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Could Ben Simmons' shooting woes force him out of Philadelphia?
There's no denying what Ben Simmons can do on a basketball court. The Philadelphia 76ers star is an elite passer, freak athlete and lockdown defender. However, we can't escape the elephant in the room. For a player who has very few weaknesses, his jump shot sticks out like a sore thumb.
Given Philadelphia's inability to make the leap towards championship relevance in recent years, the organisation might just be losing patience with their former first overall pick. Simmons is no longer a fresh face in the NBA, and has serious expectations to meet after the Sixers handed him a five-year, $US170 million maximum contract extension in the offseason.
*Note: this article is purely speculative.
One step forward, two steps back
Before diving into a criticism of Ben Simmons, it's important to note that the 23 year old has made major strides on the defensive end this season. On average, his defensive assignment shoots just 40.6%, and 4.7 percentage points worse when guarded by him.
The Melbourne native currently leads the league in steals, averaging 2.1 per game. Simmons even ranks fourth in deflections per game and first in loose balls recovered per game. His improved defensive effort and instincts are undeniable, but unfortunately Simmons' shooting is a glaring weakness.
Don't be fooled by the two threes Ben Simmons hit this season, which both unsurprisingly made headlines. The 6'10 point guard is actually more reluctant than ever to shoot the ball.
In his rookie season, Simmons attempted a total of 230 shots from further than ten feet beyond the rim, per Basketball Reference. That equates to 2.84 attempts per game, a respectable figure for his first year. He then attempted just 105 shots outside ten feet in his second season, or 1.33 each game on average. These numbers have hit a new low in the 2019/20 season, where Simmons has taken just 28 shots in 37 games from beyond ten feet.
That's less than one attempt per game.
It's anyone's guess as to why Simmons is such a reluctant shooter. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor suggested he may even be shooting with the wrong hand, given that the naturally right-handed Australian shoots with his left. No matter the reason, it has become a serious issue for the 76ers. Ben Simmons has hardly improved on his shooting, despite being almost four years removed from the draft. His team is currently starved for spacing in a league that demands three-point shooting, and the 23 year old is an easy target for criticism.
Who's the odd man out?
Philadelphia may ultimately have to choose between Simmons and their other reigning All-Star, Joel Embiid. The team is currently sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference, with a 25-14 record. Furthermore, the 76ers have not progressed past the Eastern conference semi-finals in the past two seasons. Despite the talented roster, the Sixers are yet to make the leap towards championship relevance. If the Simmons-Embiid pairing leads Philadelphia to third consecutive early exit in 2020, the organisation may be compelled to initiate trade talks.
It comes as little surprise that Simmons and Embiid were never a match made in heaven. Despite his best efforts, Embiid has been unable to provide adequate spacing to compensate for Simmons' reluctant shooting. The Cameroonian 7-footer is shooting just 32.2% from beyond the arc this season, with 3.8 attempts per game on average. That figure has hardly improved from the past couple of seasons, where Embiid shot a touch over 30% from deep.
Embiid isn't the only 76er starter struggling from three-point range. Tobias Harris is currently the most accurate shooter in the starting lineup, while making just 35.3% of his three-point attempts this season (league average 35.4%). Al Horford and Josh Richardson have been shooting three-pointers at a slightly lower clip than Harris.
Barring a deep playoff run this season, something needs to change for the 76ers. Although his injury history leaves a lot to be desired, Joel Embiid is the franchise player. He has made both the All-NBA Second Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team for the past two seasons consecutively. Ben Simmons may not be as safe as his Cameroonian teammate in trade discussions, given his lack of offensive development in almost four years since draft day.
Also, Simmons might face an unexpected threat, in the form of Serbian point guard Vasilije Micić.
The European man of mystery
The 76ers may already have the answer to their shooting challenges. Serbian point guard Vasilije Micić is a remnant of the controversial Sam Hinkie era. Hinkie, Philadelphia's polarising general manager from 2013 to 2016, selected Micić with the 52nd pick in the 2014 NBA draft. The Sixers hold his rights to this day, and the Serbian might not be far from an NBA debut.
Micić has improved considerably since draft day in 2014, and is now one of Europe's star players. The 6'5 guard earned All-EuroLeague Second Team honours last season, and didn't stop there. He is currently averaging 14.2 points and 5.8 assists per game in the 2019/20 season, both of which are career highs. Micić is also shooting 40.2% from beyond the arc, on 5.7 attempts per game. He could be a key player on a 76ers roster that desperately needs spacing.
Could Micić truly replace Ben Simmons? Not a chance. Simmons is an explosive athlete, underrated rebounder and an elite defender - the Serbian would struggle to live up to these attributes. However, Simmons is on a max contract, whereas Micić would command far less money in the NBA. The EuroLeague star could be an excellent acquisition for Philadelphia in terms of value.
What's next for Simmons?
Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his left hand during Philadephia's January 6 clash against the New York Knicks. The big man was forced to undergo surgery four days later, and will be re-evaluated in one to two weeks.
Embiid's injury presents an opportunity for Simmons to silence his critics. The Melbourne product has already led the Sixers to a win over Boston, recording 19 points and 9 rebounds in the process. However, Philadelphia then suffered a 109-91 defeat to Dallas two days later. Simmons has to inspire a winning run in the absence of Embiid, to prove himself as a leader on this inconsistent team.
Moreover, Philadelphia's front office won't be sitting idly by as the trade deadline approaches. ESPN's Tim McMahon reported that the Sixers are in the market for "shooters with playmaking ability". The organisation hasn't given up on the Simmons-Embiid pairing yet, and may make a trade before the deadline to bolster their playoff hopes.
Any trade speculation surrounding Simmons will ultimately be thrown out the window if Philadelphia can make noise in the postseason. After falling short in the past two seasons, a pass mark would be the Eastern Conference finals. Anything less, and Simmons will be dogged by trade rumours.
Vasilije Micić is a creative solution to the Sixers' problems, and there may even be room for him without trading the Aussie. The 76ers organisation has tough decisions to make, and only time will reveal how they aim to make the leap towards championship contention.