The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on to the second round of the playoffs, but it doesn’t feel like time for them to celebrate. Not just because they’ve been here before, and not just because they’re merely doing what they’re supposed to do as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. During a five-game series victory over the Washington Wizards in the first round, the Sixers lost MVP candidate center Joel Embiid indefinitely after he fell awkwardly and experienced a partial tear of his meniscus. The way forward from here is weird at best.
Leading them along this ragged path is the NBA’s most consummately over-analyzed player, and usually its most incorrectly analyzed: Ben Simmons. In the Sixers’ closeout game, sans Embiid, Simmons provided his skeptics with the kind of shiny box score his fluid, shadowy game usually refuses as he filled in for the big man’s absence with a triple double of 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists, providing a bit of a prize for the sport’s obsessive quantifiers, who are perpetually frustrated by the lack of countables in his night-to-night output.
Simmons’ impact is not usually as visible in the box score, and requires close, active watching to perceive. A big part of this is that he is very active on the defensive end of the floor, frequently taking Sisyphean assignments against the best scorers in the league. Against the Wizards, that meant Bradley Beal. As one of only a handful of center-sized players in the league with the ability to dance with elite guards and wings, Simmons excels as a point of attack defender, and Sixers’ coach Doc Rivers loves to use him as one.
Beal missed this year’s scoring title by a hair, and is generally too crafty to stop, but Simmons’ blunted his efficiency a bit in the series. Despite Beal turning some corners on Simmons and utilizing his higher center of gravity against him—part of Simmons’ foul trouble in the Sixers’ Game 4 loss in D.C.—his field goal percentage was down from his regular season number, and greatly so when it came to three-point shots. The effect was real, but not especially noticeable unless you were taking very granular score of it; Beal looked like Beal—in other words, still unguardable.
The matchup, for Simmons, recalled that of his most recent playoff work: in 2019, he was tasked with guarding eventual NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. This, of course, is a major exhibit in the dossier used by Simmons’ least kind critics (many of whom don’t seem to realize he was out of action for the 2020 postseason). As a 22-year-old, Simmons did indeed eat a considerable pile of grief, served to him by a man who was arguably, at that moment, the best in the world at playing professional basketball.
This, like guarding Beal, was a thankless task, but someone had to do it. It’s not as if Kawhi was getting anything he wanted, either—he was making high-difficulty shot after high-difficulty shot, earning comparisons to Michael Jordan. And no one else on the Sixers had the tools that Simmons does to prevent Leonard from moving more easily to the rim, and getting the Philadelphia defense to rotate and break down toward better looks for his team. There is no glory in this work, but depending on other aspects of a given matchup, it can often be one of the biggest deciders of a series.
Simmons’ willingness to take on these kinds of matchups has been a steady part of his team’s success this year, and luckily for him, this usually pits him against players he can actually stop. What many want to see more of from him, though, is offensive aggression. At his rare size and mobility level, it’s obvious that he is likely to see a lot of mismatches he should be able to exploit, with or without the ability to shoot from range. Sometimes, he does this—including a career-high 42-point game attacking likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert at the rim, earlier this year—but it’s never become a game-to-game fixture for the Sixers.
That hasn’t mattered much in terms of his team’s recent success; they are, after all, the top seed in the conference. Even with Embiid out for long stretches of the season, Simmons would instead be focused on more traditional, deferential point guard duties, passing to make sure no good cuts to the basket or looks on the perimeter went unexploited by his team, and only putting pressure on the defense as a penetrator every so often. It isn’t a popular way for someone with such physical advantages to play, but the recent results—both with and without Embiid—are hard to argue with.
What comes next for Simmons, however, might be his greatest trial yet, and put that calculus to much greater test. The Atlanta Hawks are the Sixers’ next playoff foe, and their offense is humming at a level that suggests an Embiid-less Philadelphia will only be able to do so much to stop it, and will have to squeeze everything they possibly can out of their offense. Simmons, in other words, might have to barrel to the basket more regularly; what the highlight-seeking, unwashed masses want from him, in this case, might overlap perfectly with what his team needs to win. He may even need to stop leaving individual statistics on the table in the name of a greater basketball good—best pursued, now, by more demonstrably heroic action.
Or: maybe not. Perhaps Simmons’ best contribution to this team will continue to be his acceptance of difficult defensive work that no one else can do, and that he won’t look great doing, but will help his team regardless. Someone has to deal with Trae Young, after all, and Rivers’ tendencies suggest it will be Simmons. And, maybe, the Sixers’ offense will still work best with him as a big subtle cog at its center, spinning gently toward everyone’s benefit instead of cycloning pyrotechnically toward the rim.
What his critics might consider is that, no matter how it looks, he knows what his team needs more than they do. He can assess, as he has done all season, what is required from him in different moments, in order for the Sixers to win. He can continue to feel out the competitive pressure of the game, and apply his instinct in all the right places. It is not a style of playing that will garner the respect of those who don’t watch carefully, but that has never seemed to be who Simmons is playing for.