Ben Simmons looked like a future MVP in Game 2 against the Brooklyn Nets. A blur in transition. A wall on defense. A magician in space. Heck, he looked like Giannis Antetokounmpo out there. Simmons whirled his way to 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in just 30 minutes of action. So why can't he do that all the time?
It's a question we have all thought when watching the 22-year-old. The key to unlocking that Simmons isn't necessarily about him or his mindset. More likely, it's about who's around him. The Game 2 supernova is what you get when you surround Simmons with guys who can shoot.
It's the Giannis model.
With Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick struggling in Game 1, coach Brett Brown could have moved away from floor-spacers and given T.J. McConnell more minutes to help set up teammates. Instead, Brown doubled down on shooting and dropped McConnell from the rotation, handing Jimmy Butler the backup point guard duties. The result: the Sixers set a franchise record for scoring in a playoff game (145) and tied the NBA record for scoring in any quarter (51 in the third, tying the 1962 Lakers). With spacing prioritized, Simmons thrived.
That gamble is more or less what the Milwaukee Bucks have done this season with Antetokounmpo, who might win MVP without having a reliable 3-point shot, and their stretch five, Brook Lopez. The Bucks have proved you can win the regular season playing that way, with their older, longer version of Simmons. But the larger question lingers:
Can you build a champion in today's NBA with a non-shooting superstar? It's a riddle the Oklahoma City Thunder are still trying to solve with Russell Westbrook and it will follow both Simmons and Antetokounmpo throughout this year's playoffs.
* * *
Elon Musk may be the only person with a larger obsession with space than Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. About a month ago, the frontrunner for Coach of the Year award joined The Habershow podcast (subscribe!) and humored me with my half-sarcastic question.
Is your offense simply to give Giannis the ball and get out of the way?
"I do believe there is something to be said for simplicity," Budenholzer said with a laugh. "Sometimes, things that are the simplest tend to be the best. I know it's a little bit of humor, but there is certainly a kernel of truth in that. We wanted to give him as much space [as possible] and get out of the way."
Budenholzer happily lets his 7-foot center, Lopez, stand 35 feet away from the hoop and launch it. Same goes for forwards Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova (a former teammate of Simmons). The Bucks literally took a thousand more 3-pointers than last season -- or 1,110 to be exact. They also won more games than any other team during the regular season.
On Monday, Brown took a page out of Budenholzer's book and evened the series at one by putting a premium on space. Brown dropping McConnell from the rotation is telling. McConnell is many things; the most tenured Sixer, a talented tablesetter, the team's "heart and soul" according to Jimmy Butler. But he is not a 3-point shooter.
Because of that weakness, defenses could sag off both McConnell and Simmons in the halfcourt, loading up on precious real estate in the paint. This season, Simmons' field-goal percentage dropped from 57.8 percent to 50.5 percent with McConnell saddled up next to him, per NBA.com data and the Sixers were minus-72 with the duo playing together. Conversely, when Simmons was on the floor without McConnell, the Sixers outscored opponents by 188 points. There's a reason Simmons' most-efficient lineups are when he's paired with an effective 3-point shooter. Spoiler alert: Markelle Fultz and Simmons did not work.
Neither did the Lakers.
Prioritizing space is a lesson former Lakers president Magic Johnson didn't seem to take into account when building around LeBron James. In fact, Johnson went the other way, loading up on non-shooting playmakers -- on purpose. During a July conference call with reporters, Johnson said added ball-handlers like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson so that James "doesn't have to make every play." He later went on an ESPN broadcast during Summer League and explained that he and his staff did their homework and "we saw all the teams in the playoffs that had shooting, they got beat."
As I detailed on the BIG Number recently, Rondo turned out to be LeBron's kryptonite. Like McConnell and Simmons in Philly, the healthiest offenses in LakerLand were units that didn't feature James alongside a ball-dominant non-shooter. Though Rondo had taken more 3s this season, his defender rarely got a hand up, if he guarded Rondo at all. That crippled the LeBron-led Lakers as much as the injury bug. One wonders what the Lakers would look like if they kept Lopez instead of signing Rondo for nearly three times his salary.
Take a look at what's happening with Oklahoma City, which is 0-8 in road playoff games since Kevin Durant left in 2016. Like James, Simmons and Antetokounmpo, a Westbrook-led offense needs sharpshooters to unclog the paint in a slowed-down playoff setting. Unfortunately for the Thunder, those players are in short supply. Alex Abrines, a solid wing shooter the last three seasons, was waived in February with undisclosed personal issues and Patrick Patterson has had trouble cracking the rotation, often leaving Paul George as their only respected 3-point shooter.
While Milwaukee exclusively plays 3-point shooters -- Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova -- at the center position next to Antetokounmpo, the Thunder have chosen the polar opposite approach with Westbrook. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are two paint-dwellers who haven't even attempted a shot outside 20 feet this season.
Respect is key. By the percentages, OKC's stretch-four, Jerami Grant, has developed into a pretty strong 3-point shooter with a conversion rate of 39.2 percent this season, but defenses still don't respect him. According to NBA.com data, a whopping 89 percent of Grant's 3-pointers this season were termed "wide-open," which is right up there with Draymond Green's league-leading 93 percent. In this series, the Blazers have been parking Grant's defender near Westbrook, George and Adams, choosing to live with the results. Grant, with little gravitational pull to begin with, has missed all eight of his 3-point attempts.
Without effective spacers, the Thunder are on the verge of their third straight first-round exit. Outside of George, the Thunder are shooting 4-of-39 from deep and Westbrook is shooting 6-of-27 in the halfcourt, with zero of his signature Earth-shaking dunks. It's no wonder why Philadelphia targeted bigs who can shoot -- Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic -- at the trade deadline.
* * *
Yes, I said Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 center who can practically dunk without jumping.
One of the great revelations of the Philadelphia-Brooklyn series is Marjanovic's jumper. The Nets are ignoring Marjanovic on the perimeter in this series to a comical degree, his defender often standing under the rim while the Serbian tower stands at the top of the key. Marjanovic has made six of his nine jumpers this series, each bucket sending the Wells Fargo Center into a gleeful frenzy. Marjanovic has sneaky range, making nine of his nineteen 19 long 2s this season and four of his 10 3-pointers in the regular season. Bobi can shoot. Respect may soon follow.
Marjanovic's emergence reminds me of what Aron Baynes did during Boston's surprising playoff run last season and what Lopez has done over the last couple years. We're not used to seeing 7-footers launch from deep. Four seasons ago, 7-footers took 1,966 three-pointers, per Basketball Reference data. This season, 7-footers fired up more than twice that amount, taking 4,425 3-pointers as a whole, the most in NBA history. What's more, those giants made 34.7 percent, a few ticks below Kevin Durant's 35.3 percent mark. It's not a gimmick anymore. It's a weapon.
For Philly, the implications are clear: If Marjanovic can reliably knock down jumpers and pull his defender out of the paint, it's one less big man that Simmons has to hurdle en route to the rim.
* * *
It's obvious that Simmons would be much better with a reliable jumper. There's still plenty of time. He's only 22 years old but is already facing criticism as if he's deep into his career. Magic Johnson didn't win his first MVP until he was 27. When he started regularly taking 3-pointers in his age-29 season, he won his second MVP and then his third. It's not hard to see Simmons following a similar path.
It's also why Joel Embiid's 3-point stroke is so intriguing. Embiid is a career 31.5-percent 3-point shooter -- not sharp enough to demand a hard close-out every time he stands back there. He's the most efficient post-up big man in the game, per Synergy tracking, but pulling his defender out to the 3-point line can have its advantages. In the impressive 130-125 win over the Bucks back in March, Embiid took 13 three-pointers, making four. In that game, all of Simmons' basket attacks came in transition with either Embiid trailing or on the perimeter. Simmons' lone jumper in that game came when Embiid was parked under the basket (he missed).
Embiid and Marjanovic may have the potential to be spacers for Simmons, joining the East's superpowers who are already loading up on stretch 5s. The Raptors snatched up Marc Gasol, who has made over 300 3-pointers in his last three seasons. The Celtics have stretched Baynes to join Al Horford as as a shooting big. The Bucks have Lopez spacing for Antetokounmpo and that formation might seal Antetokounmpo's MVP. It could also win them a title.
Simmons and Embiid aren't a perfect fit in the halfcourt. Hardly any star pairings are. But we can see what Lopez has done for Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and the distinct limitations of the Thunder's approach around Westbrook. If Embiid or Marjanovic can pull their defender away from Simmons' path a few more times a game, it may be the difference between a great team and a champion.