons said. “You know, everybody wanted it to be the first couple years, but it obviously didn’t happen, and it doesn’t work like that.”
With a fresh set of eyes in charge of talent evaluation and a fresh approach to the utilization of that talent, Simmons has a fresh chance to establish himself as the least touchable of the untouchables, an elite cornerstone talent who can co-exist on a championship level with any fellow superstar you pair him with.
The time may come when the Sixers need to pair Embiid with a player who is different from the one Simmons is capable of becoming. For now, let’s remember the caliber of player he is.