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Can Ben Simmons lead Philadelphia to championship glory?
Ben Simmons arguably lays claim to the greatest individual season among Australian players, both past and present. Hailing from Melbourne, he became the nation's first All-Star last season. Andrew Bogut might dispute that, having made the All-NBA 3rd team in 2010, but he played fewer games and missed the playoffs that year.
Following an impressive regular season, Simmons' playoff campaign ended with an agonising Game 7 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard, Ben's defensive assignment, sunk the 76ers with an iconic buzzer beater. Neither Simmons nor Joel Embiid lived up to their regular season prowess in that series, with the Sixers left wondering what could have been.
Fast forwarding to today, Simmons is surrounded by a very different roster. Al Horford and Josh Richardson joined the 76ers, linking up with returning starters in Simmons, Embiid and Tobias Harris. JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler have made way for the new recruits, while rookie Matisse Thybulle is an intriguing draftee.
Has Simmons really fixed his jump shot?
First of all, we must address the elephant in the room. Simmons' jump shot has been one of the talking points of the offseason.
The hype began with several offseason workout videos that went viral. Fans were surprised to see the lanky point guard pulling up from range, but expectations should be tempered. These clips are undoubtedly cherrypicked, and no cause for premature optimism.
The last time Ben Simmons shot threes in competitive games was back in 2014/15, his last year of high school. He attempted 51 shots from downtown that season, knocking down just 29% of them. Since then, the Victorian has rarely ventured beyond the arc. He attempted a total of three treys in college, and 18 in his NBA career thus far.
The majority of Simmons' 18 three-point attempts have desperation heaves with the shot clock or game clock winding down. Considering his apprehension towards shooting perimeter shots, it's unsurprising that Simmons broke the internet by making one in a preseason game. When footage of that shot was uploaded to the NBA subreddit, it became the fourth highest rated post in the history of r/NBA.
While it was encouraging to see Simmons finally hit an NBA-range triple, the context is critical. The 76ers were up 79-41 in that preseason game, with the game clock winding down. The stakes don't get any lower than that. Overall, there is little reason to believe that workout footage and one preseason bucket will translate to NBA games.
Simmons' shooting woes aren't limited to just perimeter shooting. He made just 23 of 80 mid-range jumpers (between 10 and 16 feet) last season, as per basketball reference.
Simmons also hit free throws at just a 60% clip last season, showing no improvement since high school in this regard. In fact, he shot 77% from the charity stripe in his junior year of high school, which fell to 68% in senior year, 67% in college, and now 58% across 2 NBA seasons - a very curious decline.
The point forward had a mediocre 43% conversion rate between 3 and 10 feet. The only place where Simmons didn't have any trouble was at the rim - finishing at a very high 70% rate.
Simmons is an already an adept interior scorer, passer, rebounder and defender. However, his shot chart below shows a glaring unwillingness to score from beyond the paint. For a player who has very few weaknesses, his jumper sticks out like a sore thumb.
Not to sound like a broken record, but for Simmons to take his game to a new level, an improved jump shot is the missing piece to the puzzle. He doesn't have to be the next Stephen Curry, but some improvement would be encouraging.
The impact of Philadelphia's personnel changes
We all know that Ben Simmons is an elite passer. But who does he like passing to?
According to NBA advanced stats, his favourite targets last season were JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler. Of the Australian's 7.7 assists per game, Redick was responsible for 1.7 while Butler accounted for 1.2. In total, the two departing 76ers combined for 38% of Ben's assists last season.
Simmons' affinity for JJ Redick is unsurprising. The experienced shooting guard was a perfect complementary player, having made a career out of catch-and-shoot 3s. So, now that Butler and Redick have left the team, who does Simmons pass to?
New recruit Josh Richardson would be a start. He isn't a marksman from beyond the arc, shooting 35.7% last season, but Ben could bring out the best in him. Richardson has never played alongside a playmaker of this calibre.
Simmons also has a scoring weapon in Tobias Harris. Although Redick was Ben's favourite passing target in the regular season, Harris took that role in the playoffs. In the postseason, Tobias accounted for 1.4 Simmons assists per game, slightly ahead of the veteran's 1.2.
Moreover, new addition Al Horford is capable of spreading the floor. He shot three-pointers at 36% last season, and 43% the season prior.
Simmons is spoilt for options really. Despite the departure of two starters, their incoming replacements are of similar talents. We also cannot forget Joel Embiid, who ranked just below Butler on Ben's list of assist providers.
Defence wins championships
Ben Simmons is one of the few players that can genuinely guard all five positions. His combination of size and mobility is a rare find, even among the basketball elite.
Although Simmons did average 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, his defensive prowess extends well beyond the stat sheet. The Australian was called upon to guard Nets star D'Angelo Russell in the playoffs last year, and didn't disappoint.
Compared to other defenders, Russell's field goal percentage was 3% lower when guarded by Simmons. This may not sound like much, but D'Angelo also took 13 fewer shots per 100 possessions with Simmons applying pressure - a 32% decrease. In addition, Russell's assist/turnover ratio nearly halved while the 6'10 point guard was on him.
As is always the case with defense however, the stats don't tell the whole story. Simmons aced the eye test when marking his former high school teammate, as per the footage below.
After Philadelphia breezed past the Nets in five games, they faced Leonard's Raptors. The eventual Finals MVP torched the 76ers in Game 1, scoring 45 points with Jimmy Butler as his primary defender. Brett Brown was forced to make a change, and Simmons was given the unenviable job of marking the Raptors star.
The Victorian had his work cut out for him, but managed to slow Kawhi down at times. Comparing Ben's defence on Leonard with the rest of the 76ers team (throughout the series) makes interesting reading.
The Klaw was truly unstoppable in that series, but Simmons held his own. These defensive experiences in tough playoff situations will be invaluable for the young point guard. He has proven himself to be capable of guarding the opposing team's best player.
The arrival of Richardson, Thybulle and Horford should alleviate some of the defensive pressure on Simmons. All three are noted defenders, in addition to the returning Embiid. Given that Horford and Embiid are primarily interior defenders, Simmons might be spending more time guarding the perimeter this season. Fortunately, this is where he does his best work.
Last season, Simmons defended approximately 5 three-point field goals per game, a decent sample size. As per NBA advanced stats, his defensive assignment shot 6.6 percentage points worse when guarded by him (35.6% vs. 29.0%). If Simmons can carry that form into this season, he will be a defensive force. An All-Defensive selection may even be on the cards.
Philadelphia's NBA title hopes
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently rated $2.50 favourites to win the Eastern Conference, as per Sportsbet. Simmons' 76ers follow closely behind at $3.25.
After Kawhi's departure from the Raptors, the East is there for the taking. Philadelphia have assembled one of the best defensive line-ups in the league. Additionally, the 76ers have a young core with sky-high potential, led by Simmons and Embiid. Rookie Thybulle should contribute immediately as well, especially on the defensive end.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks stand in the way of Philadelphia however. The reigning MVP has improved every season, and could reach a new level this season. Also, whoever wins the West will be a force to be reckoned with. The LA Clippers and LA Lakers are currently favoured to win it all.