LeBron to Philly could neutralize Ben Simmons
LeBron James’ 2018 free agency is a perplexing thought exercise, largely because there really is no perfect destination.
His Cavaliers, whom he is currently being forced to carry through the postseason, have no clear path to improving other than praying that their Brooklyn Nets’ pick (the only asset remaining from the Kyrie Irving trade) turns into a franchise player that can immediately contribute.
If James were to leave, each of his options would be accompanied by various pros and cons. The Houston Rockets would have to do some serious maneuvering in order to create the cap space necessary to sign James to a max contract, including asking Chris Paul to take a discount and gutting their depth. The Los Angeles Lakers, while an attractive landing spot from a business, marketing and weather standpoint, might not be talented enough to get past the Warriors even if they land Paul George as well.
Lately, the talk of the town in terms of LeBron destinations has been the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s intriguing at first glance; LeBron would get to remain in the East, which is about one Cavaliers series win away from being renamed the LeBron James Memorial Conference. He would also get to play alongside two budding superstars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, both of whom he could pass the proverbial torch to should he begin to decline with age. It makes a lot of sense for LeBron. But does it make sense for the Sixers, whose point guard already emulates The King on a nightly basis?
Ben Simmons is already one of the best all-around players in the NBA. Defensively, he can guard 3.5 positions and rebound extremely well for a perimeter player. On offense, he is attempting to prove to Daryl Morey and the rest of the analytics movement that a 3-point jump-shot is not a necessary component for superstardom in today’s NBA. And he appears to be succeeding. Simmons has yet to make a 3 in his NBA career and has only attempted four shots from beyond the arc. He doesn’t have that shot, doesn’t want to take that shot, and doesn’t need to take that shot. Simmons prefers the other essential aspect of MoreyBall: getting to the rim. Simmons attempts 53% of his shots in the restricted area alone and shoots nearly 70% on those attempts, according to NBA Savant. Head Coach Brett Brown surrounds Simmons with shooters (JJ Reddick, Robert Covington, Dario Šarić and occasionally Joel Embiid) in order to compliment Simmons’ constant penetration of the defense.
It is important to note the contrast in skill-sets between Simmons and his teammates. Other than Embiid, none of the Sixers’ starters need to dribble the ball in order to be effective. In fact, Robert Covington leads the league in catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts at 6.4 per game. This allows Simmons to handle the ball and do what he does best.
Now, imagine inserting one of the most prolific, ball-dominant players in NBA history into this lineup alongside Simmons in place of one of these shooters. It doesn’t exactly scream ‘perfect basketball geometry,’ does it?
LeBron James, as with most NBA superstars in today’s league (outside of Steph Curry), needs the ball in his hands in order to be most effective. He ranks 5th in the league in usage rate and 3rd in assist percentage. To put it simply, he scores or assists on most of the Cavaliers’ shots when he’s on the floor. If he were to sign with Philly and be inserted into the Sixers’ starting 5 in place of free agent J.J. Reddick, it’s hard to believe he would adjust his playing style at age 33. And there is no reason that he should. When you have LeBron James on your team, you run everything through him and surround him with shooting. That simple formula can almost guarantee you a trip to the finals.
However Simmons, as previously stated, is not a shooter. Picture Simmons’ role in this hypothetical lineup. If James were to drive to the rim on a given possession, the player defending Simmons wouldn’t hesitate to leave him alone in the corner or on the wing in order to bring help to the ball.
This deficiency in Simmons’ game would only be magnified in the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors have taken advantage of non-shooters time and again, whether it be Tony Allen in 2015 or, more recently, Rajon Rondo in this year’s postseason. In both instances, the Warriors would put Draymond Green, one of the best help defenders in the league, on these non-shooters. This would allow Green to sag off and freelance in the paint on defense, going wherever help is needed.
Perhaps the addition of James would enable Simmons to play a different way and force him to add pieces to his game. It is not impossible that he could develop a consistent jump shot. He could also become an intelligent cutter off the ball à la Heatles-era Dwyane Wade. But is that really a maximal use of his skill set? Much like James, Simmons has a combination of size, speed, strength and elite passing vision that is found once in a generation. By taking the ball out of his hands, his impact on the game would be minimized.
While this conundrum might give some members of the 76ers coaching staff pause, it’s still a no-brainer for their front office. If you have chance to sign one of the greatest players in NBA history while he still has even a sliver of prime left in the tank, you do it in a heartbeat and figure out the fit later. But that fit might not be so seamless. It would be on the 21-year-old Simmons to assimilate and make it work. There is no scenario in which LeBron is not the independent variable in this equation. And if Simmons cannot adjust, the 76ers might become less than the sum of their individual parts.