The biggest challenge in deciding what position Ben Simmons should play is that, from a long-term point of view, Simmons should play whatever position he wants. Or, perhaps, the inverse is more accurate. He shouldn’t play a position that he does not want to play, at least not to the extent that being forced to play it would cause him to consider whether life might be better in another NBA city.
That might not sit well with the rub-some-dirt-on-it crowd, but it happens to be the way life works in a league where players hold all of the power. The Spurs might be a lot of things the Sixers are not from an organizational standpoint, but they’re also 27-36, while Kawhi Leonard is looking to lead a second team to its first-ever title since he forced his way out of San Antonio. If it can happen to Gregg Popovich, it sure as heck can happen to Brett Brown.
The most important responsibility of any NBA coach is to serve as ownership’s liaison to its superstar(s). It is a role whose stakes overlap perfectly with the motivations of any coach who is interested in self-preservation. When a coach and a superstar disagree on some fundamental level, it is not the superstar who will soon be a guest analyst on ESPN. If Simmons wants to bring the ball up the court on every possession, there are 29 other NBA teams that would happily promise him the opportunity if it allowed them to add to their roster a 23-year-old who is already one of the best two-way players in the league (if you snicker at that claim, you aren’t watching close enough on the defensive end of the court).
None of this is to suggest that Simmons has ever delivered an ultimatum to Brown or the Sixers, or that he has spent three years as the team’s primary ball handler in spite of his coach’s true wishes. But it should suggest that endless debate about the head coach’s handling of both of his young stars is probably a bit more complicated than we tend to give it credit. Publicly, Simmons has never deviated from the sort of responses that come preinstalled on the hard drives of savvy, well-managed athletes. Wherever the team needs him, whatever will help us win, etc.
“I’m a basketball player at the end of the day,” Simmons said this week. “You know me, if you put me on the floor, I’ll make anything happen. Whether it’s plays, buckets, stops, I’ll guard anybody 1 through 5; I run the floor; I can get to the rim; I can score the ball; and I make plays happen. So, wherever you put me — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — it’s gonna happen. I don’t really look at it as, like, a title or position. That’s mainly for you guys to put down in your articles.”
Of course, those sentiments are entirely compatible with a belief that the team needs him at point guard and that playing him there is what will most help them win. In fact, if we accept the premise that stars like Simmons have the power to force change, and that Simmons just wants to play where the team needs him, the fact that he has embraced the role with nary a cross word suggests that, at the very least, he hasn’t spent the last three years harboring a belief that some other position would be a better fit.
Which brings us back to the actual debate, because there have been plenty of situations over the last three years where it has been painfully obvious that another position would be a better fit. I don’t mean that in a wholesale sense — a player with Simmons’ size-to-quickness and ball-handling-ability-to-strength ratios are such that it would be ludicrous to confine him to the low block and elbow. The Sixers have won a lot of games over the last three years with Simmons as the team’s primary ball handler, and a big part of that success is attributable to his ability to operate with the ball in his hands and his face to the basket. At the same time, there have been plenty of game situations where it has felt as though the ball would be better off in somebody else’s hands. In last year’s playoffs, Brown decided to put the ball there, and it worked well enough that Jimmy Butler very nearly led the Sixers to the Eastern Conference finals.
That being said, Butler is no longer a Sixer, and Simmons has a new contract extension, and both of those facts are once again pertinent now that the playoffs are at hand. Last week, Brown made a surprising revelation when he told reporters in a conference call that Simmons had been spending most of his practice time playing off the ball.
“Whatever it’s going to take to get this team to be the best it can be with the pieces that we have that can be, I don’t know, just designed into a smooth thing — that is one of the pieces he has to offer,” Brown said.
Even before the NBA’s hiatus, Brown had been using Simmons more in an off-the-ball role than he had in previous seasons. All signs point to that occurring even more frequently in the playoffs, which is one of the big reasons to hope that the Sixers will be a dramatically different team once play resumes. But the biggest question is the same one that has existed since Simmons arrived in Philadelphia — is there anybody better to run the point on the roster? With Butler, that answer was a definitive yes, at least in stretches. Whether Shake Milton or Josh Richardson can play well enough to free Simmons up is far less certain.