- Ben Simmons’ on-court fit has kept the 76ers from growing into a championship contender.
- Simmons wants a trade, but the Sixers have been reluctant to move him, creating a standoff.
- Simmons was recently suspended for refusing to practice, as an ugly situation gets worse.
The moment that seemed to seal Ben Simmons’ fate in Philadelphia was a play the three-time All-Star didn’t make.
In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the Sixers trailing the Atlanta Hawks by two in the final minutes, Simmons made a quick spin move. He went past Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari and had a clear path to a dunk.
Instead of finishing the play, Simmons dumped the ball off to his teammate Matisse Thybulle, who was running baseline. The pass even caught Thybulle by surprise. He managed to corral the ball, then went up to dunk and was fouled by two converging Hawks defenders.
Thybulle went to the free-throw line and made one of two, officially making Simmons’ decision a poor one: it cost the Sixers points.
The play laid bare what had become apparent in the playoffs: Simmons was reluctant to shoot in the biggest moments. The Hawks had fouled Simmons throughout the series to send him to the line, where the career 60% shooter struggled worse than ever, hitting just 33% of his attempts. Late in games, Simmons looked as if he wanted nothing to do with the ball on offense, lest he be dared to shoot, or worse, forced to shoot.
He averaged 10 points per game in the series, which the Hawks won. Simmons attempted just 45 field goals in those seven games, an alarmingly low number for a player of his stature. His timidity on offense put a greater burden on star center Joel Embiid and a supporting cast built to, well, support two superstars.
The Sixers’ reactions afterward didn’t make things better.
After the game, Embiid called Simmons’ pass the game’s turning point, as the Hawks went on to score two unanswered baskets afterward, expanding their lead.
Meanwhile, head coach Doc Rivers told reporters that he wasn’t sure if Simmons could be the point guard on a championship team – comments he later said were taken out of context.
The entire incident – the pass, the loss, and the postgame comments – seemed to open a fissure on the team.
Simmons has since demanded a trade. He had sat out of training camp, only to report when the team stopped paying him. The Sixers have fined and suspended him. Now a blemished franchise star and his team are at any ugly crossroads that needs a quick resolution.
Simmons flaws always stood out more than his skills
Alongside Embiid, Simmons was one of two franchise players the Sixers’ “process” yielded.
The consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2016 draft, Simmons had all the makings of an immediate star: an athletic, 6-foot-10 point-forward who could handle the ball, slash to the rim, and set up his teammates.
Those skills translated to the NBA immediately. Simmons is a walking triple-double threat and a three-time All-Star. He has also emerged into one of the league’s best defenders – a long, strong, on-ball menace.
Yet what has also always stood out was Simmons’ lack of a jump shot.
That one hole in his game has dogged the Sixers each season in an era where shooting and spacing are at a premium. It’s exacerbated by the fact that their best player is a big man who thrives near the basket.
What do you do with a player who plays like a point guard but cannot make opponents fear him when he doesn’t have the ball? The Sixers often put Simmons near the basket, pushing Embiid to the perimeter more often than he’d like.
The Sixers have tried to solve the issues. They made a big swing at Jimmy Butler in 2018 to add another ball-handler and scorer, only to let him walk in free agency the following summer (there were reports that Simmons didn’t like ceding ball-handling to Butler). They added Al Horford in 2019 to bring in a floor-spacing big, but it just cramped the offense further. They also added more shooting in free agency.
None of it has resulted in a breakthrough. The 2018-19 Sixers came close, famously losing to Kawhi Leonard’s triple-bounce buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the second round. The last two years resulted in a first-round exit and a blown 3-1 lead to the Hawks in the second round.
On-court issues have been exacerbated by the off-court
If Simmons’ infamous pass on his open dunk in Game 7 was the tipping point of his tenure, it was set up by the Sixers front office months before.
According to reports, the Sixers offered Simmons to the Houston Rockets for James Harden last year. The Rockets reportedly turned down the offers because team owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t want to negotiate with his former GM Daryl Morey, who now runs the Sixers.
Simmons was reportedly bothered by being dangled in a trade, and after the Sixers flamed out of the postseason, he asked for a trade.
That request has led to an ugly standoff. The Sixers are in no hurry to move Simmons, who has four years and $130 million remaining on his contract.
Simmons tried to expedite the process by holding out of training camp but reported after two weeks when the Sixers withheld his pay.
Things took an uglier turn on Tuesday when the Sixers kicked Simmons out of practice for refusing to participate in a drill. They suspended him one game for conduct detrimental to the team, meaning Simmons will miss the season opener on Wednesday.
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Simmons had been disengaged since returning to the team.
The entire situation seems to have hit a breaking point for Embiid.
“Our job is not to babysit somebody,” Embiid told reporters after Simmons was kicked out of practice.
Embiid added: “At this point, I don’t care about that man. He does whatever he wants. That’s not my job.”
To this point, the Sixers have reportedly only been interested in trading Simmons for a superstar such as Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal suggesting they were not interested in moving him at a discounted price.
Now it’s worth wondering how long the team will let the situation play out.
Simmons’ practice malaise may be a calculated move to get the Sixers to move quicker on a deal. If so, it could work. The longer this standoff goes on, the more coaches and players have to talk about it.
There are also questions about the effort Simmons will give if he does dress for games. Harden notoriously gave less than a full effort when he began last season in Houston before the Rockets finally caved to trading him to the Brooklyn Nets.
Simmons is unlikely to receive a warm welcome from the crowd if reactions from 76ers fans online are any indication. At a recent All Elite Wrestling show in Philadelphia, fans broke out into a “Fuck Ben Simmons” chant.
Unless the Sixers tell Simmons to stay away from the team – which they would likely have to pay him to do – an awkward situation stands to get more uncomfortable when he returns from his suspension. It’s not an easy time for anyone involved.
“My job as a coach is to keep trying to get guys to buy in, to be in, and unfortunately this is tougher, this situation,” Rivers told reporters on Tuesday, “but that’s my job.”
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