The Jimmy Butler era in Philadelphia was never going to be seamless. There were always going to be adjustments for everyone, from each of the stars, to Brett Brown and his league-low pick-and-roll usage. Maximizing three stars like this takes time.
When thinking about specifics that can change moving forward, there’s one offensive adjustment for Ben Simmons that springs to mind. And as well as he’s been playing with Butler so far, it’s something we’ve rarely seen — Simmons operating as a roll man.
The idea of this has always been enticing. Simmons, despite not having a reliable left hand or a wide array of scoring tricks and footwork around the basket, has plenty of tools to utilize as a roller. He’s 6-foot-10, highly athletic, and has incredible play-making ability to make the sort of passes out of short rolls that hardly anyone his size can.
We just haven’t seen it experimented with much in games. After all, Brett Brown used the pick-and-roll less than every other team in the NBA last season. He hasn’t had the best personnel for it either. The Sixers have lacked a ball handler who can facilitate and provide shooting off the bounce to punish defenders going under the screen.
That’s no longer the case with Jimmy Butler now around. Unsurprisingly, his pick-and-roll frequency hasn’t been as high as it was before he came to Philly. As of January 4 (the day before he challenged Brown in a film session about his role), such plays accounted for 24.1 percent of his possessions in a Sixers jersey, compared to 35.7 with Minnesota to start the season (and 31.2 last season). It was fair for him to question Brown and make his case to run more. He should. And we’ve seen more recently as well, especially against the LA Clippers on New Year’s day. But there’s only so effective it can be.
The Sixers could use more shooting in general, whether that’s off the bench or at the four as an upgrade over Wilson Chandler. Primarily, though, Butler-Joel Embiid pick-and-rolls have limited breathing room with Simmons on the floor, often hanging in the dunker’s spot. It’s far easier for defenses to send extra help at Embiid rolling or Butler driving.
Adjusting roles to use Simmons as the roll man a little more often is one way to help counteract this.
Simmons has been recorded as the roll man in pick-and-rolls on a mere nine possessions this season. Part of this near nonexistent usage as a traditional roll man is down to the nuance of how his ability to dive to the basket is used. A crafty pick-and-roll ball handler isn’t always essential when dribble hand-offs can be used to great effect.