Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers are powering through the season, right into the All-Star break.
Philadelphia defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 112-98 on Saturday night. Just 24 hours earlier, they blew out the New Orleans Pelicans in a contest that was over by half time. The 76ers showed a ruthless edge to go along with their breath-taking talent as they swept a rare home back-to-back in Philadelphia.
Simmons was a force across both games. While his numbers are definitely impressive – 10 points, 8 assists and 9 rebounds against the Pelicans; followed up by 14 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds against the Clippers - they fail to fully capture his impact. The Australian rookie was commanding with the basketball. He was the initiator for a 76ers offence that posted an offensive rating of 109 across the two nights, a mark that is four points above their season average.
“He is the driver of our offence,” Brett Brown explained of Simmons after the Clippers game. “He’s the leader of our fast break. He just continues to get better.”
Having Joel Embiid by his side sure helps make Simmons’ life easier. Embiid played both ends of the back-to-back for the second time in his career. He showed no ill effects of the increased workload and was an absolute monster throughout. Seeing Simmons and Embiid dominate two Western Conference playoff teams, on consecutive nights, is the greatest sign yet of the potential that lies within this team.
With so much happening in Philadelphia, here are ten observations from a weekend spent watching the 76ers up close at Wells Fargo Centre:
Simmons’ defensive performance against New Orleans ranks as one of his most impressive of the season. He was assertive and crisp with his decision making. Simmons routinely stepped into space the Pelicans wanted for their offence, using his length to create steals and deflections. The power of such stout defensive plays is amplified because of the 76ers’ lethal skills in transition.
In lieu of his impressive performance, Brown was asked if he believes opposition teams underestimate Simmons’ defensive abilities. “I think that Ben catches a lot of people off guard,” Brown said.
The 76ers coaching staff is continually reminding their prized rookie to remain committed to his defensive principles. Simmons was able to impact games at lower levels with his size and athleticism alone. That works at times in the NBA, but fundamentals are required to become a plus defender night in and night out. That is the message coming from Philadelphia.
Brown explained the positive plays that can happen when Simmons maintains, as he puts it, his “crouched, attacking, aggressive position” on defence.
“He can go pick something out of the air and recover, or get ahead of the ball when you think he is out of the play,” Brown said. “From that perspective, I know he catches this league off guard.
“He really can cover ground. He can make up false steps. He can get his hands from his hips to above his head quicker than most, and pick things out of the air with deflections or steals.”
2. That defensive play
There was one defensive play that stood out above all else for me. It came early on Friday night. Simmons seamlessly switched onto Anthony Davis out of a pick and roll action, before using his length to contest Davis and poke away his ill fated shot attempt.
This all happened in a matter of moments, but the speed and fluidity of this play underpins the defensive potential that lies within Simmons.
3. On assists and making shots
Simmons finished with 18 assists across the two games and created a number of additional looks that his teammates couldn’t convert (more on this later).
The most pressing example of Simmons’ distribution skills came in the first half against Los Angeles. The Australian rookie finished the half with 8 assists, five of which led to three point baskets for the 76ers. Brown and the coaching staff have been preaching the importance of the three ball and Simmons represents the 76ers' best avenue to clean looks from long range.
4. Should he have been an All-Star?
It’s fair to say Simmons believes he should have been an All-Star. After Kemba Walker was chosen to replace Kristaps Porzingis in Los Angeles, Simmons voiced his displeasure.
“I don’t really know what an All-Star is anymore,” Simmons told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Enquirer. “I mean, if it was about win-lose, you picked Dragic obviously and you pick Kemba, whose team is [four] wins under us. It is what it is, but my stats don’t lie.”
While Simmons must wait a little longer to become Australia’s first NBA All-Star, those within the Association believe his time is coming. Pelicans Head Coach Alvin Gentry supported Simmons’ candidacy, before proclaiming the Australian will soon become a permanent fixture at All-Star weekend. Also count Washington Wizards Head Coach Scott Brooks as a fan.
“He’s on his way to being an All-Star for a lot of years,” Brooks said when discussing Simmons earlier this week.
5. The run
Philadelphia shut the door on New Orleans with a 14-0 run to close out the third quarter. This boosted their lead to 32 points and reduced the final 12 minutes of basketball to garbage time. The 76ers dominance ultimately cost Simmons his sixth triple double of the season, as his services weren’t needed in the final term.
While Simmons was just one rebound and two assists away from joining Magic Johnson as the only rookies in NBA history to record six triple doubles, Brown never entertained stat chasing with the game well and truly under control.
“I was aware of that, but it’s not how I’m wired,” Brown explained, when asked about Simmons potentially chasing his triple double. “I understand it. My answer is no, there wasn’t any thought.”
The 76ers bench was 7-34 from the field on Friday night, with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot being the major culprit as he made just two of his twelve attempts. Simmons found Luwawu-Cabarrot for a number of open looks that the Frenchman couldn’t convert. Simmons finished with 8 assists on the night, but created a number of additional looks that his teammates couldn’t convert.
6. Ball handling
The only eyesore in Simmons’ performance this weekend was his, at times, loose ball handling. Case in point was the first half against New Orleans, where he committed four turnovers.
Taking care of the basketball has been an issue for both player and team throughout the season. It is something Brown is continually reinforcing to his young roster.
“He’s really responded well,” Brown explained when discussing Simmons’ turnovers this week. “He’s reducing his turnovers. As a team, we are reducing our turnovers. December we averaged 18. In January, we got it down to like 16. In the month of February, it hasn’t been many games, but we’re down to 14.
“When you see them, they come in flurries. Trying to get him [Simmons] to understand that they’re painful. He gets it. You look at his body language. I do think that we are trending in the right way when it comes to turnovers. But it’s something you are never really happy with.”
7. How full court pressure didn't quite work out
DeAndre Liggins tried something different in an attempt to curtail Simmons. The Pelicans guard applied full court pressure with regularity during the first half of Friday’s contest, although this plan was quickly abandoned. It didn’t end well for Mr. Liggins.
Simmons simply outsmarted his more veteran opponent with savvy that belies his rookie status. The Australian initiates like he will back Liggins down into the post, before quickly utilising that lighting fast first step to free himself for the easy slam. Liggins has great defensive tools – it is the sole reason he remains in the league – but was no match for Simmons’s power and intellect in the open court.
The power of Embiid and Saric are also drawn into further focus with plays like these. Both men demand attention on the perimeter and this creates an abundance of space inside the three-point arc. Once Simmons beats Liggins, there is nobody within touching distance as he glides to the rim.
8. Finding more in the offensive bag of tricks
While Simmons’ aggression was obvious on the offensive end, his efficiency was somewhat lacking. He was 9 of 23 from the field during the back-to-back.
Tobias Harris was Simmons’ primary defender throughout the Clippers game, and the former Detroit Piston was an effective match-up within the half court given his size.
Harris was also very aggressive in his efforts to drop away from Simmons on the perimeter. There was a concerted effort to go under every screen and clog the paint, at the expense of shooting space for Simmons – something the rookie has showed no interest in using all season.
One night earlier, Simmons finished 3 for 11 against New Orleans, despite all attempts coming from his customary deep positioning. Much credit for this goes to Jrue Holiday. While being significantly undersized – Holiday is listed as six inches smaller than Simmons – the Pelicans guard did a great job of defending in the post.
This simply came from getting into the correct position and taking away space needed for Simmons to power through the paint. It ultimately speaks to an improvement area for the Australian. If the defence is correctly positioned, he doesn’t yet have the nuance needed to find effective looks for his personal offence.
Despite what can best be described as rookie growing pains, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers already admits guarding Simmons is an ongoing issue for the league. “With Ben, we need to keep experimenting on how to guard him,” Rivers explained.
9. The playoffs push continues
Philadelphia have now won three consecutive games to start their longest home stand of 2018. They have home matches against New York and Miami prior to the impending All-Star weekend. Earlier in the week, Brown called for his team to sprint into their break.
“Here we are at home, right before the All-Star break. There will be people and teams with their minds are in Bermuda. I want ours in the Wells Fargo Centre, here in this city. We know what we want. It’s to be a playoff team to be. We have a chance, in the next five home games, to make some ground and not play catch-up.”
The 76ers have responded to Brown’s challenge. Two winnable games before the break present a chance to further climb the playoff ladder.
10. The dunkfest
The first quarter against New Orleans descended into a dunk contest for a few minutes, with Simmons either mercilessly attacking the rim or finding his buddies for slams. Simmons even had his teammates fighting for over his assists, such was the ease at which the 76ers dominated the Pelicans.