The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to be ready to make a championship run this season after capturing the East’s No. 1 seed during the regular season. Despite an injury to star center Joel Embiid in the first round, the Sixers appeared to be set up well heading into the second round of the playoffs.
Embiid continued to battle through a meniscus tear and put up massive numbers, but the 76ers were upset in Game 7 at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks to fall short of the conference finals again. The most embarrassing part of this defeat for Philadelphia was losing three of the four home games in the series, including the decider.
Ben Simmons’ struggles on the offensive end were a large topic of conversation after the game, with head coach Doc Rivers admitting he “doesn’t know” if Simmons can be the starting point guard on a title team. The Sixers, an average offensive team during the year, appeared to function better on that end of the floor with rookie Tyrese Maxey handling point guard duties over Simmons. Maxey played well in Philadelphia’s Game 6 win, but saw his playing time go down in Game 7 despite Simmons struggling.
The 76ers have an MVP finalist in Embiid, two promising young players in Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and an All-Star caliber forward in Tobias Harris. George Hill and Seth Curry are on the books for next season as well. The Sixers will be up against the cap and will have to settle for running things back with most of the same group. That leaves the vexing point guard as one of the team’s movable pieces.
Simmons was a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, eventually finishing second to Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Simmons averaged 6.9 assists per game during the season and is still one of the best finishers attacking the basket. His scoring declined during the season, but not to the level it dropped off in the playoffs.
To his credit, Simmons shouldered the blame for his lackluster Game 7 showing. He admitted to “not being there” offensively and saying he has many things to work on. So where does Philadelphia go from here?
Simmons is locked into a long-term contract which will pay him north of $40 million in the 2024-25 season. He is only 24, but is a three-time All-Star and two-time NBA All-Defensive first team member. The point guard is still a very good player, but one major area of development has eluded him.
In today’s NBA, shooting is a premium skill. Players who shoot the ball well are sought after and paid well. Simmons has never had to shoot the ball well due to his other attributes, but he’s refused to shoot the ball period. In four seasons with the 76ers, Simmons has taken 34 total three-pointers. Philadelphia hasn’t tried to push him to become a shooter, although former head coach Brett Brown reportedly tried to get him to start taking more jumpers. Rivers said numerous times during the season he wasn’t going to force Simmons to change anything in his game.
That type of approach can work in the regular season, but it prevents the Sixers from being effective in the playoffs. Opponents are able to defend Simmons more effectively due to his refusal to shoot and in turn, cut off parts of the floor entirely when Embiid gets the ball in the post. Couple that with Simmons carrying a massive contract and you have to wonder what Philadelphia’s next move is.
Scenario 1: Push Simmons to develop a perimeter shot
Some players are natural shooters, honing their skills from an early age. Others are average and have to work on that element of their game in the NBA. The final group are non-shooters. Simmons falls in the last category, but that doesn’t mean he cannot move into the average group. Here’s a list of four players who recently pushed themselves to become better shooters, along with their three-point attempts per season and percentage.
First 8 seasons: 31 attempts, .097 percent
2016-17: 387 attempts, 34.6 percent
2017-18: 325 attempts, 34.5 percent
2018-19: 512 attempts, 36.5 percent
First 3 seasons: 160 attempts, 20.6 percent
2012-13: 120 attempts, 28.3 percent
2013-14: 210 attempts, 30.5 percent
DeRozan reverted back to his midrange-heavy ways in the next three seasons, but Raptors head coach Dwane Casey forced him to take more threes in the 2017-18 season. DeRozan had a career-high 287 attempts on 31 percent efficiency. That might not seem great, but this change helped Toronto’s offense flow better and was a factor in an eight-win improvement from a 51-win season.
First 6 seasons: 155 attempts, 27.1 percent
2016-17: 113 attempts, 33.6 percent
2017-18: 322 attempts, 34.5 percent
2018-19: 522 attempts, 36.2 percent
First 5 seasons: 591 attempts, 28.4 percent
2018-19: 203 attempts, 25.6 percent
2019-20: 293 attempts, 30.4 percent
2020-21: 221 attempts, 30.3 percent
As you can see with the above group, Simmons doesn’t even have to shoot the ball that well to become a more effective offensive player. Antetokounmpo shot 30 percent from deep over the last two seasons, but his willingness to take open shots allowed the Bucks to operate better offensively. Lopez and Griffin extended their careers by becoming passable perimeter shooters. DeRozan made the adjustment to make an already good Toronto team better. If these players can do it, Simmons and Philadelphia can do it. He won’t become a lights-out marksman from Day 1, but he’ll help create a better offensive system for Philly.
Scenario 2: Trade Simmons
76ers GM Daryl Morey already tried to deal for James Harden with Ben Simmons as the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s return package to Houston. The Rockets ultimately didn’t bite, but Morey is not afraid to make big moves. Simmons’ value right now is fairly low but there will be interested parties.
If Simmons won’t shoot the ball, the Sixers are not going to make the Finals. Teams are too good to let Simmons off the hook for refusing to shoot in the playoffs. The main problem in this situation becomes his contract, which is on the level of a max player. The other issue is any team trading for Simmons will also have to be convinced it can push him to shoot.
The 76ers have most of their first-round picks intact and can attach any amount to make a Simmons trade palatable for a team giving up a star. Bradley Beal and CJ McCollum will be in trade rumors all offseason and could definitely help Philadelphia make the next push in the postseason. De’Aaron Fox and Malcolm Brogdon could be fallback options if the 76ers explore a trade. In this scenario, the 76ers would be comfortable with Maxey being a lead guard if a trade doesn’t bring a point guard back in return.
One thing is evident; Rivers is comfortable with Simmons in his current state. For Morey and Embiid, that dynamic should be unacceptable. This roster was ready to compete for a championship and Simmons’ lack of willingness to shoot ultimately doomed the team in the playoffs. Simmons attempted 14 total shots in the last three games of the Hawks series. The guard’s free throw shooting is also concern, but that can ultimately come around if he develops as a shooter in general.
If Rivers refuses to push Simmons to add a jump shot to to his offensive game, he should be let go. If Simmons refuses to take Rivers’ advice on building a jump shot, he should be traded. Morey will have to make the final call, but the 76ers have to explore all avenues for change during the offseason. This is no longer the lovable “Process” group on rookie contracts.
Expect either Rivers or Simmons to be out the door in Philly this summer.