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Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Ben Simmons Enigma

Who is Ben Simmons? 

We have been told that he is the 21st century Magic Johnson, and we have been told that he will never be great because he is scared to shoot. We have been told that he can be the key to winning a championship, and we have been told that no team can win a championship with him as a point guard.

We have been told many contradictory things about Ben Simmons.

Who is Ben Simmons?

This is my Ben Simmons scouting report

"Simmons is an elite defender, rebounder, and passer. He owns a 15.9 ppg career scoring average with a .560 career field goal percentage. His size, length, and athleticism enable him to play multiple positions and have a significant impact at both ends of the court.

Simmons is a notoriously poor and reluctant outside shooter/free throw shooter. He often plays with a low motor and low energy level."

The Magic Johnson comparison never made sense. The great Sparky Anderson said that he would not embarrass any catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench. A similar thought process should apply to comparing any point guard to Magic Johnson. Lloyd Daniels was once called "Magic Johnson with a jump shot," a description that was later applied to Toni Kukoc. Lloyd Daniels squandered much of his talent, but even if he had maximized his talent he was no Magic Johnson; Toni Kukoc had an excellent FIBA career, he helped the Chicago Bulls win three NBA titles (1996-98), and he was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021, but he was no Magic Johnson. 

Magic Johnson's greatness is not captured by just his numbers, though his numbers are impressive: regular season averages of 19.5 ppg, 11.2 apg, and 7.2 rpg, and playoff averages of 19.5 ppg, 12.3 apg, and 7.7 rpg, plus five NBA championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88), three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90), and three Finals MVPs (1980, 1982, 1987). Magic Johnson had special leadership qualities, plus he had the necessary size, skills, and mindset to effectively play all five positions at both ends of the court. More than 25 years after he played his final NBA game, he still belongs on the short list in the greatest basketball player of all-time conversation. 

Magic was a high energy player whose positive attitude transformed his teammates and his teams; after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit the game-winning shot in Magic's first regular season game as a rookie, Magic hugged Abdul-Jabbar and celebrated with boundless joy, but Abdul-Jabbar chided Magic that there were 81 more games left in the season--and Magic promptly told Abdul-Jabbar that if he made a shot like that 81 more times then they would celebrate like that 81 more times. That set the tone for the Showtime era: play hard, play smart, but also enjoy the success.  

Simmons has never displayed the leadership qualities that Magic Johnson displayed in high school, college, the NBA, and the Olympics, nor has Simmons demonstrated the ability to lift his team to a championship level. Comparing him to Magic is disrespectful to Magic, and creates unrealistic expectations that Simmons cannot possibly meet.

On the other hand, Simmons' inability and/or reluctance to shoot did not prevent the 76ers from posting the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference in 2020-21. The 76ers promoted him as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who was a critical part of their championship formula; no one in the organization expressed any questions or concerns about Simmons being the point guard for a championship contender prior to the second round series versus the Atlanta Hawks. 

Simmons did not have a great series, but he played a major role in limiting Trae Young to .392 field goal shooting, and he passed for 60 assists while committing just 16 turnovers (Joel Embiid had 27 assists and 33 turnovers during the series). The 76ers had a team-wide collapse, and the 76ers should not have made Simmons the scapegoat for their game seven home loss to Atlanta last year--but he could have responded to the adversity by embracing the challenge as opposed to fleeing town. Simmons' refusal to play for the 76ers resulted in him being traded to the Brooklyn Nets, and he has yet to play for the Nets, citing a back injury after claiming that he could not play for the 76ers due to mental health issues. As a result, Simmons lost a full season in his prime, and he also lost millions of dollars, though he is pursuing legal action to regain at least some of the money that the 76ers refused to pay after he refused to play.

Only Simmons and his health care providers know what his mental health status is. I am not going to speculate about his mental health, and instead I will just focus on his public behavior. He has been a low energy player with a low motor dating back at least to college. Maybe that is a symptom of mental illness; maybe that is a sign that he plays basketball because he is very talented, and not because he has a burning passion to play the game. I don't know the answer, so I won't speculate.

However, I cannot think of another profession in which an employee would be paid full salary for an entire year during which that employee did not work. Many jobs have provisions for employees to take paid time off, and for employees to receive time off for documented health issues, but past a certain point in time the employee must return to work to continue to be paid.

NBA players receive large salaries because their skills--and the public's desire to watch them display their skills--generate billions of dollars in revenue. A player who is not playing is not generating revenue, and such a player should not be compensated, just like any other employee who is not generating revenue is not compensated.

I don't know why Ben Simmons sat out 82 regular season games and four playoff games, but I know that he generated no revenue for the 76ers, the Nets, or the league while he sat out.

The NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement with its provisions that player contracts are guaranteed must be revisited, and a system should be put in place that mirrors the real working world inhabited by the rest of us. Specifically, players should be paid by the game, just like regular folks are paid based on going to work each day. I am not suggesting that a player should have to play all 82 games to receive his full salary, but there should be a stipulation that after a player misses X number of games he will not be paid for any additional missed games. Will that result in players playing cautiously to avoid being hurt and missing games? No, because a player who plays tentatively will lose his playing time (and possibly his roster spot) to a more motivated player--and a player who is cut will not be paid unless/until he signs with another team (and plays in games). What about bench players who are available but do not play due to the coach's decision? Such players should be paid if they showed up at the arena, put on a uniform, and were ready to play--in other words, if you show up for work then you get paid. 

This solution cannot legally be applied retroactively to the Ben Simmons situation, but moving forward it would minimize "load management" and the new phenomenon of "I don't like my team so I won't play (or I won't play hard)." If you don't play (or you don't play hard and thus get waived by the team) then you don't get paid--period.

The messaging surrounding Simmons after he joined the Nets was very strange. It is not clear if he wanted to play but the Nets held him back for cautionary reasons, or if the Nets wanted him to gear up but he was unwilling/unable to do so. The breathless announcements that he might soon play, and the leaked footage of him doing limited practicing just led to rampant speculation about why he ended up not playing; the mixed/confusing messages resulted in many media members taking shots at Simmons. I don't know the truth, so I refuse to speculate. I just know that it was a bad look for the team and for him. 

That is all in the past now. Simmons and the Nets must focus on getting his back healed, on resolving any mental health issues that may exist, and making sure that when training camp opens he is a fully committed participant in all team activities.

If Simmons can stabilize his mental health and regain his physical health then his passing, rebounding, defense, and ability to score in the paint provide help in four areas where the Nets desperately need help. It is not difficult to picture the best version of him being the second or third best player on a championship team. He is not Magic Johnson by any stretch of the imagination, nor will he ever become Magic Johnson, but there is a path in front of him that could lead to a successful career both individually and for his team. Hopefully, he will find his way on to that path, because it would be a shame for him to squander his talents. Ultimately, though, the choice is his, because no one can force him to be great: he must decide to be great, and put in the necessary work to be great.

It is time for Ben Simmons to stop listening to other people define who he is; it is time for Ben Simmons to show us who he is.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:09 AM



At Thursday, April 28, 2022 3:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My only addition to the article, which I completely agree with, is that Magic had a much better shot than he is given credit for. His high free throw percentage shows he has good touch, and he would have worked on it much more in the modern game. He just never was required to in the 80s.

At Thursday, April 28, 2022 9:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is a good point. Magic's career regular season shooting splits are .520/.303/.848. His three point percentage increased late in his career as his three point attempts increased; his early career three point percentage was dragged down by desperation heaves, which is true of many players from that era who often rarely attempted three pointers except for desperation heaves. Magic was a .760-.800 free throw shooter early in his career, and a .840-.900+ free throw shooter from the middle of his career to the end, including leading the league in free throw percentage in 1989 (.911).

At Thursday, April 28, 2022 10:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Magic never really had a scorer’s mindset, but partly that is because the Showtime Lakers were so overflowing with talent. He seemed much more flexible than a player like Lebron, moving into the post later in his career for example and his shooting improving throughout as you mentioned. Lebron is more of a scorer, but ironically Magic may have been the better shooter of he had lived in a different era.

In the modern game I personally think Magic could have been even better than he was but we will never know!

At Thursday, April 28, 2022 10:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Simmons is an elite defender, rebounder, and passer. ...
Simmons is a notoriously poor and reluctant outside shooter/free throw shooter. He often plays with a low motor and low energy level."

how can he be an elite defender and rebounder, with a low energy level? please explain.


At Thursday, April 28, 2022 11:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As much as LeBron is praised for his basketball IQ--and there is no question that he has a high basketball IQ--Magic more consistently displayed an understanding of what his team needed most and how to deliver what his team needed most in pressure-packed situations. Magic had a better shooting touch than LeBron--as shown by their free throw percentages--and Magic also had a more versatile repertoire of shots: Magic could make hook shots with either hand, he had a nice bank shot, he had a decent midrange jumper (more of a push shot, but it went in and was rarely blocked), and he was an excellent finisher in the paint even though he rarely played above the rim after his first three or four seasons.

At Thursday, April 28, 2022 11:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Simmons has an elite level skill set in terms of defense, rebounding, and passing. However, he often plays with a low energy level, which results in him not maximizing the impact that he could have. His low energy/motor concerned me going all the way back to LSU, because when he was in college his skill set was strikingly better than most of the players he faced yet he rarely dominated and he did not elevate his team to significant success.

Think of a car that is capable of going 200 miles per hour but is rarely driven faster than 65 miles per hour. That car has an elite speed capability, but that capability is not often demonstrated.


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