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The Ballad of Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons has always been a polarizing figure. When you watch him at his best, he’s a dynamic playmaker, an unstoppable athletic monster and the best defender in the league. When he’s at his worst, he’s an offensive liability, careless with the ball and at the end of the day just a perimeter defender. Adding to this are the roller-coaster stretches of play. Simmons will have a month where he looks like a legit All-NBA player, stuffing the stat sheet and getting to the rim with ease. Then he also has months where he’s a turnover machine and he struggles to contribute anything on offense. Unfortunately the 76ers are in one of his bad months.

(Leave it to the Sixers to invalidate my last article in the span of a few hours.)

Fantastic February

February 2021 was a great month for Simmons. Arguably the best of his career. He averaged 21/7.9/7.8 on 62.1% shooting and a career high 70.3% from the free throw line. That included a career best 42 point explosion against one of the best teams in the NBA, the Utah Jazz. Combined with Simmons elite defense, those are MVP-level numbers. If the 76ers got that Ben Simmons, or even close to it no one would complain. The problem is that THAT Ben Simmons doesn’t show up very often.

All-Star Boost?

 There have been rumblings from a few Philly fans that Simmons goes out of his way to “inflate” his numbers when All-Star voting is at its zenith, the month before the All-Star game itself. Is there some truth to that? Looking at Ben Simmons career splits, it’s not a massive reach. This year, the All-Star game was in March, and far and away his best numbers were in February. That 21 points per game particularly stands out. The other months so far he’s averaged 13.2, 13.4, 15.1 and 9.5. For the season he’s at 15.2. To be fair to Simmons, the rebounding, assist and turnovers haven’t changed much. Considering scoring is the point of contention with Simmons though, it is notable. 

Last season the All-Star game was in February. Simmons best month? January, where he averaged 22.2/9.4/7.7 on 62.6% shooting. Again, a massive increase in per game scoring, as he averaged 16.4 points on the season, and his highest month besides January was 17.4 the month after. 

Not Clear Cut

In the 2018-2019 season it isn’t as clear. He did have his best scoring month in January, averaging 18.9/9/9/8.7, but it was much closer to his season average and his scoring in December, February and March were very close. He also did average his most assists, but again not by much, and his shooting percentages were middling compared to the rest of his year.  

The year before in Ben’s rookie year (where he did not make the All-Star game) his January was rather pedestrian. In fact, it was arguably his worst month, as his points were slightly above-average for his season and his rebounds and assists were monthly lows, significantly so for rebounds. 

So there are two years where his best month was before the All-Star break, one year it was about the same as his season performance and one year (the year he didn’t make the All-Star game) where it was arguably his worst. It’s nowhere near enough data to draw any conclusions off of. Is there a possible trend developing? Maybe. At the same time, the inflated numbers can be for any number of reasons. Injuries and availability of other players (Joel Embiid especially), it could simply be he got hot twice and it just happened to be before the break, injuries to himself, opposing schedule, etc. Is it possible that Ben is consciously deciding to play better to get All-Star votes? Anything is possible. Is it conclusive? Not even close. 

Spring Blues

Whatever the reason, it is unavoidable that Simmons has not been his best since this year’s All-Star break. Per Reuben Frank in his last eight games Simmons has more turnovers than baskets. It’s a little bit cherry-picked; if you go back ten games it’s 37 turnovers to 43 baskets. At the same time no matter how you slice it that’s not good. Simmons has often looked hesitant and unwilling to drive unless the lane is wide open. 

At the same time, it’s hard to blame him, because he hasn’t been particularly effective even when he chooses to be aggressive. He’s shooting just 46.1% from the floor since the All-Star break, and for someone that only takes shots from five feet and in that’s not ideal. Simmons’ touch around the rim comes and goes, and he’s shooting just 49.3% on layups for the season. On its own that’s not inspiring, but combined with his 37.2% on jumpers and it gets worse. He is shooting a better 52.9% on hook shots though. 

The worst part is that Simmons playmaking hasn’t been that amazing either. Since the break, he’s had 80 assists and 50 turnovers, for a AST/TO ratio of 1.6. That’s not what you want from your primary ball-handler. 

Costly Throws

Part of Ben’s struggles and unwillingness to drive hard and score himself could be attributed to his dismal free-throw percentage recently. He’s never been outstanding there, but in January and February he was fine or better, shooting 65.2% and 70.3% from the charity stripe respectively. Since the All-Star break though, he’s been shooting in the 50s on free-throws. That’s Dwight Howard level, who was literally fouled on purpose in his hey-day. Defenses know they can sag off Ben to prevent him from using his elite speed, and they know they can play him hard and not get punished for it which helps neutralize his size and strength. That’s too much knowledge for opposing defenders.

Bounce Back Incoming

Ben Simmons has not been good recently. At the same time, there’s no reason to think this will continue for the rest of the season. Rollercoasters also come back up after being down. Ben may never add to his offensive game like so many 76ers desire, but let’s not forget all that he does bring. Let’s not forget the handles that shouldn’t be possible on a man his side. Think back to the the dazzling cross court passes to open shooters. Fondly recall the elite defense, the numerous steals and the thunderous dunks in transition. At the same time, the regular season isn’t what matters. Not for this 76ers team. What matters is the playoffs. That’s where Simmons worth will truly be tested.

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