Well, the Philadelphia 76ers' season didn't end with them blowing a big lead. Unfortunately, with a berth in the conference finals on the line, they didn't build one, either. Despite holding Hawks star Trae Young to 5-for-23 shooting in Game 7 on Sunday, the Sixers suffered a 103-96 loss, a devastating outcome for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Much of the blame in the intervening days has landed at the feet of three-time All-Star Ben Simmons, who had five points on 2-for-4 shooting, 13 assists, eight rebounds and too many bad vibes. With three-and-a-half minutes left, he passed up a layup and dropped the ball off to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and split the free throws.
If a different player had made that mistake, it would have been a point squandered and nothing more. In this case, though, it was a microcosm of a larger problem: One of Philadelphia's cornerstones -- one of the fastest, most powerful players in the league -- didn't attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarter of five of the seven games. Simmons shot 15-for-45 (32.7 percent) from the free throw line in the series. These stats are likely related.
Asked if Simmons could be a point guard for a championship team, coach Doc Rivers said he didn't know. A day later, Rivers reversed course, saying he remains "bullish" on him. His future in Philadelphia is murky.
Simmons could and should have been more involved offensively. The Sixers would be lucky, though, if he were the only problem, or even the primary reason they lost in the second round. The reality is that he is a convenient scapegoat, and all the focus on him has let others off the hook. There are probably 76 reasons that they fell short.
A few days after the terrible finish, we've all had some time to, uh, process what went wrong. Let's take a clear-eyed look at why and how Philadelphia's season ended and what might come next, starting with all the Simmons stuff.
1. Simmons' shooting, scoring and stubbornness
If you're a top-tier prospect, and particularly if you're selected No. 1 in the draft, you're probably going to use the first few years of your NBA career to experiment and expand your offensive repertoire. Every training camp, you're likely going to arrive a bit closer to a finished product: A tighter handle, a quicker release, more confidence. Simmons has not had this kind of trajectory. He has cut stuff out of his game.
These lefty jumpers and righty runners are all from his first 12 regular-season games as a Sixer:
In that video, Simmons makes more midrange jump shots than he has in the previous three seasons. He puts pressure on the rim as a driver, but it is bizarre to see such a smart, skilled playmaker approach the game at 24 years old with the scoring-is-for-others stubbornness of post-Memphis Marc Gasol.
Most of the time, I find this stubbornness endearing. Simmons is the antithesis of every "empty-stats guy" who gets buckets, stinks on defense and doesn't create for others. Despite years of public pressure to shoot 3s, even from his former coach and more than one current teammate, Simmons has been content to generate 3s. His lack of shooting limits him in the halfcourt, but his other skills -- screening, rolling, finishing, passing, cutting, offensive rebounding -- make him far from useless in that setting.
On many possessions against the Hawks, though, he wasn't doing much of anything. Simmons averaged 6.4 field goal attempts in those seven games, and he spent an alarming amount of time in what The Athletic's John Hollinger called "the puker spot," between the block and the elbow. For every second that he spent floating around aimlessly, and for every missed opportunity to cut into open space or seal his defender near the rim, he deserves criticism.
In Game 3, when the Sixers were in control of the series, a timely cut and a well-spaced floor got him two of his 18 points:
Philadelphia didn't need jumpers from Simmons, but it did need more of that. When he was stationary, was that because he didn't want to be fouled, he didn't trust his teammates to pass to him or because he resents his crunch-time role?
Which brings us to…
2. Simmons' role in the halfcourt offense
Simmons' inactivity reached an inexcusable extreme during high-pressure moments in the Hawks series, but the way his usage normally waxes and wanes is a byproduct of how the Sixers use him. While he's been their nominal point guard for four seasons, he's increasingly functioned more like Draymond Green than Rajon Rondo in their half-court offense. This season he registered career lows in touches, time of possession, seconds per touch, dribbles per touch and post touches, according to NBA.com. (To his credit, he still managed to post a career high in free throw rate, showing an increased willingness to take contact, which made it all the more disappointing when he shied away from it in the playoffs.)
As a rookie, Simmons routinely did stuff like this in the pick-and-roll:
And the Sixers used to play like this, even with Joel Embiid on the floor:
Philadelphia doesn't have that kind of tempo in the halfcourt anymore, and Doc Rivers' arrival put an end to the staggering and tilted the offense heavily in Embiid's direction, to great regular-season success. Opponents had no answer for Embiid's face-up jumper, and the starting unit was elite on both ends. At the end of close games, the Sixers played through Embiid (38.5 percent usage rate in the clutch) and Tobias Harris (26.7 percent) and went a league-best 25-9 in clutch situations. With the season on the line, there was a lot of Embiid operating one-on-one in the middle of the floor. This wasn't unusual for Philadelphia or unrelated to Simmons' disappearing act.
In the middle of the third quarter of Game 7, Simmons threw down a reverse dunk off an empty-side pick-and-roll with Furkan Korkmaz handling the ball. This setup has always put defenses in a precarious position:
Why not try that again? Why not run the dribble-handoffs with Simmons and Seth Curry that worked earlier in the game? Just as it's a mistake to treat coaches as if they control every little thing their players do, it's a mistake to assume players can simply impose their will independent of the plays being called.
3. Turnovers and transition
Philadelphia wasn't particularly good at taking care of the ball during the regular season, but it was a special kind of sloppy in Game 7. Embiid was the main culprit, finishing with eight turnovers for the second consecutive game, but Harris and Tyrese Maxey made costly mistakes, too.
A connected issue: While the Sixers were an excellent defensive team in the halfcourt, Rivers often complained that they were giving up far too many transition opportunities. Live-ball turnovers do not help in this regard:
Embiid's turnover rate was lower than ever this season, one of the benefits of emphasizing his face-up game. That improvement didn't carry over to the playoffs, though, and maybe making him the go-to guy in the playoffs is asking too much. This one of the reasons people have been shouting about trading Simmons and/or acquiring a more conventional starting point guard for years. In theory, handing the keys to a perimeter playmaker like Kyle Lowry would stabilize the team in big moments and ease the burden on Embiid. Perhaps the isolation scoring and pick-and-roll proficiency of someone like C.J. McCollum would accomplish the same thing.
Embiid might just want to play with a point guard who isn't a 6-foot-10 non-shooter. If the Sixers rush to move Simmons and get less weird, though, there's a good chance they'll lose more games. He is an enormous part of their defense, which ranked second in the league, and he is the reason they used more possessions in transition than all but one team, per Cleaning The Glass.
Transition scoring is easy to overlook until it's gone. Philadelphia scored 23 fast break points in Game 7, but, two days after the loss, team president Daryl Morey said he was stunned that number wasn't higher. Harris missed multiple layups. That's just bad luck.
4. Rivers, Morey and the bench
The Sixers once again fell apart with Embiid on the bench in the Hawks series. If their second unit had been better, none of these games would've have been close enough for them to blow at the end.
It's not just that Philadelphia was plus-51 in Embiid's 262 minutes against Atlanta and minus-31 in the other 75 minutes. It's that its offense was predictably awful when Dwight Howard was paired with Thybulle or Simmons. If you're going to try to play multiple non-shooters together, you have to be purposeful about how you space the floor. What exactly do you expect from Harris in isolation with Simmons and Howard on the opposite side?
Howard was a mess, particularly in Game 7, and Rivers elected not to try the Simmons-at-5 look. This summer, Morey's front office will need to find the pieces to make a smallball lineup viable. They either need a stretch big to back up Embiid, or they need enough shooters with defensive versatility that they can use Simmons or Thybulle as the big.
Danny Green's injury early in Game 3 hurt, mostly because of the trickle-down effect it had on the bench. Shake Milton and Maxey had wildly inconsistent playing time and wildly inconsistent production. George Hill was supposed to be a steadying influence in these situations, but he was mostly invisible offensively. The Hawks, meanwhile, had a plethora of secondary creators to support Young, and they got away with playing Young and Lou Williams together throughout the series because Philadelphia didn't target them effectively on the other end.
Morey pushed back on the notion that the Sixers need another perimeter playmaker. He said they need to be better offensively, and "some of those options are in the form of younger players that, sometimes, everyone's nervous to count on, but we really believe in the players we have."
This summer, Philadelphia will not overreact or "underreact" to the way the series ended, Morey said. What he cannot control, however, is how other teams react to it. If Simmons' trade value mirrors his public perception, the Sixers will be in a profoundly uncomfortable position.