At first glance, it seems as though Ben Simmons is having a down year.
The two-time All-Star is averaging a career-low 13.5 points on 54.5 percent shooting. His rebounds (8.3) and assists (8.0) per game are right in line with his career averages, and he’s taking a slightly higher volume of three-pointers than ever before, but he’s taking a clear backseat to both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris in the Philadelphia 76ers’ offensive pecking order.
That doesn’t make him any less invaluable to the Sixers’ title hopes, though. As head coach Doc Rivers has repeatedly emphasized in recent days, Simmons’ value to the team goes far beyond basic box-score numbers.
“He’s playing great,” Rivers said after the Sixers beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 27. “It’s funny—on his low-scoring nights, you look at the game film and he’s flying all over the place. The stuff he does for us to help us win, the winning things he does, it’s hard to put into numbers. And unfortunately, we’re in this numbers generation where everything is numbers, and his brilliance sometimes is missed by a lot of people.”
Rivers’ oft-repeated praise of Simmons rang particularly true this past week.
When Simmons sat out Thursday night against the injury-depleted Portland Trail Blazers, Embiid put the Sixers on his back with 31 first-half points. However, the rest of his teammates combined for only 26, and the game was knotted at halftime, 57-57.
The Blazers—who were without starters Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic—then outscored the Sixers 40-19 in the third quarter en route to a 121-105 beatdown.
“You have to watch the game to see how many times you miss him on both ends,” Rivers said after the game in reference to Simmons. “How many times did we get the ball off a rebound, somebody pushed it up, get into the paint and lead to a three? We couldn’t get to the paint tonight offensively. That’s what Ben does. Ben’s ability leads us to take threes. He doesn’t necessarily take them; he creates them.”
Rivers is spot-on in that assessment. Simmons leads the league with 93 assists on three-pointers, seven ahead of the next-closest player (Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic). He also ranks seventh leaguewide in total points generated from his assists (427).
With Simmons on the floor, the Sixers are shooting 40.7 percent from deep, which would be tied with the Utah Jazz for the league’s second-best mark. When he’s off the floor, they shoot 29.0 percent from three-point range, nearly five percentage points below the Dallas Mavericks’ league-worst 33.8 percent clip.
Simmons’ three-point creation isn’t just a small-sample-size anomaly, either. Dating back to the start of the 2017-18 season, he leads the league in assists on three-pointers (881), just ahead of Washington Wizards point guard Russell Westbrook (870). Although Simmons is a famously reluctant shooter—he’s only 1-of-6 from three-point range this year—his ability to push the ball in transition, suck in defenders and kick out to the open man is what makes the Sixers offense hum when it isn’t running through Embiid.
He put that on full display Saturday night against the Brooklyn Nets, particularly with this no-look pass to Seth Curry late in the second quarter.
Simmons also helped break the game open in the third quarter with his work in transition. After snagging a rebound off a missed Jeff Green three-pointer, he ran down the floor, drove into the paint and kicked out to a wide-open Danny Green, who drilled a three-pointer to push the Sixers’ lead to five.
Simmons’ value isn’t limited to his three-point shot creation, though. He’s equally vital on defense.
After leading the league with 2.1 steals per game last season, Simmons is in a four-way tie for sixth leaguewide in that category this year (1.8). He’s also tied for the league lead in deflections per game (4.0) with Miami Heat swingman Jimmy Butler and Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, and he’s tied with Butler for the lead in loose balls recovered (1.6) among regular rotation players.
With Simmons sidelined against the Blazers, Gary Trent Jr., Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood combined to score 62 points while shooting 9-of-15 from deep. Nets guard James Harden got off to a similarly hot start Saturday, racking up 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting, seven assists and five rebounds in the first half as Rivers opted to keep Simmons off him.
Midway through the third quarter, Simmons switched onto Harden for the first time all game, and Brooklyn’s offense promptly sputtered.
After Harden tied the game at 79-79 on a technical free throw with 5:15 left in the third quarter, the Sixers reeled off a 20-4 run that Simmons punctuated with a steal and slam.
“You try to use anyone else as long as you can, which gives Ben the advantage, especially as far as energy-wise,” Rivers said after the game with regard to why he didn’t put Simmons on Harden sooner. “And I thought once we made the switch, that was one of the big turning points, for sure. I didn’t want him starting out on him. Harden just draws too many fouls, creates too much stuff. Our goal was try to get to the second half, we did that, and it worked out pretty well.”
Simmons will be an indispensable weapon for the Sixers once the playoffs roll around, as they’ll likely have to go through Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Nets; Giannis Antetkounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the Milwaukee Bucks; and Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Boston Celtics to get through the Eastern Conference alone. Having someone who can make life difficult for elite opposing guards and wings will be a necessity, not a luxury.
The Sixers reportedly considered sending Simmons to the Houston Rockets as the centerpiece of a Harden trade, as Harden would add elite individual shot creation that they currently lack. But as much as the Sixers would have gained from Harden’s scoring ability, they would have lost the glue that holds them together on both ends of the floor.
“I think you have to coach [Simmons] and be around him to see his value, but he’s invaluable to a basketball team with what he does,” Rivers said Saturday. “Not only just with his defense and his passing, but just so many little things that he does that is just unbelievable.”