Ben Simmons was his usual understated self when asked how many minutes he thought he could handle once the playoffs start.
“As many as I need to play,” the rookie said on Sunday after the Sixers won their 50th game and clinched home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason with a 109-97 win over the Mavericks.
Which leads to one of the more interesting questions facing Brett Brown and his coaching staff as the Sixers turn their attention toward the Eastern Conference playoffs: Just how heavily can they lean on their budding superstar in a best-of-seven series?
Over the last six games, we’ve seen Simmons accelerate a transformation that has been building all season, from a pass-first point guard sharing the shadow with Joel Embiid to an aggressive, sometimes-dominant scorer who uses his size and speed to attack the rim with regularity.
Since Embiid went down with a fractured orbital bone in his face, Simmons has averaged 17.8 points and 12.5 field goal attempts per game, up from 12.4 points and 9.3 attempts in the first six games of the Sixers’ current 14-game win streak. And it isn’t as if Simmons has simply shifted his role to become less of a passer and more of a scorer. Rather, he has transformed into a player who is carrying the entire offense, pushing the Sixers’ pace to a breakneck level while scoring or assisting on 18.5 buckets per game, up from 16.8 over the first six games of the win streak.
Any argument against Simmons as the Rookie of the Year should have died by the end of the Sixers’ 132-130 win over the Cavaliers on Friday night, when he scored 27 points on 12 of 17 shooting with 13 assists and 15 rebounds, three of them on the offensive end. With Embiid sidelined and Dario Saric muddling through his first game back from an elbow infection, it was Simmons who set the tone for the team. Whether it was backing down Jeff Green on the low block and dropping a righthanded hook through the net or going between his legs on the run and finding JJ Redick in the corner for a transition three-pointer or going through his legs again and rising up for a ferocious one-handed dunk, the 21-year-old rookie was by far the most impactful player on the court for the first two quarters. Before Embiid went down, there was a contention that Simmons should be docked points for not being his team’s primary option the way Donovan Mitchell has been for the Jazz. Now, that line of argument is laughable.
The reality is, Simmons might end up being the best player on the court in most of the Sixers’ potential playoff series. Against the Celtics, now that Kyrie Irving is out for the season. Against the Raptors, as good as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can be. Same for the Pacers, and Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner, as well as the Wizards, with Bradley Beal and John Wall. Only the Cavs with LeBron James and the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo feature a player who has the ability to impact the game as thoroughly as Simmons. And in the NBA postseason, having the best player on the court can take you a long way.
This makes for a fascinating time for Brown and his coaching staff as he game-plans his postseason rotation and substitution patterns. Apart from Embiid’s status, the central question is how much Simmons can play. On the season, he is averaging 34 minutes per night, a number that will almost certainly rise in a playoff setting. Consider last year’s postseason, when the 81 players who started at least four games in last year’s postseason saw their minutes increase by about 5.4 percent over their regular season average. Nearly a quarter of those players saw their playing time increase by at least 10 percent.
LeBron averaged 46.5 minutes per game in his first postseason, and 44.7 per game in his second. But neither was a dramatic increase over his playing time in the regular season, when he averaged 42.5 minutes per game in those two seasons.
Just how much can Simmons handle?
At this point, the only definite is that he will play more than he is now. Brown’s custom is to take his rookie out of the game with three or four minutes left in the first and third quarters and reinsert him three or four minutes into the second and fourth quarters. He says the only time he can remember Simmons being tired was a game against Minnesota in March, when he extended his shift by a couple of minutes in the third quarter.
“He’s amazing,” Brown said. “You expected that rookie wall, and it just hasn’t happened. It really hasn’t happened with him. You just have to go back to the obvious: He is an elite, A-plus athlete.”
According to the data available on Basketball-Reference.com, no team in the last 34 years has won a seven-game series with a rookie averaging 40+ minutes per game. Tim Duncan and Alonzo Mourning both won five-game series while averaging 40+ minutes as rookies, and Frank Johnson won a three-game series with the Bullets.
None of those three teams reached the conference finals. Given Simmons’ current level of play, it should surprise nobody if he becomes the first.