The Philadelphia 76ers have a Ben Simmons problem, and it smacked them dead in the face as yet another opportunity was wasted in the playoffs.
Championship windows don’t stay open long in today’s NBA, and it seems like three years have been squandered with the Simmons experiment, people talking themselves out of what they see and into what they’re hoping for.
The 76ers have fashioned themselves as the present and future of the East, but the present keeps disappointing and if the future depends on Joel Embiid’s health and Simmons’ improvement.
For things to improve, the answer is simple: The 76ers must trade Simmons if they’re as serious as they claim.
Jimmy Butler is gone, so is Brett Brown. There’s nobody else to blame for Simmons’ lack of development. It certainly looks mental — his downright reluctance on offense — and even though he’s a stellar defensive player, that can be replaced.
But he’s more than a liability on offense, especially when you see how the conference final-bound Atlanta Hawks feed off their point guard, Trae Young. There’s a swagger, and not one in a front-runner type way that appears with the 76ers. Young’s aggressiveness permeates to the rest of the roster, and even if he isn’t directly feeding players, you can tell the confidence is genuine.
Even when they blew home games, including Game 6 in Atlanta, there wasn’t a sense of this team being broken — there’s a resilience that was a clear difference between both teams this series.
As the Game 7 disaster rolled on, it felt inevitable that the 76ers were playing with a medicine ball instead of a Spalding. The Hawks were playing with poise and weren’t afraid of the moment, drawing energy from the 76ers’ lack of assertiveness.
And even though that often falls on the best player, Simmons has as much of an effect on that as Embiid (31 points, 11 rebounds, three assists), especially with the big man dragging himself up and down the floor on a torn meniscus, and often facing triple teams while watching Simmons pass up dunks in the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, I don't know the answer to that right now,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said when asked if Simmons could be a championship point guard.
Earlier, Rivers said, “Obviously, he struggled from the free-throw line. And that became a factor in the series. There's no doubt about that. I still believe in him. But we have work to do, you know, we're gonna have to get in the gym, put a lot of work in.”
Championship point guards have to run an offense with some level of structure, especially late. So while Embiid’s late turnover to Danilo Gallinari was a backbreaker, had Simmons been trusted to run the offense, Embiid wouldn’t be forced to begin his own offense 20 feet from the rim.
Rivers pointed to Young’s off night, crediting Simmons for his part in those struggles — but that should be even more frustrating. It wasn’t the Hawks coming in and shooting the lights out.
The game was there for the taking, and this Game 7 wasn’t like the Milwaukee-Brooklyn slugfest where it looked like fatigue set in for both teams by the time overtime began. The 76ers simply played as if they didn’t believe they could win, especially on offense.
“Offensively, we were just bad,” Rivers said. “We've been a good offensive team all year. Tonight, we were not. We weren't even an average offensive team tonight. Not only were we just missing shots, I don't know how many point blank misses we had at the rim, how many fast breaks we blew.”
That falls at Simmons’ feet.
And if Simmons is as advertised, Embiid wouldn’t be worn down in fourth quarters because someone else could help carry the load in the first 36 minutes. Instead, Simmons is on the bench for the last couple minutes because playing with him on the floor is like playing four on five, and even if he does have the ball, he’s clearly not looking to do anything that could remotely result in a trip to the free-throw line.
Shooting 34% from the line in a playoff series is the worst output in NBA history, with a minimum of 70 attempts.
In a way, there was something almost charming about Simmons in the beginning. He was an impactful player who didn’t do it the traditional way, who distributed and played tough defense.
But that was at the start, where the stakes weren’t as high. It feels like for a player that talented to have this big of a blind spot, it’s on purpose — almost like he refuses to develop his game because that would mean his critics were right, that he needed to shoot.
Now, he’s holding back the 76ers and there’s no guarantee Embiid will be the same MVP-type performer next season or any season after, especially with his knee and back issues.
Embiid’s frustration was on full display after, and even if his shot at the refs was a bit misguided, consider his own journey in the same time span. He’s developed a post game, extended his shooting range and passes better out of double teams while still being a monster on defense.
To commit that much and watch your costar commit to being the same player he’s been since entering the league has to be infuriating.
“I'm a winner, I want to win. I do everything it takes to win,” Embiid said. “Losing obviously is going to take a toll on me. It does and is doing it.”
The 76ers believed they were a bounce away in 2019 from winning it all, falling to Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors in a thriller. They were swept in the bubble by Boston last year and now this.
There’s no more time to waste for Daryl Morey and Rivers. The 76ers aren’t as far away as it seems, even as they repeatedly fail when it matters.
Call Denver to see if you can begin a conversation on Jamal Murray and parts. Hit up the Wizards to see just how committed they are to Bradley Beal, and vice versa. For all his warts, there’s still a place for Simmons in the league even if he doesn’t improve — and given the evidence, there’s no reason to think he has incentive to do so.
The Eastern Conference is not getting any lighter, and if there was a year to sneak in before Brooklyn comes back at full health and depth, this would’ve been it.
But just as every playoff loss puts a team closer to elimination, every year the 76ers come up short strips at the finite time they have to maximize the unique talents they employ.
And it’s time for one unique talent to go.
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