Embiid on space and shooting: Alarm bells going off for Ben Simmons?

The Philadelphia 76ers took an impressive 121-109 Christmas day win against Eastern Conference co-favourites, the Milwaukee Bucks, and dropped three games in a row right after. If this season has taught us anything about them, it's that they are very unpredictable, and often play to the level of their competition. What is Ben Simmons’ role amidst this slump?

The bad

Joel Embiid talked about the team's offensive struggles on Friday at the team's practice facility. “We just got to look at ourselves and see what we can do individually, we’ve got to help each other even if it means being outside of your comfort zone for the greater [good] to help the team win. Meaning that, if you’ve got to space and shoot it, you’ve got to do it.”

While the statement doesn’t mention Simmons specifically, it isn’t too difficult to read between the lines. Simmons' known reluctance to shoot the ball from the perimeter seems to be what Embiid is pointing out, and one could argue that Philly’s star center has a point. Simmons relegating to the dunker spot late in games and not being a perimeter threat makes it hard for Embiid to be effective. The same can be said when teams elect to play zone against the Sixers while Embiid and Simmons are sharing the court. The lack of spacing makes it very difficult for the Sixers to find quality shots, especially when the game intensity lifts in the fourth quarter.

While Embiid’s comment could possibly force Simmons out of his shell a bit more, it seems as though the 22 year old isn’t quite ready to start launching threes from the short corner. Brett Brown has alluded to the idea of Simmons shooting more, even making a brave declaration to “ his agent, his family, and his friends, and to him” after a win against Cleveland a few weeks ago, in a game where Simmons hit his second career three pointer.

“I want a three point shot a game, minimum. The pull up twos, I’m fine with whenever he’s open, but I’m interested in the three point shot. And the mentality that he has where he’s turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled.

“That’s the world that interests me the most - those two things. And when you say ‘Ok, what’s the number?’ I immediately throw out eight [free throws].”

Since Brown's comments, Simmons hasn’t attempted a single three point shot. In terms of the free throws, Simmons has attempted an average of about 5.1 a game according to Basketball Reference. It's not a horrible effort, but not close to Brown’s wish of eight.

It is unreasonable to expect Simmons to start shooting threes every single game. It is clear at this point that Simmons is capable of making the long ball, he is 2/2 on legitimate attempts for the year. It’s now more so about getting over the psychological hump, because if the court opens up more, the Sixers' chance of making a deep playoff run instantly increase.

The good - defence and passing

We’ve heard it countless times this season: Ben Simmons has been absolutely dominant on defence. In a previous article, I mentioned that Simmons is amongst the league leaders in almost every defensive stat, and that has only become more prominent in recent weeks. Per NBA stats, the Aussie superstar is now first in steals per game at 2.2, tied fifth in deflections with 3.7 a game. He is also tied second in loose balls recovered at 2.0 per contest, and still in the top 10 for opponent field goal percentage (for players defending 10+ shots) at around 40%. Most recently, he held former teammate Jimmy Butler to 1/6 shooting in the first half, and 7/21 for the whole game in an overtime loss to the Heat.

This impressive defensive showing even gave Simmons praise, including Sixers beat writer Keith Pompey from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Pompey pointed out Simmons’ “size and length” was a big factor in disrupting his opposing number, Butler.

On the other end of the ball, Simmons has been passing beautifully and with a purpose. Simmons is now fourth in dimes overall at a clip of 8.5 per game, and over the last ten games he has thrown an average of 10.1 assists per game (second in the league to his mentor, LeBron James). When Simmons is passing well, it seems to have a positive influence on the team - in the games where the 6’10 point guard has thrown 9 or more assists, Philly are 12-3. Conversely, when Simmons has thrown six or more turnovers, the Sixers have a mediocre record, for their standards, of 7-5.

It is clear, Simmons' performance has a major correlation with Sixers wins. If Simmons is going to flat out ignore the outside shooting, then he has to be near-perfect defensively and as a distributor if Philly want to reach their incredibly high ceiling.

What happens if the struggles continue?

The frustrating aspect of the Sixers' play this year is that they obviously have the ability to be leading the East, or at least closer to the top. It seems as though the attitude from the players is that they can just turn on a switch for the big games (they’re currently 6-3 against the other five teams in the top six in the East). The worrying part about this mindset is that if they tune out in games against more average teams, they will lose a chance to establish home court advantage in the playoffs, which is obviously desirable considering their 15-2 home record this season.

The Sixers currently sit at sixth in the East, and if they continue to hover in this range, it could have an impact on Simmons. Getting traded this year would be a significant surprise, but changes to the head coach of the team seems like a genuine possibility. While it is hard to imagine a world in which a team with genuine championship expectations gets rid of their coach this far into the season, it can’t be ruled out. In the 2015/16 season, Cavs coach David Blatt got canned 41 games into the season, and the team ended up winning the title the same year.

If Brett Brown were to get axed, Simmons might be in line to move from his favoured point guard position, to a more of a big man role. Brown has been vocal about Simmons being the floor general, but other coaches might want to shake the team up to get a bit more out of their pieces, and to avoid the spacing issues that seem to be the Achilles heel of the team, especially in clutch situations.

After the team’s most recent blowout loss to Indiana Pacers, Simmons’ backcourt partner Josh Richardson pointed out the “lack of accountability” in the locker room.

“I think that we got some new guys, who don’t want to step on toes, including myself. I feel like we kind of go play, and don’t compete as much. There’s been games that we have and it’s been great. But when it’s not going good, we got to hold each other accountable. I think that’s where a lot of our problems start.”

While Richardson might not have intentionally meant this as a shot at coach Brown, it certainly is hard to ignore. Locker room issues should generally be solved by the coach, as the coach usually has control of his players in this sense.

It is important to consider that this is really only Brown’s second year of coaching the team when they’ve had genuine championship expectations (seventh in total). Last year they were one bounce away from an overtime Game 7 against the Raptors in the second round. The Raptors obviously went on to win the title, without getting to a game 7 with any other team, proving that the Sixers weren’t a walk over by any measure.

While a three game skid is not great, Simmons and the Sixers still have time to lock in and push for a higher seed by April, and it should start on Saturday against the contending Houston Rockets.