Saving Private Ben Simmons

A disastrous playoffs and ridiculous problems from the free throw line may have ended Simmons' stint with the Sixers.

The time has come, or so it seems: Ben Simmons and Philadelphia 76ers have to part ways. I don't know, I really don't know how the hell to know at this point, if Simmons can be trusted to be an NBA star again. More: going from a feint of one, something that has already been, to a real one, a superstar. What his pedigree (a highly anticipated number 1 in the draft, in 2016) and his contract dictate: five-year extension and some 170 million of which he is guaranteed four and slightly more than 140. In the 2024-25 season, the last that he has signed, he will receive 40.3 million dollars. I do not know if there is hope, but it does happen, whatever the size, due to a change of team. Even if only for the novelty, to try. I don't know if there is anything more scientific to say at this point.

Simmons, who belongs (we were few and had a grandmother) to the Klutch Sports empire governed by Rich Paul, LeBron James' right-hand man, has stopped enjoying playing basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers. And after watching these 2021 playoffs I don't know how anyone could convince me otherwise. The Sixers, in parallel, have stopped trusting Simmons. And the first panel of analysis of the American press is speaking with a hitherto unimaginable frankness of this fate, perhaps sealed in the seventh game of the series against the Atlanta Hawks and in his immediate hangover. Doc Rivers said he "had no answer to that right now" when asked if he still thinks Simmons could be the point of a champion team. And Joel Embiid pointed, to point to the moment when it all fell apart, to the play that everyone was talking about. Coach and star, in this case also a project partner and fatigue, did nothing to alleviate the pressure that began to bury Simmons. It does not leave them in a very good place but, above all, it clears the picture a lot: we know where things are in Philadelphia.

The play that Embiid was referring to may be the farewell poster for this first Simmons, the failed Sixers super player project: with 3:30 to go and with the score at 86-88, Simmons got rid of Gallinari with a reverse and only under the rim, with no other rival with a tiny Trae Young who was late, avoided making a single dunk and assisted, a redundant action until nausea, to Thybulle. This one was missing and only made one of his free throws. Later, Trae linked an alley oop to Capela and a triple: from what Simmons was supposed to have turned 88-88, he went 87-93. “I… I'm going to be honest. I think the turning point was when we, to see how I say this, when we had an easy basket from which we ended up taking only one free throw scored, we missed the other and they scored later ”. That's what Embiid said. The franchise player, the soul of the Sixers. When it was necessary to lend a hand to Simmons, or simply when many would have done it (surely himself in another time), the Cameroonian chose to lend a hand ... but to the neck. It smells of exhaustion divorce, boredom and boredom. Not so much to objects flying from side to side of the room as to melancholic talk: “Look, we have to talk…” .

The Process (the industrialized and planned tanking on a large scale, without shame) began, to give it an official start, with the transfer of Jrue Holiday (July 12, 2013), sent by Sam Hinkie (the prophet of a way to rebuild that still provokes very hot-blooded debates) to New Orleans in exchange for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first round which was Elfrid Payton, traded on draft night for Dario Saric, a 2018 first round (Landry Shamet) and a second round from 2015 (Willy Hernangómez). What came out of those years of misery and defeat, of loss of identity and self-esteem in a historical franchise (the Process beyond the slogan) was the team led by Joel Embiid (number 3 in the 2014 draft) and Ben Simmons (number 1 2016). In the last four years (Simmons completely missed 2016-17, injured) the Sixers have been a team with a regular season average of 63% wins, about 52 per year in normal format (82 games, which does not there have been since 2018-19). And Simmons and Embiid have combined seven all stars, four nominations for the All NBA Teams and five for the Defensive Quintets. Not bad, but the Sixers have not stepped on a final in the East and, between injuries and more or less endemic problems, they have lost chances as good as this 2021: one side of the table in which they appeared, heading to the final Conference, Wizards and Hawks. The Hawks, by the way, are going to play their second Eastern final since 2015. In the Process leg, they've had a winning team, demolished it, and built another. It should be food for thought.

All the time back with the Process

The Process, the Process, the Process. Everything is analyzed according to the Process, in an attempt to vindicate it (some) and bury it (others). And while considering it the Coca-Cola formula is reckless, and it is being seen season after season, it does not make sense to continue blaming Hinkie five years later. The Sixers haven't stopped moving, although the constant presence of Embiid and Simmons softens that perception. Bryan Colangelo arrived first at the offices, who landed to give respectability after Hinkie's problems and left, for all possible reasons, due to a scandal of secret accounts on Twitter from which colleagues were criticized and dirty laundry was aired from the locker room. Then came Elton Brand, a former Sixer who is also not doing a job to get his chest out.With all the contradictions and failures of the Process, the optimization of the bag of assets (players, draft rounds) that Hinkie amassed by dragging the Sixers for the NBA has been worse (47 total victories between 2013 and 2016, in three seasons ). The change from the future to the present, the jump to compete now. There has come a string of outrages, strange decisions and bad contracts that have led the team here. And that's not Hinkie's fault as much as he's not a savior or a genius or, surely, an enfant terrible in some kind of punk capitalist utopia. In the 2017 draft, a pick 3 was sold that ended up being Jayson Tatum, no less, to go up to one and choose Markelle Fultz, who was about to retire in Philadelphia due to a nightmarish shoulder injury and ended up in Orlando in exchange for Jonathon Simmons, a second draft round and the first with which they chose Tyrese Maxey in the last draft. A very low-profile return less than two years after the draft.

There has been much more: the bet on Jimmy Butler aborted due to his bad relationship, among others, with a Brett Brown who ended up leaving his place to Doc Rivers, who has arrived with a contract of five years and 40 million and in his first season has solved few problems and has lost in playoffs like many other times, with bad decisions and few adjustments. His reputation, of course, has seen much better times. The five-year, 180 million contract for Tobias Harris, just a very good player. The four-year-old about 100 for Al Horford, whose mix with Embiid was so terrible that in just one season the experiment was aborted and the Thunder had to be coaxed into accepting the Dominican and letting go of Danny Green. Another one: in the 2018 draft the Sixers invested the pick 10 in the fantastic Mikal Bridges, a player who fit like a glove, was from the area and had his mother working for the franchise. But as soon as he was chosen he was sent to the Phoenix Suns, where he is now an essential player in the West finalist. In return, Zhaire Smith (pick 16) arrived, with no NBA future right now (and, at least, the first round of the Miami Heat in the next draft 2021) .

So, without defending Hinkie too much and leaving aside the forms of his philosophy for a moment, it can be said that the Sixers are a team of more than 50 wins and high aspirations every year thanks to the Process and a block destined not to arrive. never to the top due to the post process. What Hinkie did was very unedifying, no matter how much literature you want to put on it. Not taking advantage of it, at the point at which it had been reached, has been very unwise. And the price is going to end up being high, or so it seems.Ben Simmons, from enigma to problem

Finally Daryl Morey landed in Philadelphia, an ultra-ambitious and highly creative executive who came from revolutionizing the application of advanced analytics and sponsoring the triple revolution in the NBA. Morey wants to save shooters, and he flirted with James Harden until he ended up in Brooklyn. The red line, a prologue of what is to come, was not Ben Simmons, whom Morey was willing to trade, but which young people could go in the operation and what it meant for the Rockets to facilitate a meeting of Morey and Harden outside of Texas . One season and another gruesome playoff elimination later, Simmons' fate seems sealed. Kevin O'Connor speaks in The Ringer of the assault on a great star who stopped operations in the winter market by Kyle Lowry. And it puts on the table an ideal plan that goes through Damian Lillard (unattainable) or Bradley Beal (almost unattainable) and that can end in CJ McCollum or Zach LaVine. Already stars of the next step ... but players with shooting and points. It is what there is, it is what comes.

I have stopped believing in Simmons. There is no way for a player to reach their ceiling without being able to put the ball in the basket: in the end we forget the most basic rudiments of this game. Simmons has been in the NBA for four seasons and has made no progress. In fact, he has regressed, with less and less confidence and more weight on his shoulders. More insecure, less assertive, more residual in the attack of his team as long as it is not downhill and at full speed, a style that does not match the presence at the post of that human mountain that is Joel Embiid. This one needs exteriors that get shots. And Simmons needs to have an identity as an attacking player. You may never be a tripler, but you have to have something: movements to the post, suspension near the rim, a penetrating bomb ... something.

No matter how well he defends, which he does (in all positions, from one to five) and as brilliant as his game vision is, which he is, Simmons needs a foothold. From the comparisons with Magic Johnson or Scottie Pippen he has advanced towards the mirror of Draymond Green as last hope. In fact, those who still do not want to sell their NBA shares believe that the only way is to free the Australian from the grassroots game and use him as an unorthodox power forward. It's tempting as an option and that's why the Blazers, alongside Lillard, seem like such a healthy option for him. But even that is not clear to me: luck to anyone who wants to win in the playoffs with an inner theoretician who does not score a shot and who has a panic at the ball and contact because he does not even want to see the free throw line.

The now unfortunately emblematic move of the frank mate that Simmons did not dare to make has an obvious explanation. At least a priori and without much imagination: he did not want under any circumstances that he needed them and go to the free throw line. That allergy to fouls takes him away from the rim, the foul erases his influence in five on five and compresses the court, something in which many of Doc Rivers' rotation patterns (Simmons and Dwight Howard at the same time) did not help. on the track, for example). The Australian ends up being a zero to the left, a weak point that ends up seeing the plays that decide the game from the bench while Maxey (20 years old, number 21 of the last draft) or Shake Milton (number 54 in 2018) play. Simmons, with his mega-contract, his three all-stars and his two nominations for the Best Defensive Quintet (he has the level of Defender of the Year) has to get off the track so as not to harm his team. It is a death sentence.

The rivals apply the hack-a-ben so that he misses free throws but above all so that he loses the thread, loses temper, disconnects. And those who match their problems in the playoffs to those of Giannis Antetokounmpo are making a huge mistake. The Greek, we have just seen, affects the game in a thousand ways even if he does not put suspensions. Lead your team, compete to the end ... and evolve from your mistakes and skips. Little by little: Simmons, no. And that is the big problem, that in 2021 we have not only not solved our 2018 questions but we have gotten tired of asking them.

The numbers and negative milestones have circulated through the networks in a massive way: in these playoffs, Simmons has averaged 11.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.3 steals with 62% shooting, no triple and only one shot (0/1) and 34.2% in free throws. In his first playoffs, in 2018, he scored 16.3 points on average with 70.7% in free throws. This percentage has dropped by half, finally the definitive portrait of their failure in the playoffs. It is the worst percentage in history in a playoffs and among players with at least 70 free throws taken: Shaquille O'Neal stayed at 37.4% in 2006 and Wilt Chamberlain moved at 38% in 1968. If they fall apart centers, the worst so far was the 41.5% of Andre Iguodala in 2015, when he ended up being MVP of the Finals. Simmons has missed 48 free throws, more than teams like the Suns (29) and Nets (28) before the conference finals. And he was the first guard with ten missed free throws in a playoff game.

And what is worse: he has not been able to function in the last quarters in a tie in which the Sixers rallied 18 points in the fourth game (in which they could go 3-1) and 26 in the fifth, in their track, where they have lost three of the four they have played against the tenacious Hawks. The loss of Danny Green (present in almost all the best quintets on the court by net rating during the Regular Season) increased the pressure on a Seth Curry who responded big ... and on a Simmons who did absolutely nothing in a team in which Joel Embiid played with a knee injury, absolutely weakened, fighting as far as he could. Simmons missed 10 points in four of the seven series games and stayed on five in the seventh. And in five of the seven he did not even shoot a basket in the last quarters. A shocking fact. In the first game he made a 2/2 in the last twelve minutes, in the third a 1/1. In the second and last four he didn't even look at the basket. Nor, everyone knows, when he had a clear mate before him.

As the tie progressed, Simmons looked like he wished he weren't here, something very evident in the second part of the seventh game, when the barrage of boos was preparing that dismissed a team that has already consumed seven years of the career of Joel Embiid, an extraordinary player but very punished by injuries and with whom, unfortunately, it is not known how many years of plenitude are left: how many opportunities. What seems increasingly clear, right now, is that those that remain will be with another team profile and with another squire next to them. Ben Simmons' time seems up in Philadelphia. And what happens to his future (where, when and how) will depend the last chance that he can be what he seemed to be from childhood: an NBA star. Now it is far, far away from being.

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