Ben Simmons or Tobias Harris?
It's a seemingly simple question and yet when it comes to figuring out who should be the second All-Star for the Philadelphia 76ers, there's perhaps more to it than one might think.
The entire conversation is of course based on the premise that the Sixers should get exactly two All-Stars. There's an argument to be made that they should have only one. There's an argument to be made that they should have three. But if we're ultimately choosing right here between Simmons OR Harris - "OR" being the key word - then those are arguments for another day.
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Fresh off a resounding win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day, the 76ers should feel good. Despite the seemingly incessant noise - and good grief, there's been tons of it - the 76ers are currently 23-10 and just a half-game back of second in the East. They're on pace for 57 wins which would comfortably hit the over on their preseason win total.
Joel Embiid is a lock and will almost assuredly start in the frontcourt. Should the Sixers get one more, how do we pick between Simmons and Harris?
OK, so there's far more to basketball than scoring. And yet, the whole point as Dr. James Naismith outlined boils down to putting the ball in the peach basket.
It's here that Harris outshines Simmons.
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While Simmons is scoring a career-worst 14.4 points per game, Harris has served comfortably as Philadelphia's second-leading scorer at 19.8 points per game. And though there's consistent talk about Simmons playing at a different level whenever Embiid has missed time, it's still Harris that handles the bulk of the scoring whenever the behemoth is out of the lineup. In the six games that Embiid has missed this season, Harris's 19.3 points per game leads the team and is actually fewer than he scores with Embiid in the lineup.
The edge here goes to Harris but let's be clear: putting so much emphasis on simply scoring is arcane. And besides… it's not the end-all, be-all when it comes to making the All-Star team. In each of the last 10 years, at least one player has been named an All-Star while scoring fewer than 15 points.
Many of those All-Stars who made it without gaudy scoring numbers did so because they double as defensive dynamos.
Draymond Green, Al Horford, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, Andre Iguodala… there's plenty of precedent. And Ben Simmons belongs in that conversation among current defensive studs.
Not only does Simmons lead the NBA in steals, he's the personification - even moreso than Embiid who might win Defensive Player of the Year - of everything that Philly does on that end of the floor. The 76ers aren't just huge, they are huge and mobile. It's one thing to face a stifling and suffocating defence with guards and wings constantly disrupting with an in-your-grill annoyance. It's another to face that same relentless suffocation but with enough length to swat away everything at the rim, contest every long jumper and cut off every easy passing lane.
Simmons is the face of that defensive identity, comfortably guarding all five positions, ranking among the league leaders in deflections and holding opponents to just 55% shooting at the rim, the best mark of anyone on the team.
Harris is no slouch, but he's not Simmons. Not even close.
Harris is dishing out 3.2 assists per game which is a career high and he's spending more time with the ball in his hands than ever before. He's made significant strides as a passer and like his defence, he's no slouch.
And yet again… he's not Simmons.
Arguably one of the five best passers in the world on pure ability and vision, Simmons is in that same class as LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Ricky Rubio. He consistently threads needles that 99% of players never see and there's not a pass he can't make.
It's perhaps the biggest reason why Philly's offence is over eight points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, the biggest impact of anyone on the team despite the fact that he's their fourth-leading scorer behind Embiid, Harris and Josh Richardson. Nobody on Philly comes close to matching his prolific impact as a passer as his 16.3 potential assists per game are over 10 more than anyone else.
There's an argument to be made that of every player in the league, nobody is better suited for the All-Star Game than Simmons who is as unselfish as they come (to a fault, which we'll get to in a moment), a phenomenal passer and brilliant in the open floor.
The All-Star Game with Simmons in it would be more enjoyable than an All-Star Game without Simmons and it's all because of his passing.
The clutch factor
It's the elephant in the room and yet there's more nuance than the same recycled talking points.
For all the chatter of Philly's struggles down the stretch of tight games, did you know that the 76ers actually lead the NBA in clutch-time wins?
They have 13 wins so far this season in which the score was within five points at any point in the final five minutes, tied with the Jazz for the most in the NBA.
Defence has been the driving force behind that as the Sixers' clutch-time defensive rating of 91.9 ranks fourth in the NBA. Simmons has been a crucial component of that for all of the aforementioned reasons and supplemented by the fact that he leads the NBA in clutch-time steals. He has as many or more of them than 15 of the league's 29 other teams. Creating extra possessions late in games brings immense value and it's an area he doesn't get enough credit for.
Now… about the other end.
Rather than make this about Simmons, let's make it about Harris.
He's been unequivocally and irrevocably Philly's most consistent and reliable ball handler late in games. Harris is shooting a more than respectable 50% from the floor, is the second-leading scorer behind Embiid and leads the team with six clutch-time assists against just three turnovers. While Simmons has regressed offensively to the point where it becomes a significant stumbling block late in games, Harris has flourished and shown promise taking over the void left by Jimmy Butler's departure to Miami.
When the stakes are at their highest, it's Harris - not Simmons - who the 76ers have turned to more often than not. Shouldn't that carry some weight?
The debate between Simmons or Harris is closer than most might take at face value and it may not matter if both get in.
However, it's going to be difficult for the 76ers to get three All-Stars. The Milwaukee Bucks will likely have by far the best record in the East and even if Khris Middleton gets selected alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, it's tough to imagine a team getting more than the one with the best record.
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There's also an argument to be made that Al Horford should get a closer look given his incredible value as the Embiid insurance policy. But that's more important when it comes to May and June than it is for figuring out who lines up at the All-Star Game.
Which means either Simmons or Harris is going to get chopped.
While I'm not too thrilled with Simmons seemingly plateauing instead of progressing on the offensive end, he's been impactful enough on the defensive end of the floor to help offset the limitations elsewhere in his game - limitations that have been magnified and at times overblown.
I love the manner in which Harris has stepped up but for now, I'm leaning towards the Aussie getting the nod for his second All-Star appearance.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.