Ben Simmons as a modern-day point guard has long been a square peg in a round hole. Yes, he’s an incredible ball pusher and a high-level open-floor playmaker, both for himself and others. But he can’t — or won’t — shoot, and thus his drag on half-court offense, and more specifically his fit alongside Joel Embiid, continues to be the cloud that hangs over the entire Philadelphia 76ers franchise.
There has always been one seemingly obvious answer: Stop playing Simmons at point guard. Well, it sounds like the Sixers are finally ready to not just explore, but actually exercise that option when the season resumes in Orlando. On a conference call with media on Monday, Philly coach Brett Brown noted that over the last few days of practice he has “used [Simmons] exclusively as a four man.”
“He’s so dynamic. There’s nobody faster in the NBA,” Brown said of Simmons, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “So to always have to have Ben have the ball and dribble it up against five guys, to do that I think dilutes some of his potent weapon, speed.”
If Brown is aware that Simmons is miscast as the head of a half-court offense, it begs the question why Simmons has been utilized as such to this point.
“It’s not like Ben came in and we had Chris Paul on the team or Damian Lillard on the team,” Brown said. “We were young and really not that good, and so it was my decision, [Ben] take the ball, you be the point guard. It’s not like we had an established point guard that you had to bump out.”
This is true, but also a bit of a cop out. Simmons has resisted a move away from point guard and the Sixers have conceded to that by not pursuing more viable options. Malcolm Brogdon was available last summer for $25 million less than they paid Al Horford, who has been an awful fit next to Embiid and will likely move to the bench with Simmons assuming the power forward spot. A trade for Chris Paul could’ve been, and could still be, an option. D’Angelo Russell was out there. Even a borderline-replacement-level point guard who can shoot could be argued as the better fit on this roster. Someone in the ilk of D.J. Augustin. Find just about any name you’d like.
At the very least, Simmons can be justified as a point guard with a half-court creator like Jimmy Butler, but Philly lost him to Miami, or if there’s shooting all around Simmons, but over the last two summers the Sixers have dumped JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. They have, in the end, constructed their team in a manner that further exposes Simmons’ hole, and so now they have to scramble to fill it. The good news is Brown says Simmons has been receptive to the change in Orlando.
“Like a star,” is how Brown described Simmons’ handling of the position switch. “Just a mature, ‘whatever it’s gonna take’ to get this team to be the best it can be with the pieces we have.”
What makes moving Simmons to the four spot at this juncture a more viable option is the presence of Shake Milton, who emerged as a big-time shooter and playmaker prior to the March suspension of play, albeit in a short sample and with Simmons nursing an injury. We don’t know how they’ll play together, but we’re about to find out. Embiid said in his media availability on Monday that Milton has been operating as Philly’s starting point guard in practice and has looked “amazing.”
With Milton running point, Simmons slotting as a lane filler becomes a terrifying matchup for opposing power forwards. He would consistently beat defenders down the floor if he’s committed to running, which would make, as one example, early post position after made baskets a massive weapon for a Sixers team that is more dynamic in early offense than in late-clock situations.
Off misses, Simmons can rebound and push as a hyper-athletic Draymond Green or run the wing as a finisher. These are all tailor-made roles that not only optimize his vast skill set but minimize his lone weakness. Problem is, Simmons’ off-ball coexistence with Embiid isn’t exactly perfect, either. Both need to occupy the paint, but two bodies in the paint these days is a death knell, particularly on a team that can’t collectively shoot and needs any and all penetration lanes.
Forcing Embiid to the perimeter is negating all that makes him great, while hiding Simmons in the dunker spot is largely wasting a highly versatile weapon. This makes it all the more important that Brown said the following on Monday: “Watching [Simmons] and Joel play off each other has been a really good look. I think they have been fantastic together.”
Brown is one of the most optimistic coaches you’ll ever hear talk, so take that for what it’s worth. But there has been evidence of Simmons taking more to an active four-man role this season that takes advantage of two-man actions with Embiid — notably deep pick-and-rolls. It’s not rocket science. Simmons can do major damage as a screener given how far defenders sag off him; a quick dribble-handoff leaves no help defender to jump out on the shooter. This is where the loss of Redick has been huge.
Simmons has committed more to screening and aggressive rolling, and if he can combine that with smart basket cuts before vacating the lane if he doesn’t get the ball so Embiid can do his damage, there’s no reason this can’t work. It won’t be perfect, but the Sixers don’t need it to be. They have enough talent to overcome minor inefficiencies. Just not major ones. Moving Simmons to the four spot is all about eliminating the latter. If it works, Philadelphia is dangerous.