The Philadelphia 76ers currently have the best record in the East (19-10), and look to be one of the few real title contenders. One big reason for their success has been the play of Joel Embiid. Embiid is averaging 29.7 PPG along with 10.8 RPG. He has completely turned a new corner and has finally fully dedicated himself to being in shape and motivated. He is currently an MVP front runner along with guys like Lebron and Nikola Jokic. His ability to dominate in the paint, along with his improved face up and jump shooting game has taken him to a whole new level. While Embiid has been rightfully in the spotlight this season, his teammate Ben Simmons has taken a back seat in terms of media attention.
Early in the season, people were quick to jump on his regression on the offensive end; myself included. There was definitely some substance to the criticism though, Simmons wasn’t being aggressive and looking to pass way too much. But at the end of the day most smart basketball fans knew this wasn’t going to last. Since almost being traded to the Rockets for James Harden, Simmons has continued to improve and become more confident on the offensive side of the ball. His defense has never been a question, in fact I’d argue that Ben Simmons is the best defensive player in the league. And based on his most recent comments, I think he agrees with that viewpoint. His tenacity and energy on the defensive floor is unmatched in terms of players his size. Simmons has shown multiple times this season that he’s never afraid to defend the best player on the court.
On the season Ben Simmons is averaging an impressive 15.2 PPG 8.3 RPG and 8 APG. His points per game continue to climb and most notably on Monday, he absolutely took over and scored 42 points and 12 assists against the first or second best team in the league in the Utah Jazz. His valorant effort came in a loss, but nonetheless, it was exhilarating to watch him attack Rudy Gobert over and over again. After the game he said “I love being able to go at somebody like that. I felt like it was a little bit of disrespect putting him on me, but it is what it is.”
He scored all of his 42 points in the paint per usual. This performance came without Joel Embiid which brings into question why he can’t have this kind of production with Joel on the floor. Is it as simple as Joel fills up the lane and makes it harder for Ben to get to the rim? Or is it something more complicated than that? Even with Joel on the floor, Simmons is putting up 20 PPG in his last 10 games, and his field goal percentage has jumped from 56% to 62% during that span. Everyone knows that Ben Simmons is good, but does he really get the recognition he deserves? When Simmons is trending on Twitter it’s usually about his lack of a jump shot, not him scoring a career high 42 points. My point being that over the last few weeks, Ben Simmons has been playing the best basketball of his career and it feels like no one’s talking about it. Here’s a visual to help understand just how good he’s been this season.
This graph shows the percentage of time a player possesses the ball while he’s on the floor, with guys like James Harden, Trae Young, and Luka at the top. The X axis on this graphic shows a player’s defensive impact on the floor with Rudy Gobert and Miles Turner being the most extreme example of that. You can see that Ben Simmons and Lebron are the only two players that rank in the top 20 of both categories. There’s very few players in the league that handle the ball as much as he does, with his combination of grueling and dominant defense. (Usually on the opposing team’s best player.) I really like this graphic because it shows just how special of a season Simmons is having. His lack of a jump shot suddenly becomes much less apparent when he’s getting to the rim like he was in Utah on Monday.
In my opinion, Ben Simmons is currently playing the best basketball of his career. He leads the league in deflections and is 9th in total steals. His defensive presence cannot be understated, and his versatility to guard 1-5 is unbelievably valuable. Here’s what his coach Doc Rivers had to say about his defensive ability. “He is such a unique defender. You know most of the great defenders guard their position, and they do a great job there. Ben is a chameleon. Ben guards literally 1-5, and we’re not scared to put him on 1-5.” It’s high praise but it literally couldn’t be more true. According to B-Ball Index, Ben Simmons ranks third in the league for defensive versatility, and how often he is guarding multiple positions. After making the NBA All Defensive first team in 2020, Simmons looks even more engaged and aggressive on that side of the floor. He’s pretty much a lock for that spot for as long as he continues to play like he is right now.
In the bigger picture, Ben Simmons’ play has me seriously reconsidering the 76ers as title contenders. Back in January I wrote a column where I laid out the 76ers title odds, and whether or not they were still one piece away from real title contention. At the time, Simmons was struggling mightily, and that definitely influenced my decision.
I’m not sure if it’s just recency bias, but with the way Simmons has been playing of late, combined with Joel Embiid’s historic season, I really do think this team has a shot of winning the East. If all the chips fall into place, it would most likely be a matchup with the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The longer I think about how that series would play out, the more I think that the 76ers would have a real chance. Sure the Nets’ have 3 of the game’s most creative and talented scorers, but who’s guarding Ben Simmons? Who’s guarding Joel Embiid? Heck, who’s guarding Tobias Harris? Simmons will be able to at least neutralize one of the three, and if the Nets’ shots aren’t falling, they could be in a lot of trouble. I really do think that the Nets and 76ers are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, so it would be disappointing to miss out on that matchup in the playoffs. But until then, if Ben Simmons can continue to play at this elite level into the playoffs, there’s no reason why the Philadelphia 76ers can’t make a run at the NBA Finals. All in all, I think Ben Simmons is playing the best basketball of his career, and instead of pointing out the flaws in his game, we should just appreciate what he’s doing right in front of us.