Ben Simmons would not be deterred.
After spinning past Avery Bradley and away from the clutches of an ill-timed double team, he careened to the basket. Reggie Bullock was stuck in mud while Bradley, already scrambling to catch up, slashed Simmons across the arms with a sense of frustration that belied his reputation as an elite wing defender.
Then there was Ish Smith, Simmons’ opposing point guard on the night, despite giving up an absurd 29kg and 25cm in stature. The outsized Smith could only stand idle, imitate a hurdle on the sprint track and ponder as Simmons converted a field goal that can best be described as a combination of clunky and innovative.
Make no mistake, this wasn’t the most visually appeasing finish you will see from Simmons. There was no breakaway dunk or graceful floater through the lane, but this bucket encapsulated the attacking prowess that lies within this rookie. It also bookended the most dominant stretch of offensive basketball in Simmons’ brief professional career.
By the time Simmons stepped to the free throw line to complete his three-point play, the 76ers had built a 14-point lead in just six minutes. They had nine field goals over this stretch: Simmons made five and assisted on three others, accounting for 18 points in total. This was aggressive, it was commanding and it was, in the words of 76ers head coach Brett Brown, a statement. “At the start, he [Simmons] was on a mission,” Brown added postgame.
This was Simmons at his best. He was attacking downhill at every opportunity, bullying smaller defenders who, despite their best efforts, bounced off him like bowling balls hitting the gutter guard.
Philadelphia led 62-32 at the half and their opposition were crushed. Simmons was the best player on the court throughout and played with a purpose. He finished the competitive portion of this game with 15 points (7-10 shooting), 7 assists (with only 1 turnover), 3 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in 16 minutes. Simmons was flexing and the Detroit Pistons were powerless. He pushed the ball in transition, he posted up and he played with an intent to score. Most importantly of all, he played like someone who finally understood his greatest advantage: that he’s bigger and stronger than the opponents charged with stopping him.
Such a statement may appear obvious at first, as opposed to some dirty little secret that requires discovery. But harnessing these athletic gifts at the highest level of basketball is a skill that must be learnt. Name any athletic phenom to enter this current day version of the NBA – LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the ones that instantly come to mind – they all suffered growing pains before they could truly take advantage of their physical gifts. Simmons has been working through his.
The Pistons routinely sent a variety of smaller defenders at Simmons and it made his eyes bulge. He would then methodically pick apart the defence and score at will. Detroit are simply the first team to get a true glimpse into the future. “I think I’m at the point where I know where I can score,” Simmons noted after the Pistons victory. “I know how to attack different defenders.”
Acknowledging this mindset is what made the Pistons performance so promising. This wasn’t just a case of Simmons forcing his way through the defence. There was method and science blended with sheer aggression.
Early in the season, the 76ers offence was relatively simple with Simmons at the controls. The basketball was placed in his hands and the mandate was a modest quest to beat his direct opponent, break down the defence and get to the rim. Brute force was the name of the game, and while Simmons’ pure athleticism allowed for periodic success, there were teething issues.
Turnovers have been problematic for both player and team – Simmons ranks sixth personally (4.1 per game) and Philadelphia leads the league as a team (17.9). As long as Simmons keeps his dribble alive he is lethal, but he has a tendency of leaving his feet prematurely and forcing mid-air passes to nowhere. Such plays have seen lofty turnover totals against shrewd defences.
There have also been issues when Simmons is away from the ball. His lack of shooting prowess is well known and hardly worth further analysis. All you need to know is this: the 76ers have played 39 games and he hasn’t attempted a genuine field goal outside of 20 feet. According to the NBA’s shot tracking data, Simmons has 12 registered attempts and each has been a heave to beat either the shot clock or game clock at the end of a quarter. Saying he cannot shoot isn’t even the correct terminology. He just won’t shoot from the perimeter. Without the danger of an outside jump shot, opposition defences scheme away from him, unafraid of the consequences.
Only 32% of Simmons’ field goals have been assisted on. This is a number Brown and the coaching staff are wanting to improve. It has been a point of emphasis over recent weeks. Against Detroit, the 76ers deployed a shuffle cut action that called for Simmons to receive the basketball as he entered the paint. This look proved lethal and helped leverage a 15-0 spurt that vaulted the 76ers clear.
Two things make this simple action so effective. The first is Simmons’s decision to instantly snake through the paint when giving up the basketball. Bullock is panicked and unable to pre-empt the Joel Embiid screen coming his way. This gave Simmons the breathing space required to slide free down the lane. The second is the sheer size of all involved for Philadelphia.
Just like his Australian counterpart, Dario Saric enjoys a height advantage over most opponents when guarded on the perimeter. He can look over defences and make entry passes from an elevated base, something that is especially useful when passing to an oversized Simmons. Even when the Pistons did a better job of covering this action, the Australian’s supreme size made this play a winner.
Note how Drummond backs away from Embiid and initially prevents Simmons from slashing uncontested to the basket. Bullock does a better job of staying attached and is in good position as Simmons enters the paint. Not that it mattered. Simmons was too much for Detroit to handle.
These two plays were Simmons’ only assisted field goals of the game – as the remainder of his damage came from freelance transition opportunities – but remain noteworthy because they put him in a position to succeed. Both sets generated clean looks for Simmons in the paint, a place where he excels. He averages 13.4 points in the paint per game, ranking fourth in the NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Simmons has only made 15 field goals outside the paint all year so his playground remains limited to the inside.
The 76ers did run a third shuffle cut action that the Pistons correctly handled, although it simply rolled into a different look where Simmons showed off his other talents.
Unfazed by the initial look being taken away, Simmons calmly accepts post position and his teammates clear out. J.J. Redick curls off a double screen to distract the defence, while Saric pops open for three. Simmons is currently averaging 7.3 assists per game. He is on track to match Magic Johnson as the only NBA rookies, standing 6’7” or taller, to ever average more than 7 assists per game.
All this offence came within a four minute window to start the Pistons game. In a contest where the 76ers were utterly dominant, Simmons’ aggressive mindset stood out above all. For a few minutes we got a glimpse into the next decade of basketball in Philadelphia, and perhaps the second coming of LeBron James.
Watching Simmons slash to the basket and dominate the game from the post draws flashbacks to James controlling Finals games in a similar manner. Performing on the Finals stage is obviously many steps removed doing the same on a Friday night in January, but Simmons is already showing signs of offensive mastery.
Expect to see further progress with the 76ers coaching staff learning how best to deploy their oversized point guard. More variations to the offence, such as those seen against Detroit, could help unleash a dominant Simmons during the second half of the season.