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Examining Ben Simmons’ role in Philadelphia's hot start
Is Ben Simmons' offseason improvement, the catalyst for the Philadelphia 76ers’ early season success?
After an excruciating loss in the hands of the Toronto Raptors during the 2019 playoffs, the Sixers have gotten off to a solid start in their redemption campaign this season. In the eyes of Philadelphia, Ben Simmons' continued maturation was likely to partially offset the offseason departures of J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler. This was evidenced by the organisation’s complete trust in Simmons when they extended his contract for five years at $170 million (USD).
Philadelphia have gotten off to a hot start. But how much does Australia's wealthiest sportsman have to do with it?
Noticeable improvement in aggression?
The Aussie superstar came out of the gates firing in Philly’s season opener against the Celtics, scoring 24 points on rather efficient shooting (11/16 from the field), to go with nine assists and eight rebounds. Since then, albeit a small sample size, Simmons has continued to show a desire to dominate, whether that be on the fast break, through drives or posting up on the low block when guarded by smaller opponents.
Simmons’ visible increase in aggression is a positive sign for the Sixers, and this is backed up by his drives per game, increasing to 11.7, up 1.8 from a year ago.
The only concerning facet about is this all is the fact that Simmons hasn’t been fouled once on any of his 62 drives. Not once. This might explain his points per game numbers, mostly equal to his averages in both his rookie and sophomore years (15-16 PPG). His already elite fast break game has gone up another notch too, as his points per fast break possession has increased from 0.94 to 1.06, reflecting his rising confidence.
Simmons has also seen a spike in his field goal attempts per game, increasing from around 12 last year to 13 this year. His percentage hasn’t taken a major hit either, shooting nearly 50% from the field, slightly below his career average of 55%.
It is important to consider that six games is a very small sample size, and Simmons still has time to improve his scoring numbers to an All-NBA level as his team familiarises themselves with one another, amidst their point guard's revamped approach.
Jump shot: Where is it?
Simmons' offseason was characterised by many Instagram videos surfacing of an improved jump shot in workouts with Chris Johnson, a well-recognised NBA trainer who was helping the Aussie with his shot.
In these videos, Simmons appears to be shooting off the dribble 3s, fadeaway jumpers from the post, amongst other impressive layups and dunks. Tobias Harris also endorsed his teammates offseason shooting when he appeared on First Things First and said, ‘He’s shooting it. He’s confident with it. He’s working his tail off every single day.” Simmons even double downed on these his teammate's claims on media day, answering a reporter’s query about him shooting 3’s, saying "if it’s open, I’ll take it."
Simmons' offseason work was thought to have finally come into fruition when he took, and made a three-pointer in Philadelphia’s first preseason game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions.
It has seemed like an empty promise after, as Simmons has still not taken a single shot from outside. Defences have offered ample opportunity, especially late game, sagging off him completely and daring him to take the jumper from the top of the key.
This phenomenon might haunt the team when the game slows down in the playoffs, but it hasn’t been a cause of panic so far. If the opposing player sags off or goes under a screen, Simmons gets a head of steam and usually can create options off that, whether that be a drive to the rim or a pop to the roller.
Simmons' lack of outside shooting might also have to do with his inconsistency at the free throw line. Seeing his shot not fall at the charity stripe may act as a psychological barrier; he is currently shooting 56% from the line (44% before he hit two clutch free throws against Portland, and went 2/2 against Phoenix in Philly’s last game).
To be fair, it is the start of the season, and Philly’s competition has been stiff and gutsy, mostly all being close games. It is very possible we see a 3-point attempt from Simmons as the game pressure eases down against less competitive opponents.
More than offence, the most impressive part of Simmons’ game so far in the early stages of the season have been his passing and defence.
Simmons is a generational passer, often being compared to Magic Johnson and LeBron James for his amazing playmaking ability, mixed with ridiculous athleticism and length. His abilities have translated once again in his numbers this year, going for about eight assists per contest, right on par with his career average.
This number doesn’t do him justice, either. Philadelphia is fourth in the league in assists per game at 26.2 and Simmons is a big reason for this culture, being the point guard and leader of the offence. Against Portland, Philadelphia had an absurd 36 assists on 54 field goals made, as Simmons led the way with eight of his own.
Judging by his potential assists per game (16.5), expect Simmons to increase his actual assists, as Philly have mostly struggled from the outside, shooting 33.5% from long distance, a mediocre 20th in the league. The team is still adjusting, which is possibly leading to spacing problems and subsequently contested threes, something that's stopped Simmons from being credited with more dimes.
On the defensive end, Simmons has picked up right where he left off after the Toronto series, when many critics were impressed with his effort against eventual Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Although the arrival of Josh Richardson and the emergence of defensive specialist Mattise Thybulle has lessened the load for Simmons, he has still guarded positions ranging from point guard through to centre, proving his ridiculous versatility on the defensive end.
Statistically, Simmons 3.3 steals per game is good for first in the league, as he has gambled mostly successfully, showing off his impressive instincts. This included a seven-steal outing against Detroit and most recently Phoenix, showcasing Simmons can not only effectively lock his man down, but also create turnovers and regain possessions for his team.
Philadelphia’s incredible size, new additions and coaching improvements have been a clear catalyst to their 5-1 start. However, it is hard to ignore how Simmons' growth, despite the lack of a perimeter shot, has helped Philly so far.