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Why Ben Simmons is the most polarizing player in the NBA

Vincent Goodwill
·6-min read

Nobody’s changing their minds on Ben Simmons.

Either he’s one of the most dynamic commodities in today’s game, a too harshly criticized talent with immeasurable gifts or a habitual underachiever, a star in name only and hindrance to championship aspirations.

The lines have been drawn and it’s hard to see anyone crossing the Mississippi on him. The only thing left is playoff confirmation for one powerful school of thought.

He’s the most polarizing player in the NBA, perhaps the swing player in an intriguing Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The Brooklyn Nets are the favorites to run through the East, but the 76ers have the best record. The Milwaukee Bucks have been regular-season giants the past two years, with back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but this year’s frontrunner appears to be Joel Embiid.

Miami’s Erik Spoelstra has the playoff stripes from the sideline, including last year’s run in the Bubble to the Finals, but new 76ers coach Doc Rivers isn’t exactly a slouch with jewelry of his own.

Then there’s Simmons, who doesn’t comfortably fit into the mold of today’s stars but feels like one.

He can stress a defense like Luka Doncic, change the math, exploit the angles and largely get anywhere on the floor with his smarts more than sheer physicality.

The skills — minus the obvious shooting deficiencies — harken to the all-around abilities of a young, spry, LeBron James or Antetokounmpo. Those guys are systems, with rosters built around their specific gifts — clear No. 1’s.

Simmons’ reluctance to shoot makes him an easier No. 1 than a No. 2 considering shooting and space are the commodities teams identify in today’s game, but he has to play a supporting-ish role to Embiid.

“They both know, there's room for both of them to be great,” Rivers said. “And Bill [Russell] always told us when I was in Boston, if you can't make room for everybody else to be great, then you can't be great. And I think that's what's going on here that they've realized that they both can be great together.”

Embiid is the sun everything rightfully revolves around, and while his growth has made the 76ers legit, the untapped terrain to his game made the coaching vacancy attractive for Rivers.

Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers dunks the ball against the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center on March 16, 2021.
Ben Simmons is the most polarizing player in the NBA. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

It doesn’t leave Simmons as an afterthought, leaving you to wonder if he’s perfectly nestled next to the bombastic Embiid or if there’s another gear he has yet to reach because he hasn’t been fully catered to.

The thought Simmons could be moved for James Harden before Harden was traded to Brooklyn presented the possibility of him having his own show even though the Rockets have fallen apart in the aftermath of the deal.

But Simmons’ talent is so undeniably great, can anything but shooting stop him?

Simmons is the only No. 2 — save for Rudy Gobert in Utah, if he’s defined as that — you don’t ask to get a bucket and don’t trust from the free-throw line late. If Harden is the ideal second option in the league, Simmons is the one you have to squint hard at to fit there, but he’s just about everything you want.

“Ben has the ball in his hands, actually more than any player on our team,” Rivers said. “And that's one of the changes we've made [this year] but he's such — he [has] a unique skill set, because he does so many things. It’s amazing how many ways you can use him.”

Has there ever been an unsolvable riddle on a player when we know exactly what we’re getting?

The numbers are eerily exact, suggesting a plateau or an early peak. Take PER as a flawed stat, but Simmons has had a Player Efficiency Rating of exactly 20 in three of his four seasons.

The other year? 20.4.

He has averaged between 15.8 and 16.9 points, between 7.7 and 8.2 assists, between 7.8 and 8.8 rebounds. Last season, Simmons shot 72% at the rim but 33% past 3-feet from the field. He’s as reliable as gorilla glue, with no variance. The floor doesn’t move, and so far, neither does the ceiling.

No true discernible playoff moments, aside from helping chase Kawhi Leonard to history on Leonard’s right corner bounce-bounce, bounce, net playoff winner in Toronto in 2019.

The raw stats don’t tell the whole story, not even the advanced ones. Without Embiid, the 76ers play faster, more spread — not better or even more diverse, just enhanced to amplify Simmons and Tobias Harris, who took over late to close out the New York Knicks on Tuesday night.

The spirit in how the 76ers can play often revolves around Simmons’ activity, his engagement, his willingness to get into an opponent’s chest and tacitly dictate the way a game is or isn’t going to be called.

“I mean, I try to be physical from the jump, just so when we get to that fourth quarter, they know you know, they can’t just call that stuff,” Simmons said. “It’s the NBA — no boys allowed.”

With Simmons, all the pieces matter, even if it doesn’t make a fitting puzzle.

Taking on the challenge of defending the game’s best offensive players makes the ultimate deal with the devil — the acceptance that effort could very well be met with embarrassment.

Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers guards Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center on March 03, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
The raw stats don’t tell the whole story for Ben Simmons. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The rules and otherworldly skill of today’s players can render even the best defense useless, and the best defenders ignore being on the next Summer Jam screen for the sake of competition.

“It definitely should be more physical,” Simmons said. “I mean, it takes away from guys who could really guard players. The fourth quarter comes and they need me to guard somebody. You know, I love taking that challenge on as you saw it tonight.”

That same fear of embarrassment has to factor into Simmons’ hesitance to shoot, especially after a sizable amount of time as a professional.

It doesn’t line up.

Anyone who believes the 76ers will advance to the Finals have to be investing in Simmons — believing he’ll shut or slow down the likes of Kevin Durant or Harden or Kyrie Irving in a playoff series.

“Thing that’s interesting going into playoffs is about matchups,” Rivers said. “Well, we can pick our matchup at least, you know, and that's nice to have.

“Your best player, you know, usually your best defensive player usually can guard that position [and] you hope that their best player is at that position. With Ben we can say, well, we’re gonna put you [anywhere]. We don’t care.”

Simmons doesn’t care, either, or at least that’s what it feels like.

All that’s left is to show it.

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