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June 17, 2021

The Sixers are where they've always been, waiting for Ben Simmons

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Ben-Simmons-Sixers-76ers-Hawks_061721_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Has Ben Simmons been the Sixers greatest weakness all along?

In four years of having Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the same team, the Sixers have shuffled through what feels like a decade's worth of retools and roster setups. There were the post-Process Sixers, filled with scrappy role players like Dario Saric and Robert Covington. There were the "FEDS" Sixers, cut down immediately because Markelle Fultz fell apart before he ever took an NBA floor. Jimmy Butler came to town and nearly helped the Sixers beat a title-winner, and then the Sixers let him walk in favor of protecting Joel Embiid with the Al Horford signing, only slowing the big man down in the process.

Change has been the only constant for Philadelphia. Unless, of course, you consider Simmons, whose inability or unwillingness to change has left the Sixers in stasis, liable to fail in the same ways at the same time no matter what they do to get around the problem.

Labels mean something in sports, and Simmons was given one early that carries a fair bit of significance — "point guard." At first, when Simmons was just a young player feeling his way out, it simply meant that Simmons was going to have the ball in his hands a lot of the time. Sure, his first head coach was ready to compare elements of his game to Magic Johnson, but when you're on a rookie contract — even a rookie contract making No. 1 pick money — you can call a player one thing and shape the roster so that they're effectively another. 

The Sixers went to great lengths trying to do exactly that. Simmons put up a single point in a playoff game against the rival Celtics, but surely it was okay because they traded with those same Celtics to draft Fultz, a point guard with the scoring package to take the reins away from Simmons. When Fultz spiraled, the Sixers immediately made a push to win now, opting to pick up a ball-dominant, domineering star in Jimmy Butler, eventually letting him control the team when it counted during the 2019 playoffs. Insofar as they had a choice, the Sixers did opt to stand behind the younger, less abrasive Simmons when push came to shove in 2019, placing a huge bet on, "Ben Simmons, point guard" as a winning act for the foreseeable future. 

You do not invest your last bit of financial resources on Al Horford if you believe your primary playmaker is doomed to fail as the lead creator. But throughout Daryl Morey's first year on the job, the Sixers seem to have indicated they believe exactly that. 

They will never admit to it, and have gone so far as to kick and scream whenever they are pressed on the subject. Doc Rivers has defended Simmons so vigilantly that he pushed back on Simmons' own assertion that he needed to be more aggressive following their Game 4 collapse in Atlanta. Even as Rivers tried to figure out a way to explain what happened in their historic Game 5 collapse on Wednesday, his first instinct was to take up for Simmons.

"I would say the fouls in the first half actually helped us," Rivers said on Wednesday. "We actually increased the lead when they were [hacking Simmons], and the beginning of the third quarter. Bogdanovich and Huerter were four and five fouls. So in a lot of ways, it came back, it really helped us. The missed free throws in the fourth quarter hurt. So I would say that's where it affected us for sure."

Rivers is right — the Sixers did increase the lead with Simmons being hacked to pieces at the end of the first half, no thanks to his brick parade. But the team's actions behind the scenes say what their public comments cannot. 

This front office wanted James Harden in a bad way, drawing the line not at Simmons but at the inclusion of additional young talent (and running into an owner who didn't especially want to deal with them). They spent the final days before the trade deadline making an earnest push for Philly's own Kyle Lowry, eventually settling on George Hill when they could not find a price that suited them. It has been clear all this time why they did so: when push comes to shove and things get tough, the Sixers simply cannot trust Simmons to lead this team. Leading, in so many words, is a point guard's job.

Simmons does not play for a scrappy high school team from the Hoosier State, led by a Bobby Knight wannabe who rules with an iron fist. In this league and at this level, the point guard bends the will of the game to their liking. They do what is required, whatever that may be. Counterpart Trae Young, for example, could not hit water from a boat in Game 4, so he doled out 18 assists instead. Deep in the hole Wednesday, Young poured in 39 points using every trick and grift in the book, forcing Philadelphia to switch constantly in order to avoid him getting downhill. 

But forget being a point guard for a second. Simmons would do well to reach a level of offensive responsibility befitting a good role player at any position. In the second half of games in this series, as Derek Bodner pointed out on Twitter after Game 5, Simmons has a lower usage rate than backup center Dwight Howard and injured wing Danny Green. In other words, he has been less involved than a lob target/offensive rebound vulture and a catch-and-shoot player who is almost never asked to run any offense. It is almost identical to the usage rate for Brooklyn's Joe Harris in these playoffs, the Joe Harris who is playing next to three of the NBA's brightest perimeter talents at all times. You could be involved by accident more than Simmons is.

None of this, mind you, is an accident. As Rivers points out, the Hawks have tried and failed to make the hacking technique work for them on the scoreboard throughout this series. Their big runs have often come when they just play Philadelphia straight up and outexecute them. But the mental toll, which Simmons acknowledged after Game 5, shapes how the Sixers play offense. The player whose job it is to get the Sixers into their sets and diagnose how to solve a problem is actively getting out of the way and letting anyone else figure it out. Simmons crosses midcourt, the ball leaves his hands, and that might as well be the end of the possession for him. 

That's if he's out on the floor at all. Simmons walked to the line 14 times on Wednesday night with all the confidence of a middle schooler giving an oral presentation, making just four of his attempts. Rivers would eventually have to get him out of the game for a spell in crunch time just to avoid him being on the free-throw line again. 

If you are keeping track at home, that left the Sixers without (you guessed it!) a point guard, putting the ball in the hands of a post-up center and an assortment of role players even after Simmons returned to the floor.

"You play minutes without Ben, right, during the game, and so I think we're equipped for that, and we're ready to do that," Rivers said Wednesday. "Obviously, we did it again tonight. Do you want to do that is a better question and the answer would be no, but when Ben makes them, we get to keep him in, and when he doesn't, we can't. That's just the way it is."

That is the way it is, and that's the problem. Throughout the last four years, Philadelphia's roster moves have been described through the lens of what they need around both young players. "Simmons and Embiid just need shooters around them!" "Simmons and Embiid aren't an ideal fit!" And so on down the line.

The truth is, these declarations say everything about Simmons and very little about Embiid. Almost everybody fits with Embiid. Is it preferable to have shooters around him? Of course. But Embiid is seven-feet-tall with range out to the three-point line, the size to body guys in the post, and free-throw numbers that would make most guards and wings blush. He is also one of the best defensive players in the league, a guy who has propped up everyone he has ever played with, dating back to when he shared the floor with human turnstile Sergio Rodriguez. When Butler and his pick-and-roll heavy style rolled through town, it was Embiid who developed a partnership with him, toggling seamlessly between his two-man attack with JJ Redick and a screen-setting style that freed Butler up for crunch-time heroics. 

When we talk about bench lineups and rotations and why they don't work, those conversations start with what they can't do because of Simmons. Tobias Harris is being asked to prop up a bad second unit despite trying and failing miserably at it because it is a disaster the moment Simmons steps on the floor with Dwight Howard. Howard, to be clear, has exceeded any reasonable expectations you could have for a minimum salary backup big in his mid-30s. The Sixers could go small, as many would like them to, and their prize would be lineups that have not defended anyone in four freaking years. They've bled points so badly in limited playoff reps with Simmons at center this year that they could not win minutes with their offense playing 90th percentile good. 

Remember those lofty early comparisons to Magic Johnson and LeBron James? Those have devolved into some projecting Simmons as a souped-up Draymond Green, the beating heart of a multiple-time champion in Golden State. Simmons resembles Green only in the sense that they both have to work around questionable perimeter games. And that's not a diss of Green, who is everywhere when it counts, organizing and screaming and playing as if he wants to take someone's head off, a stark contrast to Simmons stationary in the dunker's spot as if modeling for an undergraduate art class.

Doc Rivers' history of playoff collapses gives some cover to Simmons and the rest of the gang, and painting Simmons as the lone reason for Philadelphia's second-half collapse on Wednesday would be woefully misguided. Harris, he of the $180 million contract, was a deer in headlights whether he was up against bench scrubs or Atlanta's starters. Embiid, who was accused of fading over time by Clint Capela after Game 4, ran out of gas again after a monstrous first half. Their bench offered less than nothing, punctuating a season filled with lifeless efforts and calls for Rivers to remove them all from the game. And the head coach didn't seem to have a solution of any kind, hoping the Sixers would limp to the finish line doing the things they've done all season. 

None of those things are as jarring, as dire, as team-crippling as having a primary perimeter initiator on a max contract who is a non-entity when it matters. Simmons making max money doesn't matter in and of itself, but it puts a cap on the resources you can use elsewhere. Short of drafting a superstar guard in areas of the draft where none tend to be found, you are left hoping that career role players and bargain bin steals can paper over a foundational piece's cracks. Coaches have done everything from publicly coddling him to demanding that he shoot at least one three a game. The end result is the same.

It is maddening specifically because there appears to be something more within him. When he is rolling, Simmons is not just dominant on the floor, he is supremely confident off of it, chiding any suggestion or question he feels is beneath his consideration. Against the run of form, perhaps Simmons will reach down and pull that version of himself out in a do-or-die Game 6, summoning the man who once had the nerve to tell booing Sixers fans to, "Stay on that side" before delivering a triple-double in a 22-point win the very next game. Hell, all it took was a few designed post-ups and a halftime pep talk for Simmons to get rolling in Game 3. 

But it is past time for everyone, be they fans, media, or even the Sixers themselves, to stop pretending it's a mystery why the Sixers are where they are, and why their problems have remained the same throughout so many iterations of the team. They aren't dead yet, but it was hard to shake the unease in the arena in the aftermath of Game 5, one question hanging in the air — could this be it? 


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