PHILADELPHIA - On any other afternoon, Ben Simmons would have been allowed to slide away and hide from the laser sharp focus that now follows Philadelphia’s Phantastic 5.
Simmons was a turbocharged role player during a 143-120 victory by his Philadelphia 76ers over the Los Angeles today. A combined 95 points from the other four members of Philadelphia’s newly created starting quintet carried the day for Brett Brown’s men and largely overshadowed Simmons’ modest eight points and seven assists. Although as the newly minted NBA All-Star is prone to do, he burst into the juiciest narratives emanating from the Wells Fargo Center.
Simmons attempted a three-point field goal today. For the first time in his NBA career, it was a legitimate attempt from beyond the arc. This wasn’t a heave at the end of a possession, or a thrust in the final moments of a quarter to beat the game clock. No, this was different. Simmons walked up and, in rhythm, pulled the trigger.
“I was getting ready to run the play and then I literally saw the ball go over and was like, ‘oh shit,’” says Joel Embiid. “It caught me off guard and I was in a position where I was like ‘what just happened’.”
While surprising to Simmons’ All-Star companion, there was a greater meaning behind the shot, according to Brown. The Sixers leading man explained that he had spoken with Simmons this weekend about what will transpire during the final third of the NBA season, and specifically, how the team could help prepare the point guard what is coming in the postseason. With that set as the backdrop, the actions of LeBron James in the opening half came at the appropriate time to facilitate something new from Simmons.
James was Simmons’ direct match up but he didn’t guard his opponent. The four time league MVP “defended” Simmons by remaining within 10 feet of the basket on vitally every half court possession, giving the Australian an ocean of space on the perimeter. This philosophy is nothing new; Boston popularised the concept during the their postseason victory over the Sixers last season and it has been replicated by many this season. But never to the degree that James and Lakers deployed today.
“We all saw, to an extreme, LeBron not guard him,” Brown said postgame. “We all have memories of the Celtics series. So somewhere in the middle we have a window of 20-something games left and I would like to try some of this stuff prior to the All-Star break and take off with it in the final third.”
The timing of Brown’s recent discussion with Simmons, and James defensive actions, are why he emphatically spoke to the importance of Simmons taking his first legitimate NBA three-point attempt.
“I actually thought the shot looked good,” Brown added. “The rhythm into it looked good. It was close to going in. He didn’t look uncomfortable shooting it.
Simmons was more circumspect, both on the three-point attempt itself and the takeaways he took from discussion on end of season goals with his coach.
“Just being more aggressive and taking more open shots,” Simmons said of his personal goals. “I’m just trying to grow my game in that way and I think I am getting there. It takes time but I am getting there.”
The postseason is firmly on the mind of everyone in the Sixers franchise. Following a hyper-active trade deadline, every possession over the next two months will be treated as a valuable data point, according to Brown. Finding cohesive playing styles that will stand up to the rigours of postseason basketball is the most pressing objective. With James replicating the strategy that stumped Simmons during his rookie season, today was another priceless lesson on the path to what the Sixers hope is a deep run.
“With this new five, I think it’s going to be exciting with what we can do and there are a bunch of different varieties we can run,” Simmons said.
Would a reliable jump shot form Simmons help make the Sixers insanely impressive starting five even better? Almost every NBA mind believes it would and Brown agrees with the masses.
“It would help,” says Brown. “When that happens, in relation to a legitimate threat, I don’t know. I believe it will happen sooner than others might. I see him shoot after practice. I see him play-one-on-one at the elbow after practice and I have confidence.”
Magic Johnson addressed the waiting media in Philadelphia today and delivered a state of the nation on his Lakers. Deep inside the halls of the Wells Fargo Center, as Johnson was getting ready to escape to his courtside seats, he let slip of a request Simmons has sent his way.
“He reached out to me, not to me directly, to the Lakers to find out if we can get together this summer,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘hey, you have to clear it with the league and everybody. If the Sixers sign off, we [the Lakers] sign off and the league signs off that there isn’t anything going on, but that he wants to learn how to play the position as a big guard… then it’s fine. I would do that. If everybody doesn’t sign off then we can’t get together.”
There is much to unpack in these comments from Johnson. On the surface, the fact that Simmons has sought an audience with someone to whom he is most compared is a logical next step in his basketball development.
“Definitely,” Simmons said when asked if would like to study from Johnson. “Trying to learn from somebody like that would be huge. He has been in multiple situations. He had to play the five. He won championships and is a Hall of Famer. One of those guys that, in terms of what position I am in as a 6’10” point guard, I think he can help.”
The accolades Simmons list are the very things he aspires towards in the NBA. Johnson dominated the NBA as an oversized point guard and Simmons, who is widely accepted as the closing reimagining of Johnson the league has ever seen, has much to gain should the pair ever get together. That much is painfully clear, although whether an offseason get together actually transpires is less apparent.
Johnson isn’t just a Lakers legend; he is their President of Basketball Operations. As such, he is forbidden, technically speaking, from even commenting publically on player like Simmons who are contracted on another team. The NBA, already hypersensitive to the perception that there are two sets of tampering laws – one for the Lakers and one for the other 29 franchises – will no doubt investigate whether this was a fine-worthy offence from the Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations.
Reaching into the public consciousness to discuss Simmons is nothing new for Johnson. He was fined $500,000 for comments made about recruiting Paul George to the Lakers in a 2017 interview on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’. He also induced another fine of the Lakers franchise after speaking publically about Milwaukee Bucks MVP frontrunner, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The optics of Anthony Davis’ failed trade request to the Lakers, a move which many franchises around the NBA believe was orchestrated with significant involvement from James, Johnson and the Lakers franchise, has further riled up negative sentiment towards the Lakers.
“I love his game,” Johnson added on Simmons’ basketball talents. “I love his vision. I love also, too, in terms of basketball I.Q., he has very high basketball I.Q. Look at him now, the east better watch out. This is a stacked team.”
Simmons has nothing to fear in any of this, although as Johnson articulated in his comments, no meeting between the two tallest All-Star point guards in NBA history can occur unless the NBA and Sixers franchise approve.
Even on an afternoon where his performance took a back seat, Simmons is integral to some the biggest storylines, both in the game and the NBA as a whole. That is quickly becoming the norm.