Ben Simmons and Trae Young are two of the most admired, attacked, defended and maligned stars the NBA has right now.
They are at once brilliant and seemingly encumbered by physical and cognitive snags that, while vexing, would not deter any general manager from throwing every dollar the salary cap allows at their feet.
In Game 1 of their second-round series, Young led his Hawks to victory over the Sixers with a mesmerizing 35 points and 10 assists, while Simmons finished with 17 points, 10 assists, four steals and a block. Despite spellbound performances that helped showcase why both are so critical to understanding and appreciating the profound gifts and limitations that shape today’s league, cynicism still permeates all discourse involving either name, with “yes but” critiques that, while true, are not powerful enough to delegitimize either player’s influence every time they step on the court.
What makes this particular matchup so much fun is the fact that despite holding the same fundamental role on their team, Simmons and Young are polar opposites on two separate ends of a long and increasingly complicated spectrum.
One is a 6' 10" hydraulic battering ram with speed and agility that had never been attached to such an intimidating physique before he introduced his to the NBA. He is relentless in the open floor and a Defensive Player of the Year finalist—after a fourth-place finish last season—who is most comfortable making the other team’s best player uncomfortable. If he quit basketball tomorrow to instead focus on winning an Olympic medal in the 200-meter dash, he probably could. Also, in 950 career playoff minutes he has made zero three-pointers and is unreliable from the free throw line.
The other weighs 180 pounds (if that) and moves like a fluttering leaf that’s trying to avoid the ground. He has never met a shot he didn’t want, regardless of where or when or how the ball needs to leave his fingertips. Also, when pressed, his slight frame and periodic disinterest in maximizing the body he does have makes him a defensive liability—though we’ve yet to see it matter in these playoffs.
Both are breathtaking playmakers who do more to elevate their teammates than the other way around. But by stirring a slew of conjectural questions that can be debated to death, their stylistic and visual divergence makes watching them compete more fascinating than it otherwise would be. Who’s better? Whose talent is more valuable in today’s NBA? Who is easier to build around?
Your response to these questions directly speaks to what you care about in the NBA, where both player’s strengths are undeniably useful, while their weaknesses shift from annoying to ignominious. Each is a lightning rod for big-picture discussions—including but not limited to “who are the best people to put around this player so we can conceal his blemishes and accentuate his preternatural capacity to be great?”
But that’s again where a significant difference comes into play. Young is at the center of his own franchise. He’s the closest thing to an MVP candidate the Hawks have had in two decades and is their most popular draw in just as long, if not ever. Any player who doesn’t directly or indirectly complement Young’s skill set won’t be granted access to the Emory Sports Medicine Complex. In other words, can they boost his pick-and-roll game and offer assistance on the other end? The fewer obstructions he has to reach whatever ceiling exists, the more Atlanta will accomplish.
Young is an unprecedented cross among Steph Curry, Steve Nash and James Harden—if not ever better than those transcendent ballhandlers then at least the evolutionary next step in an era when threes from the logo are increasingly met with more anticipation than surprise. Young isn’t as accurate as Damian Lillard or Curry, but his threes are launched from just as far, with enough accuracy to demand the sort of attention that creates unusually wide lanes for either his body or the ball to journey through before an open teammate can be found.
But distance is not how Young has placed his fingerprint on the game. The answer there is contact, as in how he initiates it with whomever’s trying (without much success, probably) to slow him down. Haters will say he’s taken advantage of a loophole, which might be correct but is also a reductive way to view reality. Until the rules change, Young is simply a foul-drawing savant: Only 27 players in NBA history made more free throws in their first three seasons than Young’s 1,308. Limit the count to guards, and just six are ahead: Oscar Robertson, Tiny Archibald, Michael Jordan, Earl Monroe, Dwyane Wade and Jerry West.
And still, if a statue is ever erected in Young’s image outside State Farm Arena, it will be of him lofting that picturesque floater/lob over confused defenders who stand a foot taller than he does. He is the staple of everything the Hawks do, every minute he’s on the floor.
Simmons’s situation is more ambiguous. The Sixers are Joel Embiid’s team. He’s by far their most important player, and despite ludicrous success as a pair all season, has an on-court relationship with Simmons that can be more maddening than mutually beneficial. In big spots against smart defenders, neither is an ideal match for the other.
It’s for this reason Simmons has been dangled in trade talks—legitimate and gossip-driven—for James Harden, Bradley Beal and whichever lead ballhandling magician next becomes available.
While Young’s impact is as transparent as any player’s in the league, verified by counting stats, an impressive usage rate and your two eyes watching him dribble opposing coaches into a form of psychosis, what makes Simmons awesome is much harder to quantify.
Even though he has physical gifts that make anything below a triple double seem like he’s slumming it, with speed and strength that should transform just about every one-on-one battle into a degrading mismatch, Simmons averaged fewer points (14.3 per game) this season than ever before. His career is a statistical flatline, with no improvement found pretty much anywhere.
And yet, his overwhelming defensive presence can completely destroy the other team’s game plan. Regardless of who you are, from Luka to Lillard, moving around the court with Simmons breathing down your neck might be the single least pleasurable part of the job. When he corrals a defensive rebound and pushes in transition, backpedaling defenders try not to panic even though that’s often their only option.
It’s skeleton-key offense. Out of no set play or organized action, Simmons can back whoever’s guarding him down, survey the floor, wait for a teammate to wiggle free, then fire a dart that instantaneously becomes an open shot. It’s no coincidence that Tobias Harris—Philly’s closest thing to a third star—saw his three-point percentage drop from 43.1% with Simmons to 29.1% by himself. (Simmons assisted 5.3 threes per 100 possessions this year; only Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul ranked higher.)
Even at warp speed, Simmons can see over whoever’s guarding him. His passing can seem underappreciated for this reason: It looks more obvious than creative, like how a high school junior would do against seventh graders. He also loves to set painful screens, and when combined with his vision and selflessness, catching a pass on the roll adds a convenient dimension to his playmaking repertoire.
But all those positives tend to get swept under the rug when Embiid is forced to pass out of a post-up for the eighth time because Simmons’s defender has snuck up from the baseline to double the ball. Few NBA truths are more frustrating than Simmons’s nailing himself to the dunker spot in the final five minutes of a tight game because he can’t squeeze any juice out of a high pick-and-roll or get downhill on a dribble handoff. In those moments, everything he fails to do is at once magnified and whittled down into a tidy box of dissatisfaction.
Simmons is also a three-time All-Star, and along with Young has augmented the traditional responsibilities that forever defined his position. Labeling these two as “point guards” would be like saying Japan and Martha’s Vineyard are both islands, or Missy Elliot and Pavarotti are musical artists. You’re technically correct but light years from an accurate description.
Neither can or should be categorized, and watching them engage in this series is to stare at a gorgeous form of basketball dualism. Mash them together and you’d get nirvana on hardwood in the form of a flawless monster that would redefine superstars as we know them. To that end, the universe would make more sense if they were teammates, lessening the pressure that’s handcuffed to their shortcomings while offering a leg up in spots where they’re already incredible. (A collaborative highlight reel exclusively filled with Trae-Simmons pick-and-rolls would be nominated for several Academy Awards.)
By now, every frailty and triumph held by Simmons and Young has been coated with dust. Depending on who you’re talking to, their contributions are either evangelized or dismissed. Most points are entirely moot and reduce both (very effective and uniquely capable) players to a list of grievances neither is likely ever to overcome. That doesn’t elevate them above criticism or even doubt, but it does complicate how they’re received and mar certain ways they should be appraised. Both are unconventional players who create myriad challenges for the other team and, to a lesser degree, their own.
But when this series is over, one will compete in the conference finals for the first of what should be many appearances. Try your best not to see it as a coincidence.
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