The narrative was easy.
A game after losing to an injury-depleted Portland Trail Blazers team without Ben Simmons, the 76ers rebounded with Simmons back in the lineup during Saturday’s 124-108 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Never mind that Portland was missing six players, including the starting backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and still won, 121-105. Sixers coach Doc Rivers mentioned how much the absence of Simmons was felt against the Trail Blazers. Similarly, following the Brooklyn win, Rivers talked about Simmons’ many contributions upon his return.
“I don’t know if anybody else creates more threes than Ben does,” Rivers said.
The Nets game was a prime example.
Of Simmons’ eight assists, five were for three-pointers.
“We’re doing a great job spacing the floor, which allows Ben to get into the paint in transition, suck someone in, and then find them,” Rivers said. “It’s been very good for us all year.”
Where Simmons truly excels is on defense, where last season he was a first-team All-NBA defensive selection and he has done nothing to hurt that standing this year.
The Nets were without Kevin Durant (health and safety protocols) and Kyrie Irving (right finger sprain), so the onus fell on James Harden.
For part of the third quarter, Simmons was on Harden, a quarter in which the Sixers broke the game open, outscoring the Nets, 43-30.
Harden actually had a big scoring third quarter with 13 points, shooting 5-for-7 from the field. According to NBA.com stats, with Simmons matched up on Harden, the Nets guard made his only shot, but at 6-foot-10, Simmons clogged up the passing lanes for Harden and others.
Harden’s lone third-quarter turnover came with Simmons guarding him. Simmons stole the ball and then took it all the way for a driving dunk.
“[I was] just making it tough on him, getting my hands in the passing lanes, trying to get steals, using my size,” Simmons said.
Simmons is so versatile that with the Nets at full strength, he has the capability to defend Harden, Irving, or Durant.
Entering Sunday, Simmons led the NBA in two grit stats: deflections (4.0 per game) and loose balls recovered (1.6).
An All-Star the last two years, Simmons is a candidate to make it three years in a row, but he won’t be helped by his scoring statistics. Any story on Simmons’ offense always mentions his reluctance to shoot, not only from three-point range but anything beyond 10 feet.
According to basketball-reference.com, only 18 of his 200 field-goal attempts have been beyond 10 feet this year, including 1 of 6 from three.
In the past, that hasn’t hurt his scoring, but this season he is averaging a career-low 13.5 points per game.
During his first three seasons, he averaged 16.4 points and averaged 16.7 shots per 100 possessions.
This year, he’s down to 13.7 field goals per 100 possessions.
Simmons has taken 10 or more shots in a game just 10 times this season. He has appeared in 21 games for the 17-7 Sixers, missing three due to injury. (The Sixers resume action Tuesday in Sacramento against the Kings, kicking off a four-game West Coast road trip.)
Meanwhile, in each of the last five games, he has attempted 10 or more shots. Over that span, he is averaging 16 points per game. When asked about his more aggressive offensive approach, Simmons said, “I’ve got to do that, I’ve got to get to the rim, I’ve got to find my guys, I’ve got to make the plays and take care of the ball.”
The taking-care-of-the-ball part of his game does need work. He had six turnovers against the Nets and is averaging a career-high 3.6 per game.
Still, he does so many things to help the team win.
The Sixers are 0-3 without him this season. In those three games, the Sixers have been outscored by a combined 46 points, losing by 12, 18, and 16 points. Last year they were 8-8 in the regular season without him and, of course, were swept by the Boston Celtics in their opening-round playoff series.
Whether the lower offensive numbers will hurt Simmons’ All-Star chances remains to be seen.
Simmons has always been highly thought of by coaches, especially Eastern Conference coaches, who will vote for the reserves. Regardless of his willingness to shoot from the perimeter, he has done a lot to help the Sixers land on top of the Eastern Conference, with one-third of the season completed.