What Has Happened to Ben Simmons?

Last night, the Sixers had a chance to go up 3-1 on Atlanta and take control of the series. I believe they were up as much as 18 in the first half, and went into halftime with a 13 point lead.

If Philly won last night they would have one game remaining to close out Atlanta and then give Joel Embiid some much-needed rest. Embiid is clearly hurting out there. He’s not got the stamina to play a full game, either. Now this series will go at least six games and probably even seven. I don’t even know if I think Philly’s going to win the series anymore, either, given Embiid’s injury.

Philly had that game in their hands. It was theirs for the taking, and they squandered it. You can blame Embiid for going 0-12 in the second half after going 4-8 for 13 points in the first half. But Embiid is playing hurt and he clearly doesn’t look like himself out there.

Last night was the moment for Ben Simmons to take over and will his team over the finish line. This is the former #1 overall pick, starting point guard for the 76ers, and a guy who used to be able to get to the rim and score.

But not anymore. He’s a completely different player now.

Last night: 0 field goal attempts in the 4th quarter. Not makes, attempts. He didn’t even attempt a field goal. All he did in the 4th quarter was go 1-2 from the free throw line to make him 1-5 from the line for the game. In the third quarter, he was 1-1 from the floor, meaning one field goal attempt in the second half for him.

One.

Totally passive, no aggressiveness. A bystander. He faded into the crowd, or at least it seemed like he wanted to. Finished 5-10 from the field for 11 points, 9 assists and 12 rebounds. Not a bad stat-line in a vacuum. But this guy was the #1 overall pick! And he’s shown flashes of being able to get to the rim and get buckets. I mean, the dude is a 6′ 11″ point guard. He should absolutely be able to generate some offense, somehow.

Now, I get that Ben Simmons has sort of re-fashioned himself as a lock-down defender. And he’s become one of the best defensive players in the league. He got 200 out of a possible 200 votes for All Defense first-team. Rudy Gobert was the only other player in the league to get all 200 votes. So Simmons is clearly an elite defender.

But to be as bad as he was offensively is unacceptable.

Did NBA Twitter bully him into being scared to shoot? I know he gets roasted mercilessly on there. Maybe it’s gone to his head and tanked his confidence. I don’t know.

Maybe he’s afraid to shoot free throws. I know Atlanta has been using the “hack-a-Simmons” strategy at times in this series. Maybe, as a result, he feels like if he plays aggressive they’re just going to send him to the line, and then he’s going to miss, and now he’s deep in his own head in this regard.

But then that begs the question, why is he now suddenly so bad at shooting free throws? He’s shooting an unbelievable 32% from the line in this series, and was 35.7% in the first round series against Washington:

He’s never been a good free throw shooter, but he’s also not ever been this bad. His first playoff series he was 71.4%, then in the next series he was 69.6%. In 2019, we saw a major drop-off, with him shooting 58.3% and then 56.3% from the stripe. And now he’s in the low 30s.

His free throw shooting has gotten worse and worse in the playoffs with each passing year.

The thing is, in the regular season, he’s actually improved as a free throw shooter over his four seasons in the NBA: 56% in 2018, 60% in 2019, 62.1% in 2020, and 61.3% this season. Not good by any stretch, but not terrible.

I know it’s hard for bigger guys to hit free throws. Simmons may be a point guard but he’s also 6′ 11″. But this is really not an excuse. Embiid can hit free throws. Anthony Davis can hit free throws. Jokic can hit free throws. There are plenty of big guys who can shoot free throws at a high percentage.

It must be a mental thing for him.

I remember early in his career watching him play, he would take dudes to the hole all the time. He was great at getting to the rim. In 2018, he averaged 15.8ppg, then in 2019 he averaged 16.9,16.4 in 2020, but just 14.3 in 2021. He’s clearly getting worse offensively. Each year of his career he averages fewer field goal attempts than the last:

  • 2018: 12.3
  • 2019: 12.2
  • 2020: 11.4
  • 2021: 10.1

But the thing is, he’s actually shooting better from further away from the hoop this year:

42.6% on 3-10′ shots is a career best. 38.3% of his shots coming from that range is also a career-high.

36.6% on 10-16′ shots is a career best, too, although only 7% of his total attempted field goals in the regular season were from 10-16′.

I just don’t understand what’s happening with Ben Simmons. This dude had a 42-point game in the regular season, to go along with 12 assists and 9 rebounds:

Those are LeBron-esque numbers. And that’s who people compared Simmons to when he was entering the league. Now? Not even close. He’s not even the second offensive option on his own team.

But you can see him getting to the rim in that game. It happened in February, too. It wasn’t that long ago. He was laying it in, throwing it down, cleaning up the offensive glass, and even tossing up hookshots. He has the tools.

Now it’s worth noting Embiid was also out for that game, which put the scoring onus on Simmons and probably freed up the lane for him as well.

But it’s not like he’s that much better without Embiid. This year, according to Stat Muse, Simmons averaged 15.5 points per game in games without Embiid (12.0 field goal attempts). Those numbers are only marginally higher than his overall numbers for the year.

In 2020, he averaged 20.1 ppg on 13.0 fga without Embiid. So maybe a big part of it is that Simmons has a much easier time getting to the hoop when Embiid isn’t in the game.

But come on: they’ve been playing together for four years now. They should have that figured out by now.

I just don’t get it. We know what this dude’s ceiling is. He can put up a 40-point triple double when he’s firing on all cylinders. Do you know how hard that is to do? When Jimmy Butler had a 40-point triple double in the Finals last year, he became the third player in Finals history to ever do it, joining LeBron and Jerry West.

In the regular season, there’s only five guys in NBA history to have 5 or more 40-point triple doubles. That’s the type of ceiling he has; that’s how special of a talent Ben Simmons is.

I really hope he figures it out and gets his offensive game back on track. I’ve been a fan of his since he was at LSU, and once upon a time, I really did believe he was going to be the Next Big Thing. This Sixers team could be great if he starts to live up to his offensive potential.

But the way he’s playing now, I don’t even know if they win this series against Atlanta.

Octavian

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