With Ben Simmons playing at power forward, Philadelphia 76ers must add shooting and defense

The Philadelphia 76ers selected LSU standout Ben Simmons first overall in the NBA Draft, in one of the least surprising selections of the night. With the Sixers easily finishing with the league’s worst record, adding a top talent like Simmons can only help a Philadelphia team that ranked near the bottom third of the association in many offensive and defensive categories. Sixers head coach Brett Brown said to the Philadelphia media that he will start Simmons at power forward. Is Simmons game compatible with fellow frontcourt mates Joel Embiid (assuming he plays), Jahlil Okafor, and Nerlens Noel? It seems like an odd fit.

Too similar? 

Like Embiid, Okafor, and Noel, Simmons scores around the rim. Photo: shotanalytics.com
Like Embiid, Okafor, and Noel, Simmons scores around the rim. Photo: shotanalytics.com

Simmons scoring strengths are too similar to the other three Philly big men. According to shotanalytics.com, the Melbourne, Austrailia native’s shot chart shows very little range outside the paint. The same holds true for the other former first round picks. Noel rarely ventures out of the paint for shots and shoots well below league average away from the rim. Embiid’s offense came from the same area as Noel's during his one season in Kansas. Okafor shows the most range of the bunch, most of his shots come on post-ups. Okafor also needs the ball in isolation to be effective, just like Simmons. Ask Stan Van Gundy how well having multiple big men who score from the same area works out (Spoiler: not well).

Defensively, Simmons must actively guard on the perimeter as he doesn’t have the wingspan to effectively protect the rim. Simmons also must play with an intensity matching Draymond Green (without the crotch shots) rather than James Harden; at LSU he looked like the latter. A healthy Embiid and Noel gives Simmons some leeway knowing there is rim protection underneath the basket. Last year, opponents shot just 49.4 percent against Noel at the rim, according to Nylon Calculus, league average is 60.3. Embiid carried a great reputation as a rim defender coming into the league; it remains to be seen if his actual play matches up. Okafor lacks the length and athleticism to be a good rim defender in the NBA. The former Duke Blue Devil allowed 54 percent of shots to fall in the paint.

Could Jahlil Okafor end up somewhere else next season? Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Could Jahlil Okafor end up somewhere else next season? Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

This is assuming Embiid stays healthy throughout the year (foot injuries can be tricky), and the Sixers keep both Noel and Okafor, who are both on the trading block. If the Sixers want to build around Simmons, moving Okafor seems more logical. Okafor’s rookie deal is not costly to the expanding cap, and Simmons does not have to compete with the 2015 number 3 overall pick for touches. It gives Simmons and Brown the chance to open up the floor, especially if the Sixers add some shooters this offseason.

Not enough spacing

Philadelphia does not have enough three-point shooting to cover the logjam in the frontcourt. Although the Sixers took the eighth most threes in 2015-16, they finished 24th in the league in three-point percentage. Only Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington, and Hollis Thompson shot above the 35 percent league average for three-point shooting. As the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors showed, teams have to be able to space the floor and shoot the three to be successful in today’s NBA.    

Of course, the former LSU Tiger may not stay at power forward the whole season. Brown may take a page out of Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd’s playbook with Giannis Atetokounmpo and start Simmons at point guard. Simmons’ contributions there have to be better than what Canaan or Ish Smith offer (both men are free agents this season and Kendall Marshall makes at least one of them expendable).

Plenty of room for changes

Roster resource projects the Philadelphia lineup to be Simmons, Okafor, Noel, T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas. With a paltry $33 million payroll for next season against a $94 million cap, the Sixers have more than enough room to mold the roster to Simmons strengths. Proven sharpshooters like Ryan Anderson, Nicolas Batum, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee are on the market as unrestricted free agents. Numerous teams in better situations than the Sixers also have plenty of spending money with the rising cap, so players like free agents of their caliber may be hard for the Philly to pull in. There is no way Kevin Durant ends up in the blue and white either. Even if the Sixers fail to sign those players, they can try to get perimeter players back in a trade for one of their big men. 

Even with Simmon’s potential, the Sixers have a long way to go to become a playoff team, let alone a title contender, but drafting the skilled Aussie is a step in the right direction. Now Brown and general manager Bryan Colangelo must solve this quagmire in the frontcourt to get the most of their prized pick. Moving one of their young big men further opens up the court for a Sixers team that like to run, ranked sixth in the league in pace. Keeping all three with Simmons makes things more difficult for an offense ranked second to last in scoring and last in points per 100 possessions. Philadelphia finally has their pillar of the future. Now it’s time to build around him.

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