The "Plan" vs. The "Process"
By Max Toth
After a hard-fought and entertaining series with the Phoenix Suns, the Milwaukee Bucks are your 2021 NBA champions. It has been pretty cool to see two of the NBA’s most underappreciated stars in Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday receive their dues from the basketball world after clutch playoff performances, but I think everyone can agree that Giannis Antetokounmpo stole the show. The Finals MVP averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5 assists a game on the NBA’s biggest stage and capped the performance off with the first 50+ point, 10+ rebound and 5+ block game in NBA Finals history. Antetokounmpo has come a long way from the raw, Greek teenager who the Bucks selected 15th overall in the 2013 draft or even the two time MVP who was shocked by the Miami Heat in the second round of last season's playoffs.
The stage of Giannis’ career I really want to look back on though, is the 2017-18 season. This was the first year Giannis primarily played power forward, but it was also Ben Simmons' rookie season. At this point in his career, people around the NBA knew that Giannis was on the way up, as he was coming off a season where he made his first all-star game, led the Bucks back to the playoffs and won the Most Improved Player award. However, it wasn’t exactly clear what Giannis was just yet. He flashed potential as a point guard a few seasons earlier, but had also shown a huge lack of the reliable three-point shooting seen in most guards. He had displayed dominance when scoring on the interior, but he was still a tad underweight for a post player.
As Ben Simmons entered the NBA, meanwhile, people knew exactly what he was. Comparisons to LeBron James followed Simmons, as he stepped off the 76ers bench after a “redshirt” season dealing with a foot injury and onto an NBA court. A 6'-11" do-it-all forward at LSU, Simmons could drive the basket with ferocity, set up teammates and lock down all five positions on defence. He even showed off a reliable mid-range game during the Summer League, a pre-season showcase for young NBA talent. The number one pick in the 2016 NBA draft was expected to accelerate the 76ers controversial “Process” rebuilding strategy and drive Philadelphia into contention.
Both Antetokounmpo and Simmons looked like they were destined to lead the next wave of NBA superstars in 2018 and yet, here we are three years later. Antetokounmpo has everything an NBA player could desire: MVPs, a championship, a quarter billion dollar contract and status as one of the league’s best players, all at just 26 years of age. Simmons, on the other hand, has stagnated in his development and has been blamed for ruining the 76ers whole “Process."
Antetokounmpo and Simmons are two examples of how important "roles" are in the NBA.
Going into the 17-18 season, the Bucks decided to take the pressures of being a primary ball-handler and perimeter creator off of Antetokounmpo’s shoulders. Early into the season they traded for all-star point guard Eric Bledsoe and placed Giannis in the role we see him flourish in today. He can back down his defender in the post or drag him atop the key, grab the ball and proceed to drive past and dunk on the poor soul. He can set screens, or he can receive them. He isn’t confined to the routine of meandering his way around the floor and being forced to worry about the offense of his teammates as a point guard without a jump shot. Instead, he floats around the court and allows others to do most of the setting-up. By relieving Giannis of the pressure to do it all, they’ve allowed him to do exactly that. Three years later, Giannis has become the NBA’s most dominant force of nature, more akin to Shaquille O’Neal than Kevin Durant (an early career comparison,) and the Bucks are NBA champions.
In comparison, the 76ers surprised a lot of people going into their 17-18 season when they made it clear Ben Simmons would play point guard. Despite his obvious playmaking prowess, Simmons had always been seen as a part-time creator out of the small forward spot just like LeBron. With that said, Simmons thrived early on as a point guard. He averaged an impressive 16 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists a game en route to a Rookie of the Year award win.
Philadelphia, however, has stuck Simmons in his point guard role for the past four years and it has clearly held back both him and the team. Simmons has yet to make a marginal offensive improvement and while most have blamed it on his lack of confidence and shooting ability, I blame the 76ers for putting him in such a bad spot.
Ben Simmons can not shoot. He has made five three pointers in four seasons playing as a point guard in the modern NBA. That's a problem. When he brings the ball up the court, the opposing team almost always gives him a gigantic berth, daring him to shoot and he almost never does. Seeing this every time he comes up the floor has understandably done a number on his confidence and it partly explains some of his head-scratching decisions, such as going for a game-tying dunk in game seven of the Sixers second round series with the Hawks, only to pass to a tightly covered Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled but missed both free throws. Philadelphia lost the game and series, the third time in four playoff runs that Simmons and the Sixers have been knocked out in the second round.
While the Bucks allowed Giannis to do more by forcing him to do less, the 76ers did the opposite. They want Simmons to create, but if he does it at the wrong time they threaten to trade him. They ask him to take more shots, but not too many, since Joel Embiid is still their star player.
It looks like Ben Simmons' time in Philadelphia is over and I think that’s a shame. The 76ers should be right next to the Bucks when it comes to Eastern Conference contenders, but instead they’ve found a way to shoot themselves in the foot come playoff time year after year.
If Simmons is indeed traded, maybe his next team can take a page out of the Bucks book when it comes to managing the role of a transcendent superstar.
Sure, the "Process" is a catchy title.
But actually having a smart "Plan" for your most important players is still the key to getting a ring.