Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ben Simmons and Building Around a Point Forward

We just finished an incredible Finals series that featured the preeminent player of his generation complete a historic comeback against a team that set the record for regular season wins with 73. And while LeBron James became the first player to lead both teams in a playoff series in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks to win a well-deserved third Finals MVP trophy, something only four other players can claim, it could not have been done without the incredible shot making of Kyrie Irving. On that record breaking team they somehow beat, Stephen Curry led the league in scoring despite playing the traditionally pass first position of point guard, while his power forward, Draymond Green, ranked 7th in the entire league in assists, with James joining him as the only non guards in the top 20. Tomorrow, Ben Simmons will become the #1 pick in the draft, and with James and Green in mind, I'm going to take a look at ways to build around my favorite type of player: a point forward.

Let's start with the basics: Ben Simmons is 6' 10.25", 240 lbs with a 7' 0.5" wingspan according to the most recent pre-draft measurables, and he averaged 19.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.1 turnovers, 2.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks in 34.9 minutes as a 19 year old freshman on an unimpressive LSU team. The first thing that stands out when I watch him play is that he appears to have great basketball instincts, and he has a flare for incredible passes thanks to extraordinary vision. He knows where to go to inhale rebounds, and he has the ball handling ability of a smaller player to run with it, thriving in transition. He may not have the transcendent quick-twitch athleticism like LeBron to chase down blocks (few humans do), but he does have very good physical traits, especially with straightforward actions. In other words, he has the skills to either lead the break and drop a dime for a teammate's bucket or finish the play with a viscous alley-oop.
The Tiger from the Land Down Under can definitely throw it down.
Despite shooting lefty, he often finishes plays with his right, and he's a good finisher around the rim. Right now, he is hesitant to take any other shots that weren't close to the basket, and he didn't look good on the ones he did attempt. His mechanics aren't horrible, but he needs to work on becoming much more consistent on his outside touch, which can be reflected by his poor 67% free throw shooting. He also needs to become more engaged defensively, as far too often he was not in a position to make a play on drives. Those instincts I talked about show up in his reads making steals, but since he doesn't have particularly long arms, he'll never be an intimidating shot blocker. That is okay, as long as he makes an effort to be in proper position as his team's defensive scheme requires.

Green has finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in back to back years despite only standing 6' 7.5", 236 lbs with a 7' 1.25" wingspan at his combine measurements per DrafExpress.com. His smarts and determination allow him to make plays and deter what the opposition wants to do offensively by moving into the proper areas and being active. James has added at least 15 lbs of muscle since he measured in at 6' 8", 245 lbs with a 7' 0.25" in 2003, and the Cavaliers defense took off once he shifted up to the 4 position midway through the Finals and snuffed out a lot of the Curry-Green pick and roll action. Similar results happened in the Western Conference Finals when Green was primarily defended by Kevin Durant, who is a monster previously measured at 6' 10.25", 215 lbs with a ridiculous 7' 4.75" wingspan and largely believed to be even bigger now, as examined in this hilariously fascinating WSJ piece. Those defensive designs had the intent of being comfortable with a bigger player being switched onto guards, and that can disrupt the whole flow of an offense. You have to at least have some ability to contain perimeter players, and I believe that Simmons can do that if he puts in the effort.

I also believe that the Australian prospect should essentially be a perimeter player himself and initiate the offense as James has primarily done throughout his career and Green has started to do more and more the last couple of years. Even beyond being a grab-and-go guy, putting the ball in his hands would help mitigate the concerns that he is not a good shooter yet since he'll be the one distributing out to what would ideally be shooters around him, which brings me to the other topic of this post now that we've discussed his merits as a player: how should the Sixers build around their top pick?

Nate Duncan brought up an interesting idea on his podcast as he would actually make Simmons the team's primary point guard and play wings that could shoot around him in order to switch everything. This way, he could basically hide on the least imposing threat, and the interchangeable parts could take on assignments as needed around him. However, I'm not sure that I would embrace him running point that completely, especially not right away. He already has shown some propensity to turn the ball over with his current amount of ball handling, and it can take extra effort to bring the ball up at times, even if pressure isn't always applied nowadays. The latter reason has been why King James has basically never wanted to be a point guard and avoided it since the first half of his rookie season. He started out running the offense next to Ricky Davis and Darius Miles before they were traded, and as he shifted positions once Jeff McInnis was brought in, he only averaged 3.0 turnovers per game over his last 39 contests compared to 3.9 in the 40 games prior.

I mentioned Durant earlier, and although he's a vastly different type of player overall, he presented a somewhat similar case study when serving as a point forward, albeit in a much smaller sample size. After veteran combo guard Randy Foye was traded for at the deadline, Thunder coach Billy Donovan finally started staggering KD's minutes with Russell Westbrook's, leading to more time that Durant could anchor the second unit instead of losing leads with a group of all bench players. Curiously, Donovan took it one step further by benching promising rookie point guard Cameron Payne in favor of Foye playing with fellow combo guard Dion Waiters and putting the ball in Durant's hands, essentially making him the de facto point guard. As a result, his post-splits showed an increase in turnovers (3.1 to 4.1) to go along with the extra assists (4.5 to 5.9) across 25 games.

On the other hand, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a player I thought of as a possible comparison for Simmons despite the Greek Freak being all arms and legs, and he completely thrived serving as Milwaukee's primary point guard over the second half of the season. He has clearly gotten bigger than the 6' 9", 196 lb unknown that had a 7' 3" wingspan when drafted in 2013, and his skill level has grown, as well. As a result, Jason Kidd made Point Giannis a thing right after the All-Star Break, and his 26 games thereafter were a sight to see, as he bumped his assists per game up from 2.8 all the way to 7.5 while his turnovers only increased from 2.5 to 2.8 per game despite all of the extra responsibilities.

Perhaps what most intrigued me about this switch was Kidd's choice in perimeter players around him as 6'4 combo guard O.J. Mayo was the nominal 1 next to 6' 8" swingman Khris Middleton. Once Mayo went down with injury, 6' 3" combo guard Jerryd Bayless and 6' 5" shooting guard Rashad Vaughn each started in his place. That is the beauty of positionless basketball with a versatile team: players can fit into a variety of roles and still match up defensively. When you have a bigger player like Giannis running point, you can play guys who are essentially small shooting guards like Mayo and Bayless next to him in order to help boost the offense without losing anything on the other end. Having your usual starting shooting guard, Middleton, able to shift onto bigger players at the 3 at times is an added bonus since you can basically line up your assignments any way you want so that your best defender can take on the biggest opposing threat. This also helps out the other starting forward, 6' 8" Jabari Parker, who is skilled offensively but sometimes needs to be hidden on the least imposing threat.

This reminded me of some research I had done into the Showtime Lakers of the 80's with Magic Johnson, arguably the greatest point guard of all time and who stood 6' 9". In his early years, he played with an undersized shooting guard, 6' 2" Norm Nixon, and a small forward who was also shorter than him, the 6' 6" Jamaal Wilkes. If the situation called for it, they could match up with opposing guards while Magic guarded a forward, or whichever alignment worked best for them. The 6'3" Byron Scott and 6' 9" James Worthy eventually took over these roles in the starting lineup, and the 6' 5" Michael Cooper was an immensely valuable player who usually came off the bench and could be assigned to the opposing team's best perimeter player, as well. All of these avenues become available when you have a Magic Johnson type of player.
Perhaps the best template for Simmons.

There's no way to say that Simmons will become a Hall of Famer, of course, but it is very easy to see him filling a Lamar Odom type of role. The lefty is quite the easy comparison at 6' 10", 235 lbs, and although he could provide a little more versatility on defense with his 7' 4" wingspan, Odom filled the 4 spot in the lineup for most of his career while handling the ball a good amount of the time on offense. In the same way, I would slot Simmons as the starting power forward for the Sixers with the intent of having him run the offense next to a combo guard. Robert Covington is a nice 3-and-D wing who is still on a steal of a contract for the next two seasons, and former lottery pick Dario Saric is finally coming over to provide another forward option with good perimeter skills.

With the frontcourt potentially becoming overcrowded, one of their centers will likely be traded, especially if signs continue to point towards Joel Embiid's foot fully healing at long last after his mysterious treatment in Qatar. If the major question of his health is answered, he has the most potential of their trio of centers with his combination of offensive skill and defensive ability, ideally pairing well with Simmons on both ends. Even though he is entering the last year of his rookie contract before hitting restricted free agency, Nerlens Noel is the other big man I would keep due to his defensive versatility to potentially play next to either Simmons and Embiid. The previous rumors of a swap with Atlanta for Jeff Teague made some sense given the need for improved guard play, but unlike Noel, he doesn't fit the age timeline of this squad and is unrestricted to leave next summer, part of the reason why he was available and was actually traded today to Indiana.

To me, Jahlil Okafor is clearly the odd man out despite being the youngest of the group. He's a pure offensive center, and I just don't see a pairing with any of Simmons, Embiid, or Noel creating a top defense. He also has the most trade value in theory since he still has 3 years left on his rookie contract and is the smallest health risk. The Celtics were rumored to be interested in him at the trade deadline, and knowledgeable Boston fan Bill Simmons talked on his podcast about a straight trade of the #3 pick for him before cooling on that stance this week.  There's also been some talk of New Orleans showing interest in pairing Okafor with Anthony Davis, who could hypothetically cover for him defensively. Either way, it's clear that Philly wants another top 8 pick, and I think the player that they should target is Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, someone I've thought about them as a target for them all year when they still had the potential of landing the Lakers' top 3 protected pick.
This sharpshooter fired a lot of arrows after big shots this season.
A highly touted point guard recruit last summer, Murray ended up playing extensively off the ball next to sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, with fellow freshman point guard Isaiah Briscoe also in the starting lineup. Thus, the  6' 4.25",  207 lbs Canadian developed his catch and shoot game, hitting 40.8% of his 277 three pointers and only averaged 2.2 assists per game in this role as the team's leading scorer, averaging 20 points per game in 35.2 minutes. However, he still showed enough of his natural ability to create offense to envision him as a secondary ball handler next to Simmons, and with his level of athleticism and 6' 6.5" wingspan, Murray is better suited to match up with point guards defensively instead of wings. With these two playmakers added to the Sixers' existing core of players and draft assets, the Colangelos could be set to reap the rewards of Sam Hinkie's groundwork and show immediate improvement.

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