Sports

Watching the World’s Greatest Athletes Botch the Most Basic Task in Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and the fallibility of man.

Left, Ben Simmons grimaces while driving. Right, Giannis Antetokounmpo practices free throws with headphones on.
Simmons and Antetokounmpo. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images and Elsa/Getty Images.

It is rare when there is almost no subtlety at all to an NBA star’s game. Think of LeBron James. Everyone knows he’s great, and even that he’s an impossible mix of power and finesse, but it’s easy to miss the finer points of his brilliance if you don’t watch him all the time. Sometimes he just overpowers people. Sometimes he facilitates. Sometimes he decides he’s a shooter. I don’t watch him all the time, and I feel that elements of his greatness have eluded me.

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But this year’s playoffs prominently feature two star players whose prowesses appear less nuanced: the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons.

They are not the same player by any stretch—Antetokounmpo is already a likely Hall of Famer; Simmons is not—but their games lead to the same part-enjoyable, part-maddening conclusion. These men are in the small handful of most talented athletes who have ever lived, there have rarely been players like them in history, and there’s almost nothing they cannot do on a basketball court, except for the one obvious thing that neither can do: the extremely central skill of “shooting the ball.”

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The problem has reared its head in a painful and obvious way for both of their teams during their current second-round playoff series. The Sixers trail the Atlanta Hawks 3 games to 2, and the Bucks trail the Brooklyn Nets by the same margin. In general, both players are bad at making free throws. This is extremely strange for elite offensive players. Free throws are supposed to be so easy to make that “free” is right there in the name; announcers routinely call the free-throw line “the charity stripe.” The Nets’ James Harden and Hawks’ Trae Young have crafted an entire elite game out of getting to the free-throw line as much as possible to the point that the amount of fouls they draw in exchange for nearly free baskets has caused widespread consternation from their opponents and opposing fans.

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Meanwhile—Harden’s fellow former MVP Antetokounmpo made 68.5 percent this year, and Simmons made 61.3 against a league average of 77.8. But their struggles at the line have become dire in the playoffs. The Sixers have lost their three games to the Atlanta Hawks in the second round by a combined 10 points. Simmons has made 12 of 39 free throws (30.7 percent). A league average foul shooter might not get as many attempts as Simmons has gotten, but if one had, the Sixers would’ve had 18 more points and perhaps already moved on to the Eastern Conference Finals rather than finding themselves on the brink of elimination. No single player holds solo blame for any team loss, but so far, Simmons has missed seven foul shots in a four-point loss, four in a three-point loss, and (most damningly) 10 in another three-point loss. The famously patient Philly fanbase has taken it as you would expect:

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Antetokounmpo has made 15 of 36 foul shots (41.7 percent) against the Nets. It’s harder to draw a direct line to any of their losses as a result of Antetokounmpo missing free throws, though close losses in Games 1 and 5 might have played out differently if Antetokounmpo had added a few points at the line. But Antetokounmpo’s other bad shooting—from the floor— has had a visible effect on the series. His opponents know Antetokounmpo is an incredible player. But they also know he can’t shoot. In these playoffs, Antetokounmpo has been shooting and missing tons of uncontested 3s while defenses opt to give him space. In a Game 5 loss to the Nets on Tuesday, Antetokounmpo attempted to back down Harden, who was playing on one leg. One of Harden’s teammates wanted to help, but Harden waved him off, feeling totally comfortable as long as he could force Antetokounmpo into a jumper. He did, and Antetokounmpo bricked it en route to a key stop for Brooklyn:

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The playoff shooting difficulties for Antetokounmpo and Simmons are huge problems for their teams. They are also interesting case studies in what happens when someone can do pretty much everything in their sport, save for maybe the most important thing.

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Antetokounmpo is already one of the best ever. A Stathead search reveals just 98 individual seasons in which a player posted 26 points and 10 rebounds per game. The vast majority are from big centers and power forwards from bygone eras, who made their livings in the post and pushed around anyone who meagerly tried to stop them. (Shaquille O’Neal has 10 of those seasons. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has nine, and Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone have eight.) Antetokounmpo—who is still just 26, and who plays in an era where such post domination does not exist—has four in the past four years. If you strip out centers, there have only been 30 such seasons, and the only players with more than Antetokounmpo are Karl Malone and Elgin Baylor.

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Basically, Antetokounmpo is a superhero who acts like one. With good reason, he thinks he can do anything, including “make jump shots.” But he really cannot do that, particularly from three-point range. He has taken at least 140 3s in each of his four seasons on the 26-and-10 list, giving him four of the 16 most three-point-attempt-heavy seasons ever out of that group. In 2019-20, Antetokounmpo launched up 293 shots beyond the arc. The only players who have attempted more in a year while putting up his numbers are Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and DeMarcus Cousins. All of them made at least 34.3 percent of their 3s. Love shot better than 37 percent! Antetokounmpo only made 30.4 percent, which was actually better than his career figure of 28.7. (For reference, the league average in 2019-20 was 35.8 percent.) And this season, on what the NBA classified as pure “jump shots,” Antetokounmpo was 34 of 153 (22.2 percent).

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Over in Philadelphia, the 24-year-old Simmons is not one of the best players in the history of the league, but he is great at many things. The Sixers have fashioned him into a 6-foot-11 point guard, and he’s good for 15-ish points, eightish assists, and eightish rebounds per night. Sometimes he plays the facilitator role—and oftentimes he’s dogged about creating his own looks. Like Antetokounmpo, Simmons cannot shoot pretty much at all, insofar as “shooting” is anything other than a layup, dunk, or other shots right near the basket. Simmons takes nearly all of his shots (86 percent this year) from inside eight feet, and a significant majority are in layup or dunk territory in the restricted area. Simmons is pretty good at getting those shots, and his “true shooting” percentage (that bakes free throws, two-pointers, and 3-pointers into one metric) has been slightly above average over his career.

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That Simmons’ overall shooting efficiency can be fairly called “slightly above average” is incredible, because he really cannot shoot. He has almost entirely given up on 3s (he took 10 this year and has taken one in the playoffs), so he lacks Antetokounmpo’s confidence from deep. But Simmons plays point guard, so he really doesn’t have much choice but to occasionally shoot something that isn’t a dunk, a layup, or a hook shot in the post. He made 31 of 90 jumpers this season. The goriest sub-classification was “driving, floating” jumpers, on which he was 4 of 24. And a guard who goes to the rim cannot avoid having to attempt foul shots.

For the most part, until now, the Bucks and Sixers have made it work. The Bucks had a top-10 offensive and defensive rating this season. The Sixers were 13th on offense but second on defense, which makes sense when you have a point guard who cannot shoot but who’s 6-foot-11 with octopus arms and playing in front of an MVP-candidate center in Joel Embiid. And—with apologies to Bucks and Sixers fans tearing their hair out every night—there is something fun about watching all-world athletes like Antetokounmpo and Simmons struggle with such a central skill. This is not like Shaquille O’Neal or DeAndre Jordan’s struggles with free throws; Antetokounmpo and Simmons are supposed to be good at this—or at least they fall outside the mold of big men for whom it’s socially acceptable to be bad at it. Antetokounmpo just keeps trying, while Simmons attempts to keep himself out of jump-shooting situations as much as possible. Different strokes for different folks—even if neither player’s stroke is especially good.

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But both teams are currently running up against the limits of putative offensive stars who can’t shoot. The Bucks are in peril despite facing a hobbled opponent. The Sixers are in peril as a top seed against a 5-seed—arguably because Simmons can’t put the ball in the hoop. The Nets and Hawks’ stars, on the other hand, do not have these problems. In Game 5 of his series, Kevin Durant took 16 free throws and made 13. And while Simmons was going 4 of 14 in Game 5 in Philadelphia, the Hawks’ Young was sinking 17 of 19 on the other end of the floor. Again, sometimes, there’s not a lot of nuance.

For Antetokounmpo and Simmons, this could go one of two ways. More than a decade ago, LeBron James got to work on improving his shot after his balky jumper cost the Miami Heat a championship. Four titles later, he’s one of the top two players in NBA history. While the ceiling for the Bucks and Sixers stars might not be quite as high, they could very well lead their teams to championships if they figure out how to shoot straight. And if they can’t? Well, having more size, athleticism, and all-around basketball skill than 99.9 percent of humans on Earth can only get you so far.

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