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NBA

Basketball Is Played By People, Not Archetypes

Ben Simmons, spooky red light
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ben Simmons, a radioactive slag pile last seen eliminating his own top-seeded team from the second round of the playoffs because he’s more afraid of scoring buckets than I am of ending a sentence with fewer than 120 words of nested clause in it, “could be like a supercharged Draymond Green to Damian Lillard’s Steph Curry,” according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’ Connor, if the Philadelphia 76ers decide to trade him to Portland for C.J. McCollum.

This is a popular mode of basketblogger GM-braining around Simmons, these days. (It’s also slightly more worth engaging with than O’Connor’s other more floridly insane Simmons comps, Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson; all you can really do with those is sit back and let the poor guy wear himself out.) Longtime basketblogger Tom Ziller got into the Draymond Green comparison, too, in his newsletter this morning. To his way of thinking, the difference is all tactical; a simple change to playing style and/or supporting cast could unlock Simmons’s inner Draymond:

Why shouldn’t Simmons play more like Draymond Green? Like Green, he has excellent court vision and defends as well as anyone in the league. The difference is that he plays point guard and has the ball in his hands a lot, which is a liability when intentional free throws are in play and apparently in other potential foul situations like the play in question from Game 7. Green can go long stretches without touching the ball; as the point guard on a team that plays several one-note players, Simmons can’t. The adjustment, then, is to get the Sixers some perimeter creators or trade Simmons to a team where he can be more of a specialist.

Please, I implore you, please, stop doing this. Yes, it’s true, Simmons and Green are both forward-sized guys who see the floor well, pass like guards, and defend like monsters (though the 31-year-old Green is in athletic decline in that area; a huge starring role on a team that plays in five straight Finals will do that). But basketball is not a checklist of discrete, divisible skills and physical traits; a basketball player is more than their NBA 2K attribute ratings. It is played by people. Draymond Green and Ben Simmons ought to be the most vivid possible demonstrations of this, precisely for all the ways they are different from each other.

Green is pear-shaped and sharply limited athletically; he fashioned himself into one of the best players of the previous decade by virtue of his 99.99999th-percentile smarts, his insane all-consuming unrivaled cussedness, and his fanatical zeal to be whatever would give the Golden State Warriors their best shot at kicking their opponent’s ass. In Game 4 of the 2016 Finals, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson rolling, he played defense and facilitated; in Game 7, with Curry struggling and limited by injury, Green shot 11-for-15 from the floor, made six of eight three-point attempts, and tallied a game-high 32 points, to go with 15 rebounds, nine assists, and a pair of steals. He’s one of the great competitors of his generation, a hyper-vocal on-court leader who warps around the court ahead of the ball on defense like he’s unmoored from linear time. He has also, not for nothing, been a serviceable provider of release-valve buckets for most of his career; even in his worst-shooting seasons, he reliably has been willing to pump up a few three-point attemps a game if that’s what’s available. It’s an insult to Green to imagine that a brain-boomed head-case like Simmons—who would not pump up a wide-open 12-footer if you dangled his teammates over a pit of lava, who has feebly slunk off to the dunker’s spot with his tail between his legs as his team got eliminated in the second round of every postseason of his career so far—is a trade away from being any version of him, “supercharged” or not.

It’s also piss-poor basketball analysis. What makes Draymond Green Draymond Green isn’t his practiced skills, but his human qualities. The ways he’s different from Ben Simmons run infinitely deeper than their similarities; given the role Green’s mind and personality have played in making him the player he is, he and Simmons are more like opposites than like iterations on a common template. Even the rawest prospect can get better as a passer and a defender; as Giannis Antetokounmpo amply demonstrates, a sufficiently determined and athletic guy starting out with essentially no basketball skills to speak of can put in the work and become downright good in both of those areas. Lock a million Marvin Bagleys in the gym long enough and possibly, after a billion years, one of them can become a passable short-roll playmaker. You can’t practice your way to being one of the very smartest and most ferocious on-court motherfuckers in living memory, a player who wields his smarts and his competitive frenzy the way Ray Allen wielded his jumpshot, and to similar career effect. If there’s a possible developmental path from Collapsing Neutron Star Of Basketball Neuroses Who All But Wore An “I’m Throwing This Series” Sandwich Board Against The Atlanta Hawks to Guy Who Likely Will Make The Hall Of Fame For Fighting Total War Brilliantly Every Second Of His Career, no one has ever traversed even half its distance. Given that Ben Simmons has had four years to make the comparably inch-long trek from being a bad and hesitant jump-shooter to merely being serviceable in that area, and has instead gone backwards, such that as a 24-year-old three-time all-star he’s unwilling to simply punch down a wide-open dunk in the biggest game of his career, he seems an unlikely candidate to pioneer the course!

The list of guys past and present who were big, versatile, and limited in one significant way or another—but whose mental and personal gifts were not so incredibly extraordinary that despite their limitations they could be the second-best player on, and tactical lynchpin of, the most successful regular-season team of all time, and then score 32 points in Game 7 of the Finals—has a lot of names on it. Lamar Odom, Andre Kirilenko, Anthony Mason, Brandon Ingram, Shawn Marion, Josh Smith, Ron Artest, Pascal Siakam, and more. Those are just the guys I could think of off the top of my head, and all of them were or are fine players. Maybe a trade could unlock Ben Simmons’s inner turbocharged Shawn Marion? Maybe in the right circumstances, he could flower into an extremely impoverished imitation of Draymond Green, one stripped of all its best stuff. Maybe these are more realistic goals for him. At the very least, they present options for charting out Ben Simmons’s potential development without making a dang fool of yourself.