The Ben Simmons Conundrum

·6-min read

Ben Simmons is an athletic 6-foot-11, 240-pound point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers who can guard all five positions. If you were to sculpt an NBA player, the league's No. 1 pick in 2016 would be a work of art.

He is a 24-year-old three-time All-Star, about to be named to his second straight All-Defensive team. He is a finalist for this year's Defensive Player of the Year award. He is averaging a 17-9-8 per 36 minutes for his career, joined only by Luka Doncic in that regard. Not even Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook, the lord of the triple-double, can make that claim from the opposite sideline in their first-round playoff series.

You know where this is heading by now. Criticism of Simmons boils down to this: He can't shoot. He has made five 3-pointers in his career. Nearly 97% of his field goals this season came in the paint. He scored six points on nine shots and missed all six of his free throws in Game 1 against the Wizards. It can get ugly. 

It is a legitimate criticism, an issue that has cost the Sixers in the playoffs and could again once they dispose of Washington. Yet, Simmons is still capable of being as dominant on offense as he is on defense.

Take Wednesday's Game 2, for example. From the jump, he repeatedly posted opposite the Wizards' three smaller starting guards, scoring 12 first-quarter points and setting the tone for a dominant 120-95 victory. He was on his way to the first 30-point triple-double of his playoff career before Sixers coach Doc Rivers pulled him and the rest of the starters from the blowout at the end of the third quarter. Simmons finished with 22 points on 11-for-15 shooting, nine rebounds and eight assists in less than 30 minutes of work.

So, why can't he do that all the time? That's what you feel like screaming at your television every time you see Simmons effectively assert himself as a scorer. The assists, rebounds and defense are always there.

Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons dominated the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of their first-round series.  (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons dominated the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of their first-round series. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

First, it is impossible to do that all the time. Granted, it might be closer to possible if he could shoot from outside of eight feet, but Westbrook is the only player alive consistently putting up 30-point triple-doubles, and he falls under heavy scrutiny for his shooting inefficiency on teams that have lost in the first round four years running. Remember, Simmons is the second-best player on the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed.

Second, Simmons has his reasons for why his scoring wavers from game to game. He told the NBATV broadcast after Wednesday's win that Washington increased its focus on the Sixers' Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris after they combined for 67 points in the Game 1 victory. That freed Simmons to assert his will.

"I'm just trying to be me," Simmons said after his near-triple-double. "I saw things opening up. I realized who was guarding me. I had a mismatch early, so when I saw that, I was just trying to take it to the post."

He conceded he should look to establish his early scoring more often, but Simmons' answers to questions about his single-digit scoring nights often come down to taking what the defense gives him. In Game 1, the Wizards were giving him passing lanes, and he rode them to 15 assists, to go along with 15 boards.

You will hear a similar refrain from his teammates, and Rivers said it most convincingly earlier this week.

"Only in Philadelphia,” he told reporters on Tuesday, defiant against the mild criticism Simmons received locally after his six-point Game 1 effort. “If you guys don’t know the treasure you have by now, then shame on everyone because he’s been fantastic for us. He creates points every single night for us. When Ben was on the floor, we were really good [+18]. I’m amazed that people don’t see what he does. We’re so caught up in the amount of points he scored. … Does it matter if Ben had all 125? Would we be mad that Joel didn’t score? Who cares who scores as long as we’re scoring. … When Ben plays, we score more points.”

It's true. The Sixers were almost five points per 100 possessions better with Simmons in the lineup this season, per the NBA's tracking data, the difference between a top-10 offense and a bottom-five outfit.

So, why can't we just appreciate Simmons for the player he is? He is really freaking good — a ball stopper on defense who is unstoppable with the ball in the open court. He is on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

It is easier for us to translate how a boatload of points contributes to winning. If Simmons were consistently scoring in the twenties, it would be harder to envision the assists he missed or the handful of points per 100 possessions he might cost his team by being an average shooter. Simmons really is the reverse Westbrook. He does everything we want from Westbrook, mainly shoot less and defend more, and he still catches heat.

Simmons' assists also mean he is more reliant on his teammates to succeed. Lineups with Embiid and Harris on the court and Simmons on the bench scored 115.8 points per 100 possessions this season. Swap Simmons in next to Harris and Embiid out, and that figure drops by more than 10, according to Cleaning the Glass. This is the difference between an MVP-caliber player and a borderline All-NBA candidate.

And this is The Ben Simmons Conundrum. We can so easily envision him the best player in the NBA if he could only add an outside shot to everything else he does for the Sixers. It would obviously be a luxury for Philadelphia if he were, likely making them championship favorites, but he is not that. He may never be.

Should the absence of outside shooting overshadow all an All-Star and All-Defensive talent does? It is the easiest thing to blame when the Sixers lose by a bucket or two, and it may well be the difference when they aren't facing Washington's porous defense, but everything else Simmons does contributes more to winning than 95% of the league. And Game 2 against the Wizards is as good a time as ever to appreciate him.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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