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June 22, 2021

The only person who can fix Ben Simmons is Ben Simmons

It all comes down to whether he wants to or not...

Sixers NBA
Ben_Simmons_8_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons.

Daryl Morey said all the right things. He didn't throw anyone under the bus. He was as supportive of the coach and players as he was ambiguous and downright vague about the future of the Sixers, and of their former No. 1 overall pick, Ben Simmons. He admitted to being in disbelief that his team lost a Game 7 at home to the Hawks, just like the rest of the city. Most importantly, he said he's going to do whatever it takes to improve the Sixers and put them in the best position to contend for a title in 2022. 

"We have a very strong group we believe in," Morey told reporters during his end-of-season Zoom with the Philly media. "None of us can predict the future of what’s going to happen in any place. We love what Ben brings, we love what Joel [Embiid] brings, and we love what Tobias [Harris] brings. In terms of what’s next, we’re going to do what’s best for the 76ers to give us the best chance to win the championship with every single player on the roster."

But as we've seen time and time again in sports, words like that, spoken publicly so soon after the season ends are usually meaningless. Sure, Morey likes the core group. Sure, he like the coach. Sure, he likes the role players. But he also knows that the team as currently constructed is not enough to get it done. 

"Frankly, if we are squeaking by in the second round, that just tells me we unfortunately are not good enough to probably win a title," the Sixers president of basketball operations admitted following his first year in Philly. 

And he isn't wrong. 

It isn't like this Sixers team lost to a world-beater. They lost to the fifth-seeded a Hawks, a team they were favored against in all seven games of the series. After focusing all regular season on getting home court advantage in the playoffs, they lost three games to Atlanta at the Wells Fargo Center. All of their warts, ones the team thought they had under control as they cruised through their first 72 games en route to that No. 1 seed, showed up against the Hawks. And as Morey admitted on Tuesday, it's "back to the drawing board" for him and the rest of the front office. 

In other words, changes are coming. Potentially very big changes, with the biggest and most obvious at this point being trading Simmons in an effort to bring in pieces that better complement MVP runner-up Embiid. Morey is an aggressive executive, and the team reportedly already considered shipping out Simmons earlier this year in an effort to acquire James Harden. They tried to bring in another ball-dominant guard at the deadline in Philly native Kyle Lowry, but that again fell through. 

In the months since those trades failed to materialize, however, Simmons' value has declined. After he was again exposed in the postseason, it wouldn't be hyperbole to say his value has decreased dramatically. 

In the right situation, sure, maybe Simmons can find a role that allows him to continue to thrive when the game tightens up. But it's going to be difficult for Morey to find the right combination of a team where he fits; a GM who not only has the means but also sees the same and is therefore willing to give up something significant in return; and ultimately that those significant pieces are the type Morey envisions using to fill out his roster around the players that are expected be back in the fold next season. 

Morey wouldn't discuss Simmons specifically, but later in his session with the media, he did say that thing that any executive worth his salt says at the end of a season where his team fell short of its ultimate goal.

“Not addressing Ben Simmons, but any move that will help our team win the championship or improve our odds, we will look at and do if it makes sense to do it,” Morey said.

But there is another option for the Sixers.

If Morey does his due diligence, which he most certainly will, and finds that Simmons has depleted his value too much — or that other teams are still hesitant to bank on Simmons getting it right and fixing what he needs to fix — then the Sixers could, once again, try to fix Simmons themselves, even if conventional wisdom suggests that a fresh start might be in the best interest of both parties. 

They've been down this road plenty of times already. And since what's past is prologue, it's worth taking a trip down Memory Lane. Luckily, FOX Sports' Yaron Weitzman, who literally wrote the book on The Process, posted a Simmons story on Monday that highlighted the difficulties in counting on the 24-year-old star to improve on his own in the offseason based on some of his issues in that area in previous summers.

For starters, there's no question that Simmons spends a lot of time on the court in the offseason. We've seen the video evidence of him raining down shots with some tiny coach defending him or another NBA player barely playing any defense at all. Yet when the season rolls around, all of that work appears to go out the window. 

That wasn't always the case, as Weitzman outlined in his story. In fact, in Simmons' rookie year, he shot 70.6% percent from the free-throw line during the 2018 postseason after spending a year and a half working with shooting coach John Townsend, who was originally hired by Brett Brown in 2016. 

The Sixers were unfortunately knocked out in the second round by the Celtics, but things were looking up for Philly, a team clearing trending in the right direction with two budding superstars in Embiid and Simmons. 

Perhaps that early success was the worst thing that could've happened to Simmons, a player who has been treated like basketball royalty since he was a young kid, something else outlined in that FOX Sports story. Because what happened next likely laid the foundation for everything that's happened since. Here's more from Weitzman on how the Townsend experiment, which clearly appeared to be working, fell apart rather quickly, much to the surprise of the Sixers... 

Two days after that 2018 loss to the Celtics, the Sixers held exit meetings in their Camden, New Jersey, training facility. Each player was given a four-page document containing individualized offseason plans. For Simmons, the list of priorities included free-throw shooting, finishing at the rim and developing a jump shot. In that order. 

After the meetings, Brown told reporters during a news conference that he expected Simmons to spend "intense time" with Townsend in the offseason. Everyone around the team was excited. They felt like a breakthrough had occurred, that Simmons was ready not only to solidify his improvements at the line but also to begin carrying those changes into his shooting overall. 

After exit meetings, the players and coaches went their separate ways to recharge. Some time passed, and according to multiple league sources, when Townsend returned to the team’s facility, Brown pulled him aside. Change of plans, he said.

Simmons’ agent, Rich Paul, and family had decided that he’d be better off working with one of his brothers, Liam, a former low-level Division I guard and assistant coach, who now coaches at Division II Colorado Christian University.  []

Brown, who was at the time the team's interim GM following Bryan Colangelo's dismissal over Burnergate, didn't know why Simmons made the change. But, in a league where the players often run the show, it didn't matter because, according to Weitzman, "Simmons wasn't required to explain himself to management." 

Any guesses what happened next?

That season, Simmons’ free-throw shooting regressed once again, plunging back down to 60%, not quite as bad as his rookie-season marks but still a significant drop from his playoff rate. He also took just 25 shots outside of 16 feet after attempting 40 as a rookie. At one point during the year, Jim O’Brien, a longtime NBA coach and former Sixers assistant who was serving as a special adviser to Brown, posed a question during a coaches meeting. 

"Name me one area where Ben Simmons has improved," he asked his colleagues. 

The room fell silent.  []

That's the issue the Sixers are currently facing. 

They say they know how to fix Simmons. But how can they be sure that their plan is going to work and that Year 5 is going to be any different than the previous years? Reading between the lines of what Doc Rivers said on Monday, it's almost as if he was the one in Brown's shoes back in 2018 when Simmons called an audible and abandoned the process that had helped him improve at the line in a way nothing before or since has been able to.

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

"I believe, without going in detail what we're doing, I believe we know what the right work is, the right type of work and the right way to do it," Rivers said Monday, a day after publicly admitting that he didn't know if Simmons could be a title-winning point guard. "You can do the work all the time, but if it's not done in the right way, and the right type of work, you may not improve. After being here for a year, I really do believe we've identified what and how. And now we have to do the 'do' part, we have to work to do it. It's not going to be an easy job, but it's definitely a job that Ben can do.

"I think some of the stuff is obvious, you know, we're not hiding that Ben has to become a better free-throw shooter and a more confident free throw shooter. And if that happens, I really believe a lot of other parts of his game follow. I said that, if you remember, before the season started. The first thing I said was we got to get him to the line 10 times a night and to want to get to the line 10 times a night. And so we got to put in work so he can get there. But if we can get him there, man, his game goes to a different level."

That's great and all, but he's been putting in the work every offseason since he's arrived, and the same issues arise year in and year out. Moreover, you can see Simmons make free throws, three-pointers, mid-range shots, and more during practice and warmups. When the game starts, however, all that goes out the window. It's partially because Simmons is simply unwilling to do it, but more because he seems suddenly incapable of doing the same thing we all just watched him do 15 minutes earlier. 

So while the Sixers say they know how to fix Ben Simmons, it really comes do to whether Ben Simmons knows how to fix Ben Simmons. More importantly, will he be willing to fix himself?

Unfortunately, Simmons' own answers during his post-game presser on Sunday night following that season-ending loss to the Hawks weren't exactly confidence-inspiring.

"We lost, it sucks. I am who I am; it is what it is," Simmons said. "It's not easy to win, and it showed. Nets got finished by [the] Bucks, it's not easy to win. And I work, so, the first thing I'm going to do is clear my mind and get my mental right."

Earlier this postseason, he admitted that his shooting issues were largely mental, which tracks given that we've seen him make all those shots in practice. Heck, the ambidextrous Simmons isn't even ruling out the possibility of switching shooting hands this offseason, something that some media members have been tracking since his time at LSU.

And, yes, he ended that by saying he is going to work and, perhaps most importantly, that he's going to take some time to get his head right, but it's the beginning of that quote that is the most upsetting.

I am who I am; it is what it is.

That doesn't sound like a guy who thinks he needs to change, let alone is willing to put in the work to make good on it. 

His coach seems to disagree.

"I know exactly what we want to do. I'm positive in Ben, I'm very bullish on Ben still. But there's work, there is, and Ben will be willing to do it. That's the key," Rivers said Monday.

If the Sixers don't trade Simmons but are still worried about whether or not he'll come back next season a changed man — given his track record at improving, that doubt would be justified — then they don't have much of a choice but to try to put better pieces around him, Embiid and Harris. Morey tried (and did a pretty fantastic job) finding the right types of guys last offseason, bringing in Seth Curry and Danny Green. The former was the Sixers' second-best player this postseason, while Green, who struggled before getting hurt, was still clearly missed against the Hawks. 

But the Sixers' options are somewhat limited this offseason in terms of financial flexibility, especially when it comes to any needle-moving players. Moreover, they have to be careful about the types of players they try to bring in — or how they might even try to change the roles for some players already on the team.

For example, bringing in a ball-dominant guard (or even moving someone like Tyrese Maxey to starting point guard) and changing Simmons' role within the offense could result in more trouble. Simmons has in the past been unwilling to give up the point guard duties, even to a player of Jimmy Butler's caliber. Here's more from Weitzman:

According to league sources, Simmons’ frustration at being relegated to off-ball duty during the team’s 2019 second-round loss to the Raptors contributed to the front office’s decision to not re-sign Jimmy Butler. Brown had handed Butler the keys to the offense, and management was worried how Simmons would handle having Butler around and monopolizing crunch-time playmaking duties for multiple years. 

The next season, prior to the league’s mid-pandemic restart, Brown told reporters that in practices, he’d been playing Simmons "exclusively" at power forward. Management, according to sources, pushed Brown to walk back that proclamation. 

"I feel more comfortable bringing the ball up," Simmons told me in the summer of 2017. "I feel limited if you put me at the 4 position. I don't feel I can help as much."  []

Through that lens, Simmons' unwillingness to do what's best for the team directly resulted in the dismantling of the best version of these Sixers we've seen to date, the ones that pushed the eventual champions to seven games before Kawhi Leonard's shot bounced four times and then agonizingly fell through the net.

It's somewhat understandable that a guy like Simmons wouldn't want to change — he's a perennial All-Star, an All-NBA defender, and surrounds himself only by those loyal to him, so he likely doesn't see all the same faults an objective third-party might see. But it's clear that something's gotta give.

His inability to improve year-over-year has stifled the Sixers. His poor postseason play has made trading him more difficult. And his unwillingness to change his role has created even more challenges for a front office that's trying to figure out how to make him fit. 

All the while, Simmons continues to be who he is, an incomplete but uniquely talented player during the regular season and a liability in the postseason. The Sixers continue to hold out hope that he'll improve. But we haven't seen it so far. And betting on it suddenly changing this year seems like a fool's errand, no matter how many plans the organization draws up for him.

He is who he is. And it is what it is.

Unless Simmons wants to change it.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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