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Making Simmons improve is No. 1 priority for Sixers

Eliot Shorr-Parks
May 15, 2019 - 7:27 am

Two things should be very clear to the Sixers following a crushing playoff loss to the Toronto Raptors. 

The first is that they have the No. 1, legitimate superstar they need in Joel Embiid.

If Embiid isn’t already a top-five player in the league he is pretty close. He isn’t perfect, and this series showed that at times, but the emotion he showed after the game, crying from the second Kawhi Leonard’s shot went in all the way to the locker room, was a clear sign for the Sixers that he is the kind of player you want to build around. 

The second is that for this team to make it further in the playoffs, and have a real shot of winning a title, Embiid’s top sidekick, Ben Simmons, absolutely must improve. 

The Sixers lost Game 7 for a number of reasons, but near the top of the list was the play of Simmons, who after an impressive start vanished on offense. The Sixers’ second-best player finished the game with 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but the most telling stat for how he played on Sunday night was the five shots he attempted. 

No team in the NBA can win with their second-best player — especially if that player is the point guard — taking only five shots. You can accept that from a role player. You can’t accept that from a player who wants to be considered one of the best in the game and expects to be paid like it. 

Simmons refusal to shoot the ball outside of the paint is nothing new, but the devastating results of his lack of aggression on offense was clear to see in the postseason this year. 

This year in the playoffs the Sixers were 1-4 when Simmons shot attempts were in the single digits. They were 6-1 when he had 10-or-more shots. He attempted over six free throws only once in 12 playoff games, and attempted over five only three times. 

Needless to say, Simmons didn’t attempt a single three pointer in the postseason this year, making it 22 playoff games now without a single legitimate three-point attempt. He attempted just one shot the entire series outside of the paint. 

In a league built around perimeter shooting, a look at the four teams remaining in the postseason shows what winning teams got from their point guards to advance. Toronto Raptors’ point guard Kyle Lowry attempted 13 shots and seven three-pointers on Sunday. Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard attempted 17 shots and nine three-pointers. Milwaukee Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe attempted 14 shots and five three-pointers in the Bucks’ last playoff win, and it goes without saying the kind of damage that Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry does. 

Individually, you can make the argument Simmons does a lot of things better than some of those players. In only his second trip to the postseason, expecting him to contribute like a Lillard or Curry isn’t fair. 

What can’t be argued is that going forward, Simmons’ refusal to shoot the ball and to be aggressive on offense is the Sixers’ biggest issue and has to be fixed. It ruins the spacing for Embiid, it causes the Sixers to have to use another point guard late in games and in the playoffs it makes the team’s second best player almost a non-factor. 

Despite his fatal flaw, chances are the Sixers will hand Simmons a max contract soon, a decision that is the right one. Simmons is an elite defender, an elite passer and deadly in the open court. At 22-years old, there is legitimate reason to believe he will improve. The tools to be a top 10 player in the NBA are there.  

The crucial decisions the Sixers have to make this offseason, from what to do with Jimmy Butler to what to do with Tobias Harris, will impact their chances of advancing further next season in the playoffs. 

None, however, will have a bigger impact than whether as a franchise they are able to get through to Simmons, and work together on a plan that actually makes him a more aggressive force on offense next season, 

You can follow Eliot Shorr-Parks on Twitter at @EliotShorrParks or email him at esp@94wip.com!