Will Ben Simmons moving to power forward actually matter?

The Philadelphia 76ers have said Ben Simmons will be moving to power forward when the season resumes. Will it matter?

The positional revolution has been televised. Previously rigid definitions have been democratized and deconstructed so that labeling a player a center or a forward could mean something drastically different than it would have a decade ago. Even the All-Star Game just recognizes players as frontcourt and backcourt players now. In light of this, the recent news that Ben Simmons will be transitioning from point guard to power forward when the season resumes means less now than it may have a few years ago. But it still speaks to a realization within the Sixers organization that changes need to be made in the way he is utilized moving forward in order to further unlock his staggering potential and find a way of making this strange squad somehow work.

Viewed in a vacuum, the move makes some sense, but on this particular team though, it raises a lot of questions, especially since the team has already invested over $200 million in Al Horford and Tobias Harris, two players who also play a lot of power forward. Even if you wave away the positional labels, Philadelphia seems to be clinging to the old maxim that you can’t teach size, but it has not worked so far. The fluidity characterizing the modern NBA offense has only appeared in spurts for them — the team’s potential being glimpsed in particular games and moments rather than showcasing itself with any consistency. Few teams in the league have the talent that the Sixers do on their roster, but talent alone is not enough. The construction and organization of that talent matters too and that is where the Sixers have faltered this year, which falls on the shoulders of Elton Brand more than any individual player on the floor.

Maybe this will make Harris, Horford, or both, expendable, allowing the franchise to retool in a way that focuses on the young duo of Simmons and Embiid. Rather than trying to build in a way that makes sense in light of these centerpieces, Brand and the front office just opted to accumulate talent with little regard to fit, or a blind optimism about their ability to manufacture it. That ethos may have been more advisable in the days of the Process — and even then, it was not unambiguously successful — but now, as the team tries to take the next step to championship contention, a new sort of intentionality is necessary.

Why would the 76ers want Ben Simmons to play power forward?

On the court, Simmons is so adept at scoring near the basket that placing him there more often could both create opportunities for him and his teammates, as his own defender will no longer be able to perennially sag off of him and create problems for Simmons’ teammates. This also frees him up to use his off-ball skills to cut to the basket and score easily off passes to the interior. While reducing the number of touches from your best playmaker is rarely advisable, Simmons has proven himself adept at passing out to shooters from the paint so even without him running the offense, his skills as a passer will still be able to be reliably displayed. It is an open question how this will affect his scoring as even though this will increase the number of touches he gets on post-ups and cuts, much of his scoring comes on drives which will occur less often with another playing point guard.

It makes sense to assume that this change is as much one of language as it is one of actual consequence. Simmons will almost certainly still bring the ball up in a number of sets, will lead the team in transition, and spend many possessions as the team’s primary playmaker. However, making his role more mutable, less static, will force defenses to rethink how to play him on a possession-to-possession basis. He will not merely be a point guard, but a multifaceted weapon, creating for others or himself from anywhere on the floor. While this may not accentuate some of his strengths as fully as his current role, it will at least mitigate his biggest weakness. With Simmons less stymied by defenses catered specifically to exploit his lack of shooting, new horizons for both him and the Sixers may potentially be glimpsed.

Ben Simmons is one of the most distinct players in the NBA. Even apart from his unwillingness to shoot, he has once-in-a-generation court vision and is one of the best and most versatile defenders in the league. There’s no one else in the NBA who plays like him, though many surely envy his skill set. So while it would not be accurate to say that the positional revolution has passed him by, it is the case that even in a league where positional roles are less rigid than ever before, it’s still unclear how exactly a player of Simmons’ size, skills, and limitations can best be utilized. Part of this is mere context — perhaps we’d have a much clearer idea of this if the Sixers had somehow kept Jimmy Butler and acquired a bunch of shooters instead of signing Al Horford and re-signing Tobias Harris — but just as much is because of the sui generis style of play he brings. It is not hyperbole to say that we’ve never seen a player quite like him before.

It’s also easy to forget, in light of the fact that his game has seemingly been litigated for ages, that Simmons is still just 24 years old. He will improve, and though he may never develop a reliable jump shot, he will continue to find ways to exploit defenses and frustrate opposing offenses. He will almost certainly learn to work around the deficits in his game in order to further highlight his already pronounced strengths. Perhaps this move to power forward, symbolic as it may end up being, will serve an important step in that evolution.

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