Sixers to Play Ben Simmons at Point Guard, Including Defensively. Should They?
With the 76ers vs Kings game postponed because of unsafe floor conditions, Sixers head coach Brett Brown instead shifted his attention to the future.
Whenever anybody — fans, pundits, or the coach of the team — begin thinking about the Sixers future, it’s almost impossible not to veer off into thinking about Ben Simmons, the #1 overall selection in last June’s draft. This happened yesterday with Brown at the Sixers training complex in Camden, New Jersey.
Brown talked about how he intends for Simmons to be the Sixers point guard when he returns, according to Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly.
This isn’t entirely surprising. Ben Simmons was always going to initiate much of the Sixers half-court offense, especially as the roster is currently constructed. His incredible court vision, his preternatural feel for the game, and his sheer creativity are what made him special as a prospect. While Brown was initially hesitant to come right out and say it, fearful of placing too much of a weight on the young Simmons’ shoulders, the Sixers were always going to place the ball in his hand and try to get the most out of those skills.
This fact isn’t what made Brown’s statements news. It was that Brown intends to try Simmons out defending point guards as well.
“I think he can (defend point guards),” Brown told Camerato. “Like anything, will time prove me right or wrong, but that will be the plan. I intend on making him like what we would know to be a legitimate point guard, and we’re going to try him defending other point guards.”
Is this the right move?
A couple of notes to get out of the way before we get too far into this.
First, we’re only questioning whether asking him to defend point guards is the best use of his ability long term. I’m not, and never have, questioned whether he would be the “point guard” offensively. If you’ve been reading my columns, listening to my podcast, or following me on twitter, I’ve always felt that Simmons would eventually initiate much of the Sixers half court offense, whether Brown wanted to label him as the point guard or not. That half of the equation barely even registers as news. At most, it’s news that Brown might be willing to increase Simmons’ day-1 workload, but Simmons being the offensive point guard was always a destination I felt the Sixers would eventually arrive at.
Second, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of experimentation, especially this season. If Brown wants to try Simmons out defending the opposition’s point guard, I’m not going to say it’s a mistake. Get the information you need to figure out what’s realistically in Simmons’ future and use that information to help construct the rest of the roster. Putting Ben in more unique situations helps that.
My only angle is whether I have confidence in Simmons defending point guards to be a viable long-term strategy. Much in the same way that I don’t have confidence in an Okafor and Embiid frontcourt pairing being viable long term, I also think it’s 100% natural to want to test that out in game situations this season to get as much information as you can. Experimentation is the right move, even if my confidence in that experiment working out isn’t necessarily high.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to my concerns over whether Simmons can, and should, defend the opponents point guards.
The modern switch-heavy NBA
Head coaches increasingly want their players to be able to defend multiple positions, giving coaches flexibility in how they defend ball screens, not to mention reducing the threat of cross-matches in transition.
In theory that might lend itself to Simmons at point guard having more merit, as Simmons can certainly defend power forwards if asked to do so. It’s the other end of the switching equation that’s hurt by the move.
It’s simply much easier to find a 6’5″ combo guard to defend the point than it is to find a 6’10” power forward who has the lateral mobility that Simmons does. So while Simmons can switch on a ball screen and adequately defend the power forward, the ball handler will likely have a mismatch to exploit.
Let’s take a look at the Sixers current personnel to illustrate the point. If Simmons is defending the point guard spot, that likely means that either Dario Saric or Ersan Ilyasova are defending the power forward spot. If Chris Paul runs down the court and sets up a pick and roll with Blake Griffin, Simmons can certainly switch that pick and roll and check Griffin. But is Saric defending Paul a matchup you want to encourage?
The flip side of that equation is having a lineup of, say, Bayless, Henderson, Covington, Simmons, and Embiid. Obviously switching that pick and roll and having Bayless try to defend Griffin isn’t ideal, but part of the philosophy of switching pick and rolls is to take away the roll man. If you force Griffin into a post-up, the defense can react to that and force the ball out of Griffin’s hands and get back to their stock defensive matchups. Not to mention Brown having the option of placing one of the Sixers bigger wings, such as Covington or Henderson, on Paul defensively, while placing Bayless on J .J. Redick, who does a little bit less in a pick-and-roll style set that would force a defensive switch. Dribble penetration from a guard is much more difficult to overcome.
(Also, that’s a short-term matchup problem. The ideal scenario is finding a 6-foot-5 or so natural two-guard who has the lateral quickness to defend points, and thus would be less susceptible to mismatches on switches. Those, in my estimation, are easier to find than 6’10” players who can competently switch on the perimeter while also competing on the boards down low).
Simmons’ combination of size and athleticism presents a unique opportunity for Brown at the power forward spot. Finding another 6’10” player with the quickness to switch as frequently as Simmons does is difficult, and the Sixers should embrace that competitive advantage rather than run away from it.
Simmons at 4 should help the Sixers shooting
Having Simmons defend the 4, while initiating your half-court offense, provides a lot of flexibility in what you do with the three other perimeter players. And, in theory, it’s easier to find elite perimeter shooting from a 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-8 player than it is in a 6-foot-10 player who can defend power forwards.
That, in turn, should help the Sixers perimeter shooting down the line.
Again, this might be somewhat blurred by the Sixers current unbalanced roster. Both Ilyasova and Saric can hit an NBA three-pointer and help stretch the floor, so the temptation might be to get them on the court with Simmons. And that’s fine for this season, considering the Sixers other perimeter options.
But having your floor spacers be Saric and Ilyasova in this scenario comes with certain tradeoffs, most notably in quickness, defensive versatility, and perimeter ball handling, all traits which are easier to get if Simmons is defending the 4 (in other words, he’s your second tallest player on the court) and the rest of the lineup is filled with versatile wings.
Again, having a player like Simmons with the size and strength to defend the 4 and compete on the glass, while also having the skill to play the point offensively, provides you with unique competitive advantages. Typically, the taller a player gets, the lower the baseline level of skill required to play the position is, an equation further skewed because of the sheer lack of exceptionally tall human beings on this planet to select from.
Looking for a tall wing capable of hitting shots on the perimeter and switching defensively becomes easier when you don’t also require point guard skills from said wing.
(Side note: saying that Simmons’ presence makes finding a traditional point guard less necessary doesn’t mean you should shy away from elite talents who happen to play the point guard spot. Having multiple elite playmakers is never a bad thing, especially when they have a diverse skill set capable of succeeding without the ball in their hands as well. In short, you shouldn’t be any less interested in Markelle Fultz in the draft just because you have Ben Simmons).
Simmons is elite at running off defensive rebounds
One of Simmons’ elite day-1 strengths will be his ability to generate offense out of his own defensive rebounds, a great ability to have considering he averaged about a bajillion (8.6) defensive rebounds per game during his lone season at LSU.
He’d have less opportunity to do so if chasing point guards off of pick and rolls 24-feet from the basket.
It might be tempting to look at a guy like Jason Kidd, or a more contemporary example like Russell Westbrook, and say that playing the point didn’t hurt their ability to get a defensive rebound and push in transition. But being able to have success at that facet of the game doesn’t mean playing the point didn’t diminish their ability to do so. While Usain Bolt might be able to win a 100-meter sprint wearing Salvatore Ferragomo dress shoes, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to run a faster time wearing proper running attire.
We’ll never know whether Jason Kidd would have been able to improve upon his career 16 percent defensive rebounding rate by defending the power forward spot because he was never physically capable of doing so. Ben Simmons is, and if his career defensive rebounding rate is likely to fall somewhere between 16 percent and 24 percent, it’s logical to think that he has a better chance of coming out on the higher end of that spectrum by staying as close to the basket defensively as possible.
You can make the case that the Sixers overall defensive rebounding would be better off by having an elite defensive rebounder defending the point and allowing another natural big man near the hoop defensively, and there’s some merit to that. But the Sixers’ ability to convert those defensive rebounds into offensive opportunities would be maximized by having Simmons near the hoop, which is more important to me, especially when you start factoring in the other tradeoffs (shooting, ball handling, ability to switch) that are decreased by having another natural big man on the court.
The opponent isn’t forced to stick with your matchups
One common justification for having Ben Simmons defend point guards is that it will give him a mismatch on the offensive side of the court, which is only true if the opponent sticks with those defensive assignments.
One of the lineups that Brown brought up in the CSN Philly article linked above includes Bayless at the shooting guard spot, a lineup we’ve all speculated about since Bayless signed over the summer. While Brown might try out Simmons defensively on the point in that lineup, the other team would most certainly have their point guard defending Bayless on the other end of the court. Even beyond that, the opponent is more likely to try to hide their point guard on Gerald Henderson, Nik Stauskas, or Robert Covington than they are on Simmons, all of whom are less likely to use their size to generate mismatches.
All of these lineup permutations — whether that be Bayless at the 2 or a three-wing lineup consisting of some combination of Stauskas, Thompson, Henderson, and Covington — can exist offensively without forcing Simmons to defend the point. Putting Simmons at the point of attack defensively doesn’t change how the opponent will guard them.
Once again, Ben Simmons was always going to initiate much of the team’s offense, especially after he got acclimated to the NBA and with the current personnel surrounding him. It was expected that the Sixers would put him as the lead initiator at some point this season if for no other reason than to see how much of that burden he could handle down the line. That doesn’t mean the team might not acquire another point guard (news flash: there’s a lot of point guard talent in the 2017 draft), as having multiple high-level shot creators is never a bad thing, and usually a natural by-product of increasing the overall talent level around the team. Having Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw in addition to Tony Parker and Tim Duncan certainly didn’t hurt the Spurs offensive attack.
Simmons might not be quick enough
Simmons is a very good athlete, and one of the quicker 6-foot-10, 250 pound guys you’ll find in the NBA.
But that doesn’t mean he’s point guard fast.
There’s a difference between switching off onto Russell Westbrook a dozen times per game long enough to force the ball out of his hands compared to checking him every trip down the court, and for the entire length of the possession. For as quick as Simmons is laterally for his position, going up against the hyper-quick point guards in today’s NBA 82 games per year could wear him out, limit his ability to be effective on the offensive side of the court, and just plain put him in an athleticism disadvantage on some nights.
* * * *
Trying Simmons out as a defender at the point of attack makes sense in a season of experimentation. Again, this year should be about finding out as much about your players as possible, learning what you can realistically expect them to grow into, and thus what skill sets you need to find in order to flesh out the rest of your roster.
But is defending the point guard spot something that should be Simmons’ long-term role in this league? That is something I’m skeptical of.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.