Sixers Playoff Lessons: How Ben Simmons can improve his game with more than just shooting

While Simmons’ lack of range is his biggest flaw, the playoffs highlighted some other areas of his game that need to be developed as well.

The Process Philadelphia 76ers can learn a lot from their first playoff experience. This series will look at key takeaways for different players, and what they should develop moving forward.

Ben Simmons was a Rookie of the Year marvel. There’s no other way to describe his ascension to top-25-player status in his first season. But “shoot a jumper, you coward!” is something people enjoyed throwing at him in the playoffs and will continue to say as he works to expand his range in the summer, hopefully reducing the weakness that hurt him so much in the second round of the playoffs.

Simmons’ severe lack of range was attacked at a level we’d never seen before as the Boston Celtics‘ lengthy, athletic defense sagged off him and built a wall across the paint. But we all know he needs a jumper. The very threat of one, even from 18 feet, will make such a difference in opening up the floor for him (and others).

There’s more that Simmons needs to work on, though.

Off-ball screening and cutting

Simmons has unique gifts as a point guard. Besides all the talent, being a strong, 6’10” athletic machine is pretty useful, too. It allows the Sixers to use him in ways that other teams could never dream of with their point guards, but there’s clearly room to grow when it comes to using him as a screener. Besides increasing his impact when guards handle the ball or Joel Embiid posts up, it will be essential if LeBron James does find his way to Philadelphia.

As the Sixers’ offense struggled with everything from basic execution, 3-point shooting, and late-game turnovers against the Celtics, it was particularly obvious that there are too many instances where Simmons isn’t doing enough off the ball. That’s partly on how Brett Brown has asked Simmons to operate, and partly on the player himself for not being active enough. Keeping moving as much as possible — whether you’re cutting backdoor to give Embiid an option from the post, or setting a pin-down screen or pick at the top of the arc to help free a shooter — is essential when you possess no threat spotting up.

Of course, one of the issues with Embiid post-ups (as I wrote about here) is that he isn’t a very willing or aware passer. That in itself limits how much Simmons may thrive as a cutter. However, it only makes things worse if Embiid doesn’t have movement around him.

There’s a term Brett Brown uses to describe a spot on the floor that players like Simmons can operate from off the ball: the Birdman Low Zone. It involves Simmons setting up on the weak-side baseline, waiting to pounce near the basket if the defense shifts out of place when over helping on a drive or doubling an Embiid post-up, for instance.

Given how quickly Simmons explodes, it can be an effective way to get him going off ball (we saw this more in his bounce-back 16-point Game 3 against Boston after he scored just a single point in Game 2). It obviously can’t be used all the time, though. And Simmons needs to do more than just hang around the paint.

On this play, it’s Dario Saric that gets caught in the post against defensive bully Marcus Smart. Once again, Simmons isn’t offering any help and it’s unclear what he’s hoping to achieve:

Obviously, Simmons isn’t responsible for the turnover. But all he does is move closer to Saric inside, further cluttering the lane in an already sluggish possession. Simmons doesn’t establish good positioning himself with Jaylen Brown all over his back and Al Horford between him and Saric, ready to break up an attempted pass.

Even though Simmons can’t use the threat of a jumper to draw his defender outside, he could have at least tried cutting with purpose before the play bogged down or shifting to the top of the arc to set a screen on Terry Rozier to free up JJ Redick onto the left wing, where Redick could have sprinted into perfect position for a kick-out pass from Saric.

Plays where Simmons is hanging in traffic or essentially out of the play on the weak-side happened too often in the playoffs. We know Simmons can set bigger screens than any other point guard in the league. For him to go up a level off the ball, it’s simply more activity and creativity that’s needed.

Interior scoring and using both hands

Everyone, except for his nervous opponents, wants to see Simmons with a jump shot. All his 3-point attempts in the regular season were heaves and he rarely shoots from mid-range, attempting 78.7 percent of his shots within 10 feet during the regular season, a number which rose to 86.4 percent in the playoffs. Simmons still found ways to score against the Heat in round one and he averaged 17.7 points over the final three games against the Celtics, but Boston — with its plethora of long wings and league-best defense — built a wall across the paint that could force Simmons into awkward, fading jumpers or no shots at all.

Having more ways to score inside would go a long way to Simmons being able to counter what defenses throw at him, giving him more options when he can charge down the lane at full speed into space. Especially when he’s in half-court settings and can’t thrive in transition as much when he faces a playoff defense like the Celtics’. A trusty mid-range pull-up and an increased use of running floaters with both hands would be great ways to keep defenders more on their toes.

And this is where a critical area of improvement comes into play: Simmons’ left-hand finishing around the rim.

We know Simmons is an athletic monster around the basket. His efficiency speaks for itself; a tremendous 74.4 percent within three feet during the regular season, and 67.7 percent from the same distance in the playoffs. But he excels when going right, not left.

I re-watched all of his field goal attempts from the playoffs to examine just how much he favors his right hand. You can see it when he plays and the numbers make the disparity even more striking (I’ve excluded any two-handed dunks and tips):

Left hand: 9/31 (29 percent)

Right hand: 38/83 (45.7 percent)

Seeing as four of his left-hand makes were dunks and most of the 31 attempts were short jumpers, he’s almost exclusively right-handed when attacking inside, making him more predictable in the process.

This fast-break attempt is a perfect example of how Simmons often goes to his right hand unnecessarily. Despite having an edge on James Johnson with an easy chance to score, obviously by keeping the ball away from Johnson by finishing left, Simmons brings the ball down and across his body for a scoop finish with his right hand. By trying to adjust in a hurry, Simmons makes the shot more challenging and misses what should have been a simple left-handed make:

Here, Simmons gets an initial step on Kelly Olynyk, as you’d expect, and has a chance to lay the ball in. Rather than going straight up with his left hand, though, in order to shield the ball away from Olynyk, Simmons tries to finish straight under the basket with his right, making it far easier for Olynyk to poke the ball away and get a block:

“There will be some intense refinement,” Brett Brown said after the season when discussing Simmons’ jumper, per Philly.com’s David Murphy. “But to call it like a complete blow-up and makeover, I’m not prepared to do that.”

While “intense refinement” sounds encouraging to an extent, it doesn’t look like Simmons is going to stop shooting jumpers with his left hand this summer. However, his playoff numbers serve as more evidence that he needs to shoot right handed. Whether he’s writing, eating, finishing inside or throwing pitches at Phillies games with his right hand, it’s obvious that that’s where his natural comfort lies.

Hopefully, Simmons will improve with his left hand inside and make the change to shooting with his right hand outside.

Attacking mismatches

One of the most frustrating things with Simmons’ performance in the Boston series was his hesitancy or total avoidance of attacking mismatches. Whether Aron Baynes was on him near the arc or Shane Larkin was switched onto him, Simmons had more opportunities to shine and chose not to.

Plays like this are part of the reason for Simmons’ limited impact against Boston. JJ Redick zips up the lane and flares around a screen from Embiid, forcing a switch of Larkin onto Simmons. This should be a chance for Simmons to get physical, powering down the lane or putting Larkin in the post against his massive size advantage. But Simmons hardly gives his weaker defender a second look, picking up his dribble and passing back out to Embiid right away:

And the thing is, sometimes Simmons attacked mismatches perfectly. Look at how effortlessly he gets a layup on this key overtime possession against Larkin thanks to a screen and switch with Redick:

It just needed to happen more often. Simmons can expand his game and be more prepared to abuse mismatches that come his way. When he’s able to support his physicality with even more scoring moves and confidence come next year’s playoffs, he’ll be a far tougher force for defenses to handle.

Nevertheless, when mismatches are this favorable, Simmons simply needs to learn when to be aggressive. Even without quick-trigger pull-ups or effective lefty moves in his bag of tricks, he has to learn to maximize these opportunities against elite defenses when they present themselves.

Keeping his dribble alive

I’m not going to dive into this too much, because it’s pretty straight forward and follows on from plays like those above, where Simmons picked up his dribble rather than going at Larkin. Falling into passive spells of play was a problem, and it was maddening to watch at times when he picked up his dribble for no reason.

On this play, Simmons has Aron Baynes on him away from the basket, yet picks up his dribble with only five seconds left on the shot clock and, as a general non-shooter, removed himself from the play. There was no time left for anyone to run anything or get open, and the end result is a desperate pass to Saric for a rushed, off-balance post-up as the shot clock expired:

(This also another example of Simmons failing to beat mismatches — an aggressive drive past the slower-footed Baynes would have been a better option than flinging it to Saric).

This is something that Simmons will surely correct as he gets older. Growing comfortable against elite postseason defenses is something that comes with experience. But beyond that basic level of growth, developing in some of the areas I’ve already discussed can only help him feel at ease to keep his dribble alive and create something.

“So, to carry over with his personal desire to improve, along with the memory of what just happened, how teams are guarding him, it’s an easy sell for the summer, and I think Ben’s going to knock it out of the park.”

That’s what Brett Brown had to say about Simmons at the end of the Sixers’ season.

The confidence is well founded. 3-pointer or not, right-handed jumpers or not, if Simmons improves in these areas alone, he’ll still be even more of a force to be reckoned with.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

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