Ben Simmons, and the cheetah on the spaceship

September 26, 2021

Imagine a spaceship that’s about 300 yards long when sitting stationary on Earth. Aboard this spaceship is a cheetah. You’re able to watch as the ship launches into deep space and approaches the speed of light, leveling out at about 50 miles per hour short of that limit. You’re also able to watch as the cheetah then goes to the back of the spaceship and sprints toward the front at its top speed of 70 miles per hour. How fast is the cheetah going?

We’ll return to the cheetah, but let’s get to Ben Simmons, first.

Simmons’s public refusal to play for the Philadelphia 76ers anymore feels like the culmination of a yearslong process. Most recently, the Sixers have wanted to move on from Simmons since their playoff exit to the Atlanta Hawks, but going back further there are longstanding rumors that he would prefer to play in Los Angeles, and that he and Joel Embiid have an uneasy relationship.

If the only marks against Simmons were that he didn’t want to play for his current team and that he’d gone unusually passive in his final games of last season, he’d have been traded for a rich package of players and picks by now, even with his max contract that runs through 2025. He’s 25 years old, six-foot-nine, a three-time All Star, an all-world defender who can cover any position on the floor, and a point guard with tremendous offensive feel and passing ability, both in the half-court and on the break. 

I don’t know if he’s a jerk and nobody on his team wants to play with him, or if he’s a popular model teammate, but for his career, he’s averaging about 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists per game, which, combined with his top-notch defense, appears to make him a valuable player, an assessment supported by his on/off court numbers.

But he hasn’t been traded yet largely because — and if you’re reading this, you likely know — Simmons has a tortured relationship with putting the basketball through the hoop. In his four seasons, he has attempted 36 three-point shots, including only two across six playoff series, both of which I suspect were last-second heaves that did not come in the flow of offense. But it’s not just threes. Simmons only attempted three shots from beyond the arc in his only season at LSU, but in the pros he has become allergic to the midrange, too. Worse, his free throw percentage has hovered just north of 60% in the regular season, and in two playoff series this past season shot only 25-73 from the stripe, or 34%.

All this means Simmons is barely playable in certain crunch time situations and also presents a problem for teams looking to build around him. As an ostensible perimeter player who does not shoot, let alone from distance, it seems difficult to find the right players to complement his skills. Teams with Simmons playing a major role likely can’t shoot from three as much as the most prolific modern NBA teams do, simply because their point guard (Simmons) is taking up a spot that would otherwise be occupied by a shooter, and it’s rare to find bigs who can shoot with volume at efficient-enough rates to make that strategy worthwhile and who are good enough on defense and in other facets of the game to cover up for the non-shooting perimeter player. (This is also known as the Brook Lopez Can Do It And Maybe Myles Turner But Good Luck Finding Another One Principle.)

Of course, Simmons doesn’t have to be a point guard. If you could convince him to switch positions — and as I understand it, he’s uninterested in that, but go along with it — you might squint and see him becoming more of a Draymond Green type, a guy who plays great front court defense, facilitates the offense when presented the opportunity, and otherwise does a bunch of the little things that contribute to winning. But setting aside that asking anyone to replicate Draymond’s effect on the game is bonkers, taking Simmons off the ball means taking him away from what makes him a special player in the first place.

So, what to do? I think Simmons is the cheetah in the spaceship, and the key to getting the most out of him is to get on the ship with him.

Most people intuit that if we’re inside the spaceship, the cheetah will appear to be going 70 miles per hour. They also tend to intuit that if we’re outside the ship, the cheetah must appear to be going faster than the speed of light. However, we also know nothing can go faster than the speed of light, hence the dissonance. It turns out that there’s no way the cheetah can ever appear to be going faster than lightspeed, for some direct and relatively easy to understand reasons. Without getting too deep into it, as the spaceship approaches lightspeed, those of us observing from Earth will see its physical length contract. That is, the ship will appear to be much shorter than 300 yards, and, importantly, the cheetah will appear to us to be running much slower than 70 miles per hour in relation to the ship. The relationship between mass and time going that speed is such that the closer to lightspeed the ship gets, the slower the cheetah will appear to run from our perspective, and therefore, it will never appear to be going faster than the speed of light.

Here’s what I mean by getting on the ship with Simmons: He’s a very good basketball player of a type that has been successful in the league before. Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd learned to shoot threes eventually, but they were wildly valuable point guards without jumpers. So was Andre Miller. Granted, they were all in their primes before the NBA’s three-point revolution, while Rondo has continued to provide varied levels of value to this day, depending on what’s been asked of him.

The player who might be the best analogue for Simmons — as a point guard who was valuable to a championship-caliber team despite never taking threes — is Shaun Livingston. Coming off the bench for the Warriors, Livingston had limited impact, and his primary statistics weren’t particularly impressive, but his team considered him a vital cog. He ran the offense both with and without Steph Curry, and created efficient offense by leveraging his unusual height to dink and donk jumpers over much shorter opposing point guards.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say Livingston’s success suggests Simmons can be the point guard for an NBA champion, just as he is. However, for that to happen, his team has to commit to letting him do what he does, and it has to actively see him as a cheetah running at 70 miles per hour. If Simmons’s team applies an outside framework to his game, he’s going to look like he’s running a lot slower, and it’s just not going to work. For years, the Sixers have slapped together a compromise offense that capitalizes on what both Embiid and Simmons bring to the table, but by now the results are pretty clear that it’s very hard for them to make the other better, because both want to operate close to the basket. Adding shooters like JJ Redick, Danny Green, Seth Curry, and, to a degree, Tobias Harris makes the arrangement tenable, but Simmons and Embiid’s style clash more than they create harmony.

It may be true that Simmons keeps Embiid from reaching his full potential, but it’s entirely possible that Embiid is keeping Simmons from reaching his. What would a team built to cater to Simmons look like? Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are a popular comparison, but let’s really get on the spaceship.

Last year, Simmons was ninth in the league in number of shots per game from within five feet of the rim, shooting about 63% from there. That’s good! Without the threat of a midrange or outside shot at all, and with Embiid playing at an MVP level on the block and all around the floor, Simmons matched the inside scoring prowess of Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, who also took about seven shots per game from within five feet of the rim, and also scored on about 63% of those shots. No guard shot significantly better from inside than Simmons if they had any volume, and the players whose shooting percentages were much better tend to be either dunk-happy centers, Giannis, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Jokic, or LeBron James.

Why shouldn’t a team simply accept that kind of skillset and maximize it? Especially if it comes with a dominant defensive presence? Obviously, running a four-out offense with Simmons at point guard is one possibility, but I imagine a team could also run variations on the old Jerry Sloan flex, or figure out ways to give Simmons handoffs in motion — the point is to focus the offense on ways to get Simmons going downhill in the half-court, which his incredible length allows him to do pretty well already.

Before getting on the ship with Simmons, you’ll see a cheetah crawling against the dilation forces that are shrinking the ship’s size. But once you get on board, you’ll see the big cat whooshing right by, perhaps on his way to another dunk.

(Photos: "Ben Simmons" by All-Pro Reels, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license. "As fast as a cheetah, North West Province" by South African Tourism, used under CC BY SA license.)