The Philadelphia 76ers, on their home floor, lost to the No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks 103-96 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday. Considering the expectations, and the way the bracket/opposing injuries broke in the Sixers' favor, to go out like this is rock bottom for the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid era.
It feels unfair to still link these two players. There was once an honest debate as to whether the Sixers, should they decide to trade one of their stars, would be better off building around Embiid or Simmons. That is laughable now. Embiid is a superstar. Simmons, in a postseason setting, has devolved into am offensive liability.
As a non-shooter, Simmons has to double down on other potential areas of impact, lest he turn into a statue without the built-in value of being a spacer. But he doesn't commit to cutting or rolling hard. He doesn't seal for high-lows with Embiid or establish consistent deep post position on mismatches. He sets screens and then, too often, fades out of the play. And lately, he won't shoot. And we're not talking about jumpers. I mean, he won't shoot. From anywhere. Staring down a wide-open dunk with under four minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Game 7, Simmons honestly passed this ball.
Over the entire seven-game series, Simmons took just three fourth-quarter shots zero of which came in the final four games, three of which the Sixers lost.
Simmons also shot 25-for-73 from the free-throw line during the playoffs. That is the worst free-throw showing over the course of a single postseason (minimum 70 attempts) in NBA history.
Simmons wasn't just offensively awful against the Hawks; he was invisible. He might as well not even been on the court. For some meaningful fourth-quarter stretches, he wasn't. Doc Rivers just couldn't afford to play him.
Incidentally, Rivers, who has been Simmons' staunchest supporter throughout his first season coaching in Philadelphia, was asked about Simmons' play in the Atlanta series and what it might mean as the team moves forward (either with or, potentially, without Simmons).
Doc Rivers, on Ben Simmons' free-throws and lack of aggressiveness: "I still believe in him, but we have work to do. We're gonna have to get in the gym, put a lot of work in and go for it."— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) June 21, 2021
This is a polite way of saying: This is not good.
Rivers was then asked if he still believes Simmons can be a championship point guard.
"I don't know the answer to that," Rivers said.
A month ago, Rivers undoubtedly would've answered yes to this question. He has essentially laughed at reporters all season who have dared to broach the striking holes in Simmons' game, citing, of course, all the things Simmons does do. But there's no running from this anymore. Simmons is not even close to a championship point guard.
Thing is, he shouldn't be a point guard at all. Frankly, Rivers doesn't use Simmons as a point guard too much; it just gets cast that way because he has the ball in his hands and he's known as a good passer and perceptions die hard. But he's not a point guard. The Sixers do not run their offense through him, which only makes him an even bigger liability as defenders don't have to honor him off the ball because the guy would rather pick daisies than shoot a basketball even from point-blank range.
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So to answer the misguided question: No, Simmons can't be a championship point guard. That should've been understood a long time ago. But maybe he can be a championship playmaking four-man, a more athletic Draymond Green who can make plays for others, rebound, lead fast breaks and guard the full gamut of any lineup.
The problem is, the Sixers have never prioritized bringing in an actual championship point guard so they could completely stop asking Simmons to do even a little bit of what he is clearly incapable of doing even in small doses. Kyle Lowry? Nope. Chris Paul? Nope. James Harden? Nope. Reports speaking to all those possibilities were plentiful, but the Sixers either didn't want to give up enough or didn't have enough to give because they've spent the last few years cashing in all their assets on Tobias Harris and the long-departed Jimmy Butler.
When Butler was around, that's when the Sixers were for real. Butler could handle the half-court creation, freeing Simmons up to play defense and push in transition. Philly should have sold out to keep Butler from walking to Miami. Maybe he was going to go anyway. Butler doesn't like players who don't have the pedal down at all times, and Simmons is clearly OK with fading out of the spotlight. But the full-court press to keep Butler should've been on. As it should have been to go get Lowry or Paul, at the least.
Either way, the point is, Simmons isn't a point guard. He is, in fact, in desperate need of a point guard, as is Embiid. If the Sixers can't make that happen this offseason, perhaps Simmons will have to find his new, appropriate role on a new team. Because the way he exists on this Sixers team, as currently constructed, just isn't going to work. I mean heck, even Embiid knows something has to give
Joel Embiid on whether he’d like to see the Sixers run it back next year:— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) June 21, 2021
“That’s a tricky question.”
Stay tuned. This Philly drama isn't going anywhere as free agency and the draft approach.