June 21, 2021
Game 7s have a habit of spotlighting the truth about a player, a team, and a franchise. It showed us that Joel Embiid is a great player, but perhaps not a title-winning player just yet. It showed us Tobias Harris scoring at will in the regular season doesn't mean a whole lot when everything is on the line in the playoffs.
One truth stands above the rest — Ben Simmons probably shouldn't be in Philadelphia next season. Not because he's a worthless basketball player, not because he and Embiid are mortal enemies, not because you're afraid of him bolting for warm weather when his contract eventually runs out. But both sides can only keep up the facade for so long. The Sixers and Simmons both need something close to a fresh start if they're ever going to become the best versions of themselves, a fact that was made clear as the Sixers tried to pick up the pieces after their soul-crushing defeat.
Doc Rivers, a strident defender of Ben Simmons all throughout the year, went as far as questioning the intelligence of anyone who dared to ask whether Simmons should be subbed out of a game over his free-throw issues. Beaten down over the course of their series with Atlanta, Rivers not only conceded that battle by removing Simmons from the game, he struggled to defend his point guard following Sunday night's loss.
"I don't know that question, or the answer to that right now," Rivers said when asked whether he still believed Simmons could be a title-winning point guard. "I don't know the answer to that."
It's both shocking to hear that sort of pivot and easy to understand the sudden crisis of confidence for Rivers. Simmons finishes his 2021 playoff run with the single-worst mark from the free-throw line of any player who has taken 70 or more attempts, and that free-throw number only tells part of the story. Worse than that was his total disregard for attacking the basket, the only method that actually allows him to score during a basketball game.
The lasting memory of this game and this series will not be a Trae Young stepback jumper, a John Collins poster dunk, or even Joel Embiid's costly turnover in the final minutes of Game 7. It will be Simmons under the hoop, a dunk opportunity waiting in front of him, and the 6'10" Australian opting to let someone else, in a worse position, try to score instead.
Ben Simmons did not just pass this up... pic.twitter.com/4JyM7ZHNkJ— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 21, 2021
It was a moment not even the world's biggest Simmons hater could have scripted. Joel Embiid threw his hands up in exasperation after the play, then quickly collected himself and dapped up his teammate. And while he tried to frame the moment as part of a larger run of team failures, including his own, the big man could not help but express his shock an hour after we'd all seen it happen in real-time.
"I mean, I'll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we — I don't know how to say it — but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw and we missed the other and then they came down and scored," Embiid said. "We didn't get a good possession on the other end and Trae came back and he made a 3. And then from there, down four, it's on me. I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point."
Embiid was merely seeing what a packed arena and millions of people at home saw on their TVs. The Philadelphia crowd tried to will Simmons into the more effective version of himself that we saw as recently as the Wizards series, urging him on each time Simmons got the ball and began moving toward the opponent's basket. The first few times he ducked his head and passed out, disappointed, "Awwwww!" yells moved around the arena. Those quickly turned to unrest, to boos, to disgust at having to watch this guy play at all, with some fans chanting to trade Simmons before the game had even ended.
"No one will offer a more succinct explanation of the problem with Ben Simmons than, 'I am who I am, it is what it is' no matter how hard they try. Everyone knows who he is, and that is the problem."
The concept of a trade was something Simmons didn't seem to consider in the moments after the game, and to his credit, his initial response was graceful, offering a confession that he had not done enough offensively, that he was happy to be in the city of Philadelphia, and that short-term vitriol is part of the deal when you fail here, a thing you sign up for knowing the highs are much higher as a result. Had Simmons left it there, it would have been a rare moment of vulnerability from a hard-headed man, offered in conjunction with his mid-series admission that his problems at the line were mental.
But there was just enough time on his Zoom call for Simmons to bury himself. Asked whether he feels like there's something different in the postseason that doesn't allow him to be the guy he believes he is in the regular season, Simmons was right back to being standoffish.
"No, no, no, I'm not going to let you say that. We lost, it sucks. I am who I am, it is what it is. It's not easy to win, and it showed," Simmons said. "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."
He has been humiliated as much as a max contract player possibly could be, turned into a national laughingstock on the sport's biggest stage. Shaquille O'Neal, the most infamous free-throw failure to ever step on a basketball court, spent part of Sunday's postgame claiming he would have knocked Simmons out for playing this way if they'd shared a locker room. Charles Barkley got in on it too. I am not the sort of person who wants or asks for professional athletes to be humble — making it at all requires a level of self-belief that defies rationality, even for the last man on the bench. But no one will offer a more succinct explanation of the problem with Ben Simmons than, "I am who I am, it is what it is" no matter how hard they try.
Everyone knows who he is, and that is the problem.
The question is how you fix it, and Philadelphia has certainly thrown a lot of stuff at the wall to see what works. They have done everything from starting T.J. McConnell next to him to trading for Jimmy Butler to paying $100 million for a stretch big to revamping the coaching staff. All roads lead to the same place. The best retort any Simmons loyalist can offer is to play him more as a small-ball center, as if using his minutes to provide cover for Embiid could possibly be the team-defining answer.
There are many critics who will tell you Simmons does not put in the work. I would push back on that with a more damning hypothesis — he puts in the work and is unable and unwilling to use it when it counts. He has been dismissing critics as people who don't know basketball for years, and in hindsight, it feels less about arrogance than it is about obscuring his reasons for never leaving his comfort zone. His quest to avoid failure is so persistent that he arrives there all the same, inaction having the same effect as clanging a bunch of jumpers off the back rim.
The Sixers, as the results on the floor show, need something that Simmons cannot offer them right now. Joel Embiid is in the prime of his career, an MVP-caliber talent dying for someone to make his life easier on offense. But Simmons, just 24 years old, needs something the Sixers can't offer him right now: a step back in responsibility, in expectations, and a chance to allow those failures to happen without the weight of expectations crushing him.
There shouldn't be anger if either side goes on to greatness without the other, just a tinge of sadness because it didn't have to be this way.
Where he goes and what they could get for him is another matter entirely. Simmons' value has taken an unthinkable hit over the course of this season. The Sixers once refused to entertain the idea of moving him for Kawhi Leonard, the same Kawhi Leonard who would go on to beat them en route to a title. The drop-off to where he is now is the best case for keeping him in a Sixers uniform for the time being — rehabbing his image and selling to a higher bidder at the next opportune moment is the path to maximum return.
Is it tenable to hold out for that hopeful possibility? The mental component of Simmons' game will almost certainly not be aided by playing in this city, nor should this fanbase feel a responsibility to put his needs before anyone else's. Philadelphia spent this entire playoff run urging him to be his best self, rewarded for their efforts with a string of games where each was more impotent than the last. They have battled other fanbases in defense of this guy, promising each other this year was different, only for Simmons to turn in what will probably go down as one of the worst series an All-Star has ever played. Seeing him on the floor will represent, on some level, the Sixers' acceptance of who he is and the postseason disappointment he represents. And no matter how hard he works to hint at bigger things to come, no one will believe what he's selling.
That is not the environment for a player working through an admitted mental issue to find success. And it is not fair to expect anyone, whether it is his teammates or a diehard fan from West Philly, to circle the wagons for a guy who has told you in giant neon letters that he isn't willing to risk failure for the sake of this team. Here, he will always be Ben Simmons, No. 1 overall pick, max contract player, final piece of The Process. But he can be something else, perhaps whatever he wants, in another market, with a support system that doesn't bear the scar tissue of his failures to date.
This has been a year of putting your best foot forward while knowing it could all come crashing down at any time, whether due to COVID or injuries or some other random tragedy that could drop out of the sky at a moment's notice. All year, the Sixers have said the right things about Simmons. And they should have — whether you believe in the guy or not, he was their teammate and a big part of Philadelphia's success up through the first round of the playoffs, a friend who they had an obligation to stand by.
But unlike members of your family, you get to choose your friends, and good friends know when it's time to let someone go for the sake of both parties. There shouldn't be anger if either side goes on to greatness without the other, just a tinge of sadness because it didn't have to be this way.
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