Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons has flipped the switch

Ben Simmons | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Ben Simmons | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers are witnessing the best basketball of Ben Simmons’ career.

Ben Simmons began the 2020-21 campaign in a funk. He struggled out of the gate, posting career-low scoring and efficiency numbers. He was at the center of James Harden trade rumors, while the fit concerns next to Joel Embiid were exacerbated by the big man’s MVP candidacy and the immediacy of Philadelphia’s championship aspirations. At no point during Simmons’ career has the fanbase been more widely receptive to trade hypotheticals than the first few weeks of this season.

Since the Harden trade fell through, however, a switch has been flipped — both in Simmons and in the fanbase. No longer a source of constant rumors and speculation, many have come to appreciate Simmons’ two-way contributions more fully. Simmons has also improved infinitely in recent weeks, making a late All-Star surge and putting the Sixers truly on the map.

Post-Harden trade, Simmons is averaging 17.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.4 assists on 58.7 percent shooting. He has hit 70.2 percent of free throws over that span, and is putting together a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. Over his last five games, those numbers have jumped to 22.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 8.4 assists on 62.9 percent shooting.

Simmons has officially turned the page on a brutal and worrisome start to the season. He’s moving better, playing harder, and looking the part of a legitimate No. 2 next to Embiid. While the Sixers’ roster is still incomplete, Simmons’ current production on both sides of the ball is indicative of a player who can swing the momentum of a playoff series.

Of course, Simmons was absent in the Sixers’ first-round loss to Boston in the Bubble. The 6-foot-10 point guard has a spotty track record in the postseason, but his perimeter defense alone could chemically alter a series. He is a one-man wrecking crew, whether he’s perched atop a 2-3 zone or asked to suffocate the opposition’s best player.

Equally important to Simmons’ defense is his offense. Simmons has gone from playing the worst offense of his career to the best offense of his career in a matter of weeks. His 42-point explosion against Utah was a slight aberration, sure, but it speaks to his newfound aggression. Simmons has noted his desire to improve the mental side of his game. If he can continue attacking the rim and continue embracing the free throw line — he went 12-of-13 from the charity stripe against Utah — only good things will come.

The context of Simmons’ 42 points (and 12 assists) is important. It came without Embiid, but also against the best defense in the NBA. The Sixers were down their only other reliable ball-handler (Shake Milton), and the second unit decided to take a day off. And yet, Simmons managed to efficiently pick apart the Jazz defense. Not by passing at every turn, but by setting screens, keeping engaged off the ball, and attacking head-first when he had the ball.

So many of Simmons’ offensive woes in the past have been the direct result of timidity. He has long been an elite finisher with the physical tools to get downhill and take advantage of the extra space afforded to him by so many defenders. Simmons’ desire to avoid contact, and by extension avoid the free throw line, has too often led him to difficult fallaway shots or indecisive passes. That has not been the case in recent games. He is getting to the free throw line and hitting at a career-best rate.

The Sixers need Simmons to maintain his aggression from the Utah game, even when Embiid is on the floor. This is unquestionably Joel Embiid’s team, but Simmons is the Sixers’ only real playmaking engine on the perimeter. His ability to get downhill, compromise defenses, and create for others is integral to Philadelphia’s ability to compete. If the Sixers want a prayer in the playoffs — if the Sixers want to truly challenge Milwaukee or Brooklyn — it will have to involve the best version of Ben Simmons on both sides of the ball.

The switch has been flipped. The Sixers must hope it stays that way.

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