What Exactly Are the Sixers Doing With Ben Simmons at Power Forward?

Liam McKeone
Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons / Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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The Philadelphia 76ers are quite the conundrum as the NBA restart nears. They were very good at home and very bad on the road in 2019-20, so who knows how that'll shake out on a neutral site. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are as good of a one-two combo as you'll find, but have overlapping skillsets and very obvious fit issues that Brett Brown has yet to solve in two full seasons of play. Talent wins basketball games, especially in the playoffs, and that goes double for this year, where pure talent will reign supreme as everyone shakes off the rust.

But the Sixers, despite their excess of that talent, were not a particularly good team for much of this season. They're perhaps the most difficult team to project for the restarted season. Discussion around Philadelphia ruled the early-morning news wave on Tuesday as excitement built over Brown declaring Simmons has been playing strictly as a power forward during practices in Orlando and looked great doing so. Per an ESPN story from Tim Bontemps published Monday afternoon:

"Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said Monday he has been playing All-Star Ben Simmons "exclusively" at power forward in practices inside the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World Resort and has been thrilled by what he's seen. "He's so dynamic," Brown said on a conference call with reporters. "Let's just talk about running. There's nobody faster in the NBA. So to always have the ball and dribble it up against five guys ... to do that dilutes some of his potent weapons. So, watching him fly up the floor, watching him and Joel [Embiid] play off each other, has been a really good look. I think they've been fantastic together.""

From the article, it appears the plan is to play Shake Milton at point guard with Simmons at the four. This is ... a confusing decision. Brown said in the quote above that having Simmons start the offense on every possession "dilutes" some of his abilities, and given his lack of shooting paired with size, power forward is the best positional assignment. But taking the ball out of your best player's hands does not seem ideal.

Simmons is one of the best passers in the NBA. He averaged 8.2 assists per game this year and over a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He had a 34 percent assist rate with only a 20 percent usage rate-- numbers that pass-first point guards like Ricky Rubio and T.J. McConnell can muster. For reference, Luka Doncic averages slightly more assists per game (8.9) but his usage rate is nearly twice Simmons' (37 percent). Simmons is quite effective with the ball in his hands despite the lack of ability to shoot from further than eight feet from the basket.

But we know that. Philly certainly knows that. So why are they taking him off the ball? Well, that lack of shooting ability is the wrench that throws the whole offensive out of whack. If the initiator of the offense can't shoot, defenders can hang back around the free-throw line and muck up any motions the offense is running on the floor. It also rather severely limits the options when it comes to plays Philadelphia can run in a half-court setting. That's why having a primary ballhandler who can run pick-and-roll effectively is so important for this version of the Sixers. It is likely why Brown decided to shift Simmons down a few positions and make him a power forward rather than a point guard.

Is Milton the answer there? The man can definitely shoot. He hit 45 percent of his three pointers, but only attempted 3.3. per game this season. He had a particularly torrid stretch before the season was postponed that suggests he could become a higher-volume shooter without sacrificing much accuracy. But he did post all of 2.2 assists per game. Milton was never asked to run the offense (and only averaged 19 minutes per game), so those numbers can't be taken without a grain of salt when trying to project how he might be in that role. But he won't suddenly find a knack for passing, either.

Brown has long needed to get creative in the ways he uses Simmons to counteract his weaknesses as a shooter. Putting him in pick-and-roll scenarios with a shooter and letting him linger around the paint for cuts and dunks is the ideal way to do it. But with the personnel at hand, it won't work. If the Sixers want to call Simmons a power forward and still let him do the majority of the work running the offense, I won't begrudge their vocabulary.

But if they mean what they say here and are planning on having Simmons perform mostly standard power forward responsibilities, it's an overcorrection. Simmons' defensive versatility and ability to run the floor will make him effective no matter what, but taking him pretty much out of the machinations of the half-court offense is what we've seen from Philly in the playoffs the last two years. It didn't work out well. Brown and his staff should go back to the drawing board if they have that in mind. Milton's presence alone isn't going to be what makes that particular strategy work.

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