Should the 76ers Trade Ben Simmons?

The image of Ben Simmons passing up a dunk will live in the mind of 76ers’ fans for a long time. That one play encapsulated Simmons’ struggles throughout his career, showing his refusal to shoot the ball, especially in the 4th quarter. In the 4th quarter of all the games in the 76ers’ series against the Hawks, Ben Simmons took a combined 3 field goal attempts. For someone who was supposed to be a franchise centerpiece, averaging less than half a shot in the fourth quarter was no doubt a disappointment. The lack of aggressiveness in Ben Simmons has caused outcry from 76ers’ fans, most of whom want their star player traded. There is a very good chance that the team management will follow through with these demands as a Ben Simmons trade looking more likely than ever. However, will trading Ben Simmons really revive the 76ers? And if they do trade Simmons, who should the 76ers attempt to acquire?

Ben Simmons: Strengths

First, it is vital to see what Ben Simmons brings to the 76ers. Although he is notable for his inability to shoot the ball, Ben Simmons still brings lots of value offensively. Simmons assisted on about 31.3% of his teammates’ field goals when he was on the floor, allowing them to have easier looks from either the basket or the three point line. He averaged 12.7 potential assists per game, which are passes that lead to a shot attempt. The 76ers’ true shooting percentage on shots that Ben Simmons assisted on was 73.1%, far better than their season average of 57.9%. Moreover, he was an integral part of an offense that passed the most in the NBA last season. The 76ers averaged 308 passes per game, and Ben Simmons accounted for 64.1 (20.8%) of those passes. Since passing created many open looks for the 76ers, Simmons aided his team by initiating their offense. Ben Simmons consistently boosted the 76ers’ shooting through his playmaking ability even though he struggled to shoot himself.

Simmons improves the 76ers’ shooting when he comes on the floor regardless of whether Embiid was on the floor or not

The second way that Ben Simmons supported his team offensively was by generating lots of free throw attempts. His 2021 regular season free throw rate was 0.492, the 10th best in the NBA. Although it may seem like free throw attempts for Simmons would not benefit on offense, they actually would produce above average offensive efficiency often times. Using Simmons’ 2021 regular season free throw percentage of 61.3%, the expected points per possession of 2 Simmons’ free throws was 1.226. In comparison, the best offense in the NBA last season (Brooklyn Nets) averaged 1.183 points per possession, and the NBA average was 1.123.

However, Simmons’ free throw percentage in the Hawks series fell dramatically. Simmons made only 15 of his 45 free throws against the Hawks in the playoffs, good for just 33.3% and an expected 0.667 points per possessions when he got 2 free throws. When Simmons shot his free throws so poorly, he became a massive liability as any intentional foul on him would cause the 76ers to be trapped in a terrible offensive efficiency situation. His astonishingly low free throw percentage in the Hawks series was likely as a result of random chance. The alarming part, though, is that Simmons has shown a pattern of shooting worse from the free throw line during the playoffs. His career regular season free throw percentage is 59.7% (1.194 points per possession on 2 free throw attempts), while his career playoff free throw percentage is 52.0% (1.04 PPP). His career playoff free throw percentage is less than his career regular season free throw percentage at the 0.0269 significance level. Considering that 0.05 is often the level used to show statistical significance, there is strong evidence that Simmons simply shoots his free throws at a lower efficiency in the playoffs. This could be due to nerves in the playoffs, pressure to make his free throws in high level situations, or other unaccounted factors. No matter what the cause is, the value of Simmons’ free throw attempts decreases drastically when his free throw percentage gets even slightly worse. While his regular season free throw attempts may have been good offense for the 76ers, his playoff free throw attempts were a source of inefficient offense.

Simmons’ most obvious strength was his stellar defense. Placing second in the defensive player of the year voting, Ben Simmons was a core piece of the 76ers’ 2nd ranked defense last season. Simmons led the 76ers defensively in the two most significant factors: shot defense and forcing turnovers. When guarded by Ben Simmons, players shot an effective field goal percentage of 48.2%, which was far below the NBA average of 53.8% and one of the best marks in the league. He ranked in the 85th percentile1 in defending 3 point shots (33.0% of 3 point shots defended were made) and in the 94th percentile2 in defending 2 point shots (47.2 of 2 point shots defended were made). Unfortunately, Ben Simmons’ shot defense dropped off in the playoffs as his defensive effective field goal percentage rose to 58.5%, although this was probably due to a combination of guarding better players and random chance.

Simmons not only bolstered the 76ers with his shot defense, but also by forcing turnovers. Simmons averaged 3.9 deflections per 36 minutes during the regular season, the 7th highest in the NBA among players that had at least 1000 minutes. His high level of disruption was so valuable because it forced the opponent to reset their offense with fewer seconds remaining on the shot clock if they recovered the ball, and it gave the 76ers a transition opportunity on offense if the 76ers recovered the ball. Unlike his shot defense, Simmons’ defensive disruption did not drop off significantly in the playoffs, as he ranked in the top 6 of deflections during the playoffs.

Ben Simmons’ defense was notably beneficial when he guarded all-star caliber players. During both the regular season and the playoffs, Ben Simmons consistently performed well defensively against players that were all-stars or had a case for being an all-star. The average NBA points per play3 during the regular season in 2021 was just about 1.00 points per play. In the regular season, Ben Simmons held Donovan Mitchell to 0.792 points per play, Russell Westbrook to 0.658, Pascal Siakam to 0.654, Luka Doncic to 0.808, Damian Lillard to 0.919, and Giannis Antetokounmpo to 0.546. His stellar defense against offensive stars held during the playoff as well. Simmons held Bradley Beal to 0.721 points per play and Trae Young to 0.989 points per play. Despite his offense shortcomings, Ben Simmons remained advantageous as a defender in the playoffs.

Ben Simmons: Weaknesses

While Ben Simmons had many strengths, most people focused on his weaknesses. The most concerning flaw of Simmons was his most obvious: shooting. His free throw percentage of 61.3% was one of the worst in the NBA. Only 3 players had a worse free throw percentage than Simmons: Clint Capela, Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond. None of them were even close to the primary ball handler. With Simmons’ inability to hit his free throws, he squandered easy chances for points and efficient offense (as explained extensively in the previous section).

Another weakness for Simmons was his refusal to take 3-point shots and his unbalanced shot distribution. While it is obvious that Simmons’ inability to shoot the 3-point shot was a weakness, he first had to take some of those shots for his percentage to improve. Simmons has only taken 24 3-point shots that did not count as heaves in his 4 years in the NBA. This means that Simmons took a 3-point shot once in every 11 or 12 games, on average. Simmons took 91.4% of his shots within 10 feet of the basket during the regular season, and that rate increased to 95.8% in the playoffs. Unlike other point guards, Ben Simmons is not a threat to pull-up from a long distance and take a shot. Therefore, defenders chose to not guard him when he was on the perimeter. Many defenders chose the same strategy against Giannis Antetokounmpo, but even Antetokounmpo was capable of punishing the defense occasionally by hitting a 3-point shot. Giannis only shot about 30% from 3, but since he took those shots, he at least forced the defense to consider guarding him on the perimeter.

Pick and roll offense is another part of Simmons’ game that held him back. The pick and roll was one of the most commonly used offenses as it allowed the offense to either have an open jump shot (if the defender goes under the screen), a good chance at the basket (if the defender goes over the screen), or a mismatch (if the defense switches). Ben Simmons, however, was not effective in this offense, mainly because he didn’t shoot jump shots. Simmons averaged only 0.73 points per possession when he was the ball handler on pick and roll plays, which ranked in the 24th percentile in the NBA. Ben Simmons was unlike most NBA point guards in that he shot poorly and runs the pick and roll poorly. Most prototypical point guards — those like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and Chris Paul — ran the pick and roll well and shoot well. There were some high level point guards — like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook — that were still very good despite being average or below average in both these plays. However, unlike Ben Simmons, they were both aggressive and shot from long range, forcing defenses to at least cover them on the perimeter.

Possible Trade Partners

In examining a possible Ben Simmons trade, it is critical to think about what player the 76ers’ could receive in exchange. Some possibilities, although there are many more, include Bradley Beal from the Wizards, CJ McCollum from the Trail Blazers, Kemba Walker from the Thunder, and Zach LaVine from the Bulls. While other pieces from both sides would presumably be included in any trades, I will only evaluate the possible centerpieces of a trade, which would be Ben Simmons and one of the 4 players above.

Most people want a Ben Simmons trade because they believe it will benefit the 76ers’ shooting and shot creation. Each of the four players listed above have a relatively balanced shot distribution and have the ability to create their own shot off the dribble. LaVine and McCollum are the best in shooting off the dribble, as LaVine has a 39.0% pull-up three point percentage and McCollum has a 36.7% pull-up three point percentage. In addition, LaVine and McCollum have the best pull-up two point percentages among the potential trade candidates. Since they excel at shooting off the dribble, either LaVine or McCollum would add the element of self shot creation to the 76ers. Currently, the 76ers’ best pull-up shooters are Seth Curry (37.9%) and Joel Embiid (43.8%). Other than Curry and Embiid, the 76ers lack players that can create their own shot efficiently (Tobias Harris was not very efficient on pull-up 3s). In addition to shot creation, any of the trade candidates would increase the shot variety of the 76ers. Unlike Ben Simmons, each of the listed players shoot from all areas of the floor on a consistent basis.

Even though trading Ben Simmons will likely allow the 76ers to gain a player who can create his own shot, it will also have the effect of decreasing the 76ers’ passing and playmaking for others. While Ben Simmons rarely helped the 76ers’ offense as a shooter, he consistently pushed the offense by creating shots for others, shown by his potential assists. None of Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum, Kemba Walker, or Zach LaVine have the same value as Simmons when it comes to passing. The closest player to Ben Simmons’ 14.1 potential assists per 36 minutes is Zach LaVine, who averaged 10.1 potential assists per 36 minutes. Some of the reason that none of these players match up to Simmons when it comes to potential assists is because they were not the primary ball handlers on their teams (with the exception of Kemba Walker). LaVine played point guard just 22% of the time, McCollum for 19% of the time, and Beal for just 1% of the time. Therefore, it is possible that each player would have higher assist outputs if they were handling the ball more often.

While it is favorable to generate shots for other players, it is also essential to limit the number of turnovers while doing so. Ben Simmons was not particularly strong in limiting his turnovers, so that is another aspect in which a new acquisition could aid the 76ers. The best at limiting turnovers last season were McCollum and Walker, each of whom turned the ball over in less than 3% of their touches. Meanwhile, adding either Bradley Beal or Zach LaVine would likely worsen the 76ers’ turnover problems, as both turn the ball over on more than 4% of their touches.

Lastly, any new acquisition by the 76ers would have to try to replace Ben Simmons’ defensive production. Simmons excelled in both shot defense and forcing turnovers, so we can look at these two factors for the potential trade options. In regards to defending shots, Zach LaVine would be the best replacement for Simmons. His defensive field goal percentage was 42.1% last season, not far off from Simmons’ 40.9%. However, while their defensive field goal percentages may be similar, Simmons is still a far more valuable shot defender because he defends better players than LaVine. The best of the possible acquisitions for defensive disruption would be Kemba Walker, who averaged 2.4 deflections per 36 minutes.

So, who should the 76ers trade for?

Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum, Kemba Walker, and Zach LaVine are just a few of the possible players that the 76ers could receive in a Ben Simmons trade. Other possibilities include Malcolm Brogdon4, D’Angelo Russell, and maybe even Damian Lillard (although that would have to be a massive offer by the 76ers). Of the four players examined, I would say that the best trade would be centered around Ben Simmons for Zach LaVine. LaVine would improve the 76ers’ shot creation since he would be able to pull-up from mid-range or the three point line, allowing the 76ers to better manage situations in which their offense is having trouble scoring (which occurred frequently against the Hawks). In addition, LaVine would be a go-to option for the 76ers in the clutch along with Joel Embiid. LaVine is not afraid to shoot in the clutch at all, averaging almost 30 shots per 36 minutes in the clutch, the 2nd most in the NBA of players with at least 50 clutch minutes. In comparison, Simmons averaged just 6.4 shots per 36 clutch minutes. LaVine would also be able to somewhat replace Ben Simmons’ passing ability and shot defense. The two major shortcomings of Zach LaVine are his turnover tendencies and his lack of deflections on defense. Another possible issue with trading for Zach LaVine is that the 76ers would have no starter who is a primary ball handler, as both LaVine and Seth Curry naturally play the shooting guard position. Forcing one of these players, or possibly a different player, to learn the role of being the primary ball handler would likely result in some learning difficulties during the beginning of the season.

Zach LaVine

The next best alternative for the 76ers, in my opinion, would be to keep Ben Simmons. Simmons still provides immense value as a great playmaker and defender. Any trade would involve sacrificing some of the 76ers’ passing and defense since Simmons shines in these aspects of the game. In addition, Simmons’ current trade value is currently at a relative minimum due to his performance in the Hawks series. It may be of interest to the 76ers to play one more season with a core of Simmons and Embiid, and if it does not work to then attempt to trade Simmons next offseason when his trade value is higher. Still, there is hope for a core of Simmons and Embiid as the 76ers were the number 1 seed in the East, after all. A small sample of just 7 games does not mean that the 76ers need to drastically change their team.

CJ McCollum attempts a shot against Ben Simmons

After that, I would argue that CJ McCollum or Bradley Beal would be the next best options. McCollum is similar to Zach LaVine in many ways, like his pull-up shooting ability, defensive deflections, and relative inexperience in playing point guard. He is even better than Zach LaVine in the category of limiting turnovers, as his turnovers per touch are less than half of that of LaVine. However, McCollum relies heavily on mid-range jump shots, which are not efficient shots for most players, while LaVine relies on mainly attempts at the rim and attempts from three. Additionally, McCollum has a far worse shot defense than LaVine, meaning that the 76ers’ perimeter defense would suffer significantly as a result of his acquisition. While Bradley Beal is by far the best player out of the potential trade options examined, I do not believe he is the best option for a trade because he would cost too much and because his strengths align with the 76ers’ current strengths. Acquiring Beal, who was the second leading scorer in the NBA last season, would likely require the 76ers to lose both Ben Simmons and another core player, like Matisse Thybulle or Tyrese Maxey. Beal would not boost shot creation as much as LaVine or McCollum would, since he had just a 30.8% three point pull-up percentage last season. Beal’s main strength is his ability to get to the free throw line. However, the 76ers already have this ability since it is the driving factor of Joel Embiid’s game.

Bradley Beal

The 76ers have a big decision to make this offseason. They can either risk another season with Ben Simmons, or they can trade for a different player in hopes of raising their ceiling. I believe their best option is to trade for Zach LaVine, since he would allow the 76ers to improve their main weakness while mitigating some of the effects of Simmons’ departure. The 76ers’ front office should target Zach LaVine if a Ben Simmons trade were to occur this offseason.

Footnotes:

  • 1. sample includes players with at least 100 3 point shots defended in the regular season
  • 2. sample includes players with at least 200 2 point shots defended in the regular season
  • 3. Points per play = PTS / (FGA + TOV + 0.44*FTA). This measures the points per possessions but excludes offensive rebounds from the calculation. It is an appropriate measure to use for analyzing one on one player matchups.
  • 4. The 76ers actually rejected a trade offer from the Pacers of Malcolm Brogdon and a first round pick for Ben Simmons on July 2, 2021.

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