Ever since the Philadelphia 76ers inexcusably dropped a second-round series to the upstart Atlanta Hawks — or, more accurately, ever since they lost the first game of that series — a good chunk of the NBA discourse has centered on Ben Simmons. Specifically on if he still has a future with the organization that notoriously accrued losses like hipsters hoard overpriced and undersized coffees in an effort to secure his services.
The good of Simmons has been on display ever since he won Rookie of the Year in his ... umm ... second season. He’s one of the league’s elite passers, with the height and athleticism to allow his next-level vision to translate into highlight-worthy dimes. He’s a talented scorer — as long as he’s in his spot — and just finished runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
He’s 24 and has already made the All-Star team thrice, the All-Defense team twice, and the All-NBA team once.
Yet the bad that’s been bubbling below the surface for a few years came to the forefront as Philly — the No. 1 seed in the east — lost to a Hawks team that many predicted to miss the playoffs.
Simmons provides no floor spacing, which at times sunk the Sixers offense. Four years into his career, he’s made five three-pointers, despite being a primary ball handler. Against Atlanta his confidence seemed shook at the free throw line, and the Hawks capitalized by running a hack-a-Ben scheme that clearly got in Simmons’ head.
Atlanta’s strategy worked: Simmons shot just 15-for-45 from the charity stripe in the series, and Philly coach Doc Rivers was forced to bench his franchise cornerstone in the waning minutes of multiple games.
Let’s make one thing clear: Simmons is far from the only character to blame in the Sixers’ shocking loss. Rivers deserves a healthy dose of criticism. Joel Embiid, the MVP runner-up, was still fighting the effects of an injury, and even though he played magnificently, it’s fair to wonder what would have happened if he were at full health.
But none of that mattered. The global critique of Philly’s loss landed firmly on Simmons’ shoulders. Fans and media alike speculated if Daryl Morey and Elton Brand would look to move the young star. And then, just days later, a report came out that Simmons and his mega agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, had met with the Sixers’ brass, with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting that, “Paul engaged the Sixers on whether it makes sense to work together to find a trade before the start of next season, but no request was made and the sides are expected to continue talking ahead of the July 29 NBA draft and August free agency.”
Around this time I posted what I thought was a mild-mannered tweet, proposing a trade in which the Golden State Warriors send Andrew Wiggins and some draft pick compensation to the Sixers in exchange for Simmons.
Dub Nation quickly let me know that such a hypothetical trade was not, in fact, mild-mannered and was, in fact, slanderous towards Wiggins.
I’ve made peace with the fact that I value Wiggins less than about 99% of Warriors fans. Yet I still think that, if Sixers came knocking with a proposal — let’s say a package centered around Simmons for Wiggins, James Wiseman, and both of the Warriors 2021 lottery picks — the Dubs would be very wise to answer the door.
But I hear your concerns. Let’s address them.
In addition to the fact that many Warriors fans view Wiggins as a good offensive player with All-Defense level skills (things I disagree with, but this is neither the time nor the place), the primary objection I heard to this trade was that Simmons would murder the Dubs’ spacing.
It’s a fair complaint. Again, he’s made just five threes in his entire career. In 58 games this year, Simmons attempted just 13 shots that were 16 feet or further from the hoop. For that matter, he attempted a mere 55 shots — fewer than one per game — outside of 10 feet.
If you think Draymond Green is allergic to shooting when defenses leave him open beyond the arc, just wait until you watch Simmons. He’ll make Green look like Nick Young with the shot trigger.
If I had $10,000 for every time someone said that the spacing of Green and Simmons would corrupt the Warriors offense I would not be writing this article, because I’d be too busy doing something unnecessarily lucrative with all the money I had.
The solution to the problem
The Warriors offense has hummed in the past with Green and Kevon Looney sharing the court. It’s worked beautifully with Green and Zaza Pachulia. It was lovely with Green and JaVale McGee. It was majestic with Green and Andrew Bogut.
Admittedly Green was a semi-decent three-point shooter in some of the years that featured those lineups, but not in all of them.
In 582 minutes this season, the Warriors three-man lineup of Curry, Green, and Looney scored 119.7 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the NBA’s best offense this year, per Cleaning The Glass, was the Brooklyn Nets. They scored 119.4 points per 100 possessions.
The Warriors can not only survive, but absolutely thrive with two non-shooters on the floor. It’s three non-shooters (or two non-shooters with limited offensive skills) where things become dicey, so here’s a pretty simple solution: Simmons in the starting lineup in place of Looney, not in addition to him.
Looney, a valuable player, would still get plenty of playing time as the big off the bench. The Warriors could play 24 minutes a night with Green and Simmons on the court, and 12 minutes each for the duos of Looney and Green, and Looney and Simmons.
Assuming they can add some semi-decent wing shooters in free agency to replace Wiggins, they’d never have more than two non-shooters on the court at one time.
The problem with the solution to the problem
I posed that solution on Twitter a few times, and met the same two rebuttals relentlessly: the Warriors won’t commit to playing small, and you can’t pay a max contract to a player who has to be benched in the final minutes of key games.
Those concerns are fair. I agree with them in a vacuum. The Warriors have shown no interest in having a non-traditional center start games, unless it’s in the NBA Finals, and spending big to acquire a player who has to sit on the sideline when the game gets close is a bad idea. I get it.
I also don’t think it’s relevant.
The solution to the problem with the solution to the problem
“The Warriors won’t commit to small-ball” is a very common refrain, and it’s an accurate one. Fans clamored this year for the Dubs to make Green their starting center, rather than just their occasional one and, save for a few games when Looney and Wiseman were both in street clothes, the Warriors avoided it like the plague.
And for justifiable reason: both Green and Steve Kerr have said that the beating Green takes at the center position is not sustainable over the course of 100 or so games.
So I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret. Simmons averaging 7.7 assists for his career, and earning the arbitrary label of “point guard” in the process, has distracted many fans from realizing just how mammoth of a human being he is.
Looney was listed this year at 6’9. Simmons was listed at 6’11. The Warriors say Looney is 222 pounds. The Sixers say Simmons is 240 pounds.
Now, measurements should always be taken with a grain of salt (he says while nervously glancing at Kevin Durant), and Looney is likely a little more broad shouldered. But Simmons is every bit the center — from a pure physical standpoint — that Looney is.
I’ve stood next to both of them. I’d argue that Simmons is more physically intimidating. Here, enjoy a picture of them.
Yes, that angle exaggerates Simmons’ size, but it’s the best I could do. So here, enjoy a picture of Simmons and Embiid, one of the five or so most physically intimidating specimens in the league.
Simmons can play center defensively, allowing Green to stay at the 4 and preserve his body.
And in that lineup — a crew of Curry, Klay Thompson, a free agent wing who can shoot (Nicolas Batum, anyone?), Green, and Simmons, the young All-Star’s talents could be put to great use.
One of Philly’s biggest issues this season — and pretty much every season of Simmons’ career — is that they had limited playmakers and ball handlers behind him. He averaged 7.7 assists per 36 minutes, but no one else on the team averaged even 5. The only other players to average more than 4 assists per 36 minutes were Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey — bench players receiving modest minutes, and absent at crunch time. The Sixers needed the ball in Simmons’ hands, starting on the perimeter.
The Warriors would not need that. With Curry and Green acting as stellar playmakers and ball handlers, Simmons could spend more time off-ball. He could play the Bogut role of setting screens and passing from the elbow, only with much better driving and passing ability. He could play the Looney rule of setting high screens and rolling, and capitalizing on 4-on-3s from the dunker spot, only with more height, more athleticism, better hands, and a superior finishing ability. He could play the Green role of catching the ball on the block and either scoring or passing out of it, only with much more height.
For all of Simmons’ deserved shooting criticism, he’s an at-times lethal scorer, as long as he’s in his spot. His 58.4% true shooting last year was comfortably above league average (and trailed only Curry, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damion Lee, and Mychal Mulder on the Warriors), and it was 60.2% in 2019-20. He shot 69.1% at the rim, on very high volume, scored 0.96 points per post up (55.0 percentile), and averaged 1.00 points per possession on isolation plays (75.3 percentile).
The Warriors can allow him to do what he does best, which, well ... would bring out the best in him.
Which brings us to the final concern of being played off the court in the final minutes: Simmons had a Nick Anderson series, and I’ll admit that part of buying in on him is trusting that those seven games won’t define the rest of his career, or be indicative of future performance.
Because here’s the thing: having a poor free throw shooter on the court isn’t a death sentence in the final minutes of a game. Simmons shot 61.3% from the free throw this year — that’s not great, but, if a team hacks him, it should in theory be good for an offensive rating of 122.6, which would be tops in the league by a laughable margin.
Green is a career 71.5% shooter from the free throw line. Andre Iguodala — a staple of late-game lineups during the dynasty — shot 63.4% on free throws during his Dubs tenure.
Yes, if Simmons becomes a career 33.3% shooter, as he was against Atlanta, it could create issues. And such drop offs are possible, as Anderson and our own Andris Biedriņš will attest to. But they’re rare, and Simmons will not face the same pressure in Golden State as he did in Philly since he can always, you know ... pass the ball to Curry or Green and still have the offense hum. That’s a luxury he wasn’t afforded with the Sixers, whose entire offensive vehicle was built around Simmons being the one and only steering wheel.
The Warriors championship window is still open, and they’d be wise to maximize it. For as impressive as Wiggins was at times last year, he still wasn’t good enough to propel a team with an MVP finalist and a DPOY finalist to the playoffs.
They need to upgrade. Simmons represents a massive talent improvement and, despite the shooting woes, a quality fit on a Warriors team tailor-made to minimize his weaknesses and maximize his strengths.
If he’s on the table, Bob Myers should pull up a chair.