Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons’ historic night is a statement

Ben Simmons | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ben Simmons | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers’ point guard served up a reminder on Monday night.

This season, at least in terms of the Philadelphia 76ers, has been a chore to watch. The Sixers give the illusion of a stumbling mess, playing below expectations and struggling at the strangest, most inconvenient of times.

And yet, the Sixers are 29-16, only a couple games out of second place, and 4-1 in their last five. Philadelphia has remained competitive in the absence of Joel Embiid, in large part due to the contributions of a much-maligned Ben Simmons. The Sixers, no matter how hard certain individuals try to swing the narrative, are a genuine contender.

Simmons is part of the reason Philadelphia is a contender — not a reason they aren’t. For all the discourse surrounding his jumper and ‘work ethic,’ not enough has been said about his current abilities. At some point the pro-Simmons argument enters broken record territory, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We, as a collective, must appreciate what he can do, rather than dwell on what he cannot.

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In his current state, Ben Simmons is a top-20 NBA player — a declaration I made before the season and one I haven’t budged on. He’s not only a special offensive talent, but one of the 10 best defenders in basketball. His step into defensive superstardom was unforeseen, yet has somehow flown under the radar.

At 6-foot-10, Simmons has the foot speed to defend point guards, the quick hands to pace the NBA in deflections, and the brute strength to handle bigs on the block. He spent time at point guard and at center in Monday’s victory over Brooklyn, with five steals, two blocks, and a fourth-quarter masterclass to show for it. He was sublime, and led a win predicated on defense in the absence of a top-tier rim protector.

The Sixers’ have a genuinely scary defense, one which doesn’t receive enough credit. There have been instances of sleep-walking all season, and Philadelphia hasn’t always turned on the jets when needed. But when Philadelphia is truly locked in, no team possesses a higher ceiling. Simmons is a huge part of that ceiling.

In addition to Monday’s defense, Simmons put together the best offensive game of his career. He scored 34 points, tying a career high, and went 10-for-14 at the free throw line, unabashedly getting to the rim and seeking contact. He shot above 80 percent from the field, and accumulated 12 assists and 12 rebounds to secure a triple-double.

He’s the first player in recorded NBA history to post 34 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists and five steals on 80+ percent shooting.

It was prime Ben Simmons, and yes, there is merit to pointing out the correlation between Embiid’s absence and Simmons’ best performance of 2019-20. But rather than view it as an indictment on the pairing, it should remind fans of how dangerous the Embiid-Simmons duo can be.

Despite the clunky fit and weird aesthetic, both Embiid and Simmons are physical anomalies who deserve Defensive Player of the Year recognition. Remove offense from equation, and the Sixers still have two genuine stars on defense, both of whom cover significant ground. That alone is immensely valuable.

On the other end, the Sixers should work harder to maximize Embiid and Simmons collectively. Philadelphia has, to a certain degree, made progress — Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson are well-matched stars. If anything, it’s the Al Horford signing that has slowed the Sixers down from time to time.

If Elton Brand can upgrade the bench — a quick-trigger shooter and a downhill playmaker would suffice — Philadelphia would take a big step forward in terms of title contention. Derrick Rose is a controversial target, and I personally heir on the side of pursuing other options, but he fits the bill stylistically of what the Sixers should prioritize.

Simmons should not populate the trade deadline conversation as much as he has. The Sixers aren’t going to trade him — I’m sure it hasn’t crossed the front office’s mind, at least not as an immediate solution — but the chatter and the debates have picked up nonetheless. There’s a strangely concerted effort to portray Embiid and Simmons as a pair destined for breakup. As if there’s no path forward.

I’m an advocate for talent over fit, at least on the highest levels of team-building. You want the best players to lead a team, and Simmons stands well above the pack as Philadelphia’s second-best player. No one who has been tied to Simmons in mass hypotheticals — Bradley Beal, Chris Paul, D’Angelo Russell, CJ McCollum — occupies the same tier. Simmons, to a degree I cannot stress enough, is criminally underrated.

The Sixers have a god-level defender, a freight train locomotive, a high-level passer, and a hyper-efficient rim-runner all wrapped into one chiseled 6-foot-10 package. People will continue to rag on Simmons’ lack of perceived development, but will proceed to ignore every attribute not tied to his jump shot. Simmons has gotten better, and he still has room to grow. The trajectory points up, and he’s already a perennial All-Star and a blossoming All-Defense contender.

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To evoke the lush vocabulary of Brett Brown, Simmons, at the mere age of 23, looks the part of an adult in the room. A bully in the truest sense. One who commands respect and makes peace. It’s time to settle in and appreciate the immense potential of Ben Simmons. He’s in Philadelphia for the long haul.