Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers raised eyebrows when he gave an honest answer to the question of whether Ben Simmons could be the point guard of a championship team following Philadelphia's 103-96 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 on Sunday night.
"I don't know the answer to that," Rivers replied. His response immediately generated a flurry of trade speculation surrounding Simmons, but on Monday he made it clear that he isn't giving up on the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, and that he remains sanguine about Simmons, though he acknowledged that there's a lot of work to be done.
"I'm very bullish on Ben still," Rivers said to media members during his end of season availability. "But there's work. There is. And Ben will be willing to do it, and that's the key. Sometimes you have to go through stuff to see it, and to be honest with it.
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"Obviously what Ben just went through, I can't imagine that. Because he has so much greatness in all the things around him that he does. There are areas that he can fix, quickly, in my opinion, and get better, that will take him to another level. Sometimes you don't know why you're in different places, you know what I mean? But this may be one of them. I look at this as a great challenge, but definitely a doable one."
So, what will the Sixers do to help Simmons become a more complete player? Well, according to Rivers, improvement will begin at the free throw line -- an area where Simmons was an unmitigated disaster this postseason. Simmons shot 25-for-73 from the line during the playoffs. That equates to 34 percent, which is the worst mark in a single postseason in NBA history.
Simmons' struggles from the foul line clearly shook his confidence, and that leaked over into other areas of his game. In the full seven-game series against Atlanta, Simmons took three total shots in the fourth quarter. He didn't attempt a single shot in the fourth quarter of five of the seven games.
"I think some of the stuff is obvious," Rivers said of Simmons' improvement. "We're not hiding that Ben has to become a better free throw shooter, and a more confident free throw shooter. If that happens, I really believe a lot of the other parts of his game will follow. I said that before the season started. The first thing I said was, 'We got to get him to the line 10 times a night.' ... So, we've 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."
While that sounds good on paper, some Sixers fans will likely be skeptical of Simmons' ability, or willingness, to improve his shooting stroke, given the fact that it has been the one glaring weakness in his game since he first entered the league and he hasn't yet made noticeable advancements. Rivers, though, thinks that this summer will be different compared to previous offseasons because the organization has identified an effective plan of attack.
"I believe, without going into detail with what we're doing, I believe we know what the right work is," Rivers said. "And the right type of work, and the right way to do it. 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 [in Philadelphia] 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 believe that."
While Rivers remains confident in Simmons, it remains to be seen if the front office feels the same way. Simmons' name popped up in trade rumors during the season, and that's
very likely guaranteed to happen again over the offseason, That doesn't mean that Daryl Morey and Elton Brand are going to pull the trigger on a deal, but they'd be remiss to not at least gauge his value after how poorly he performed against Atlanta. If Simmons does remain in Philadelphia heading into next season, which he stated that he would like to do following Game 7 on Sunday night, the Sixers will have to hope that Rivers' improvement plan works, or else their ceiling as a team will continue to be compromised.