June 25, 2021
Less than a week has passed since the Sixers' crushing elimination from the NBA Playoffs, a failure headlined by the offensive deficiencies of Ben Simmons and the way they're magnified in the postseason.
Talk of Simmons' future in Philadelphia has been suffocating and hyperbolic, an endless loop of value assessment that screams for a trade but somehow can't generate a likely deal that would make the Sixers a more serious championship contender next season.
Immediately after the Sixers' Game 7 loss to the Hawks, we heard Charles Barkley say Simmons was "scared to death" to shoot the ball. Shaquille O'Neal said he would have "knocked his a** out" if they had been teammates after a playoff performance like the one the Simmons delivered.
Add former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen to the list of old-guard NBA stars who have a biting critique for Simmons, albeit a little more nuanced. Pippen, a six-time NBA champion, spoke about a wide range of basketball topics during an interview with GQ Magazine. His remarks on Simmons managed to call his courage into question while also blaming Sixers head coach Doc Rivers for not keeping his struggling star on the bench in crunch time:
...You guys have been looking at Ben Simmons for five years now? And you can say this to Stephen A. Smith, too: Y'all know he can't shoot. Y'all know he don't look to shoot in the fourth quarter. You know he's afraid to go to the foul line, he don't wanna be humiliated, so what are you asking me? I'm not against Ben Simmons. But I think he is who he is.
I watched a lot of games that Doc [Rivers] shouldn't have had him in, in the fourth quarter. If I give you a deck of cards and I give you a deuce of heart and a deuce of diamond, and we playing Spades, why you keep grabbing those cards when you know you're gonna lose in that category? This kid been this way the whole time and Doc brought him in and set him up for failure. He been like this! And you guys know he been like this. And Doc kept putting him in the game, he kept letting that team do fouls on him. Take him out the game! The Lakers did it with Shaq, and he's bigger and more dominant and probably more fearless than Ben Simmons. Doc made him be a failure.
He's still a good basketball player. That's his weakness: shooting the basketball. If you take that away from Ben Simmons, he got no weakness. That's Giannis' weakness, too. But, Giannis don't mind being humiliated. That's the difference between him and Ben Simmons. Giannis will go to the free throw line and shoot two f***ing airballs and come right down the court the next time and try and dunk on you. If Ben Simmons miss a free throw, he gonna start passing it before he get to the free throw line on the other end. He didn't even wanna cross half court with the basketball because he was so afraid of being humiliated going to that foul line. That's why he didn't try to make that dunk at the end of the game. He's been doing it all year, bro. [GQ]
In his final postgame press conference, Simmons said his first order of business this offseason will be to get his mental struggles sorted out. Rivers alluded to Simmons' off-court personal issues as a compounding factor in his playoff performance, not to mention the chorus of harsh criticism that has been raining down on Simmons for most of his career. Much of it is deserved, but much of it is also fed-up cruelty without a filter — made easier by Simmons' hotshot demeanor at 24 years old.
The argument Pippen makes is a pretty simple one, yet it's hard to understand how Simmons decided that shying away from offensive growing pains is less humiliating than trying and failing. A stunning highlight clip from Simmons' rookie season shows him taking and making a number of jump shots that he simply doesn't attempt at this point in his career. Even if the shot isn't pretty, he looks like a completely different player here.
There can't possibly be any public humiliation worse than what Simmons has endured since Sunday. And it'll likely continue until some resolution is reached this offseason about whether he'll be back in Philadelphia or traded elsewhere.
Fans and NBA critics rightfully blame Simmons for his lack of willingness to get better on offense by risking failure in games that matter, year after year. Only Simmons can explain why he's allowed that to happen, whether it's the praise for his defense, his All-Star appearances or a max contract that has made him too comfortable with his progress in the NBA. It may be as simple as Simmons not trusting himself, or telling himself that passing up scoring opportunities to more competent players is a better display of high basketball IQ in nearly every offensive set other than a fast break.
But if Simmons' true fear really is humiliation, then he's reached a tipping point that his swagger and image can't offset. He may be surprised he didn't arrive here as a result of bricking a ton of jumpers, but here he is — and that's the catch-22 of his passivity as a scorer. In future seasons, trying and outright failing will always be more encouraged than the hiding he's been doing in big moments when his team needs help. That hiding will always result in more humiliation than being a bad shooter who at least takes bad shots.
At some point, whether it's with the Sixers or another team, Simmons might just turn the corner.
But until he learns how to make himself a threat with the ball in high stakes moments, until he finds a set of offensive tools and places on the court that work for him to use his size and athleticism, humiliation will always be around that corner, or at the foul line.
As Pippen points out, the worst part of this is that we're really discussing Simmons' only obvious weakness — a fatal one, come playoff time.
It's hard to look at an athlete built like Simmons and understand why he hasn't been able to meaningfully improve this for the good of himself, his teammates and his reputation. It's obviously not a lack of resources and support.