Simmons, Sixers Reach Staggering Impasse


There is a scene in Avengers Infinity War that is a visual representation of the Ben Simmons discussion. It’s the scene where Thanos has finally arrived on Earth and Vision begs his lover (?) Wanda to destroy the mind stone bound to his person.

The movie leads to this point– the last resort to stopping Thanos in order to save the world. Despite her hesitations, reluctantly, she finally does it.

She gets no pleasure in doing so. It was just the only way to save everyone. After Game 7, we may have reached our Wanda moment with Simmons and the Sixers. We may be finally ready to let go.

Before we do, however, let’s make sure it is in fact the right thing to do, that it will save everyone, or if it will result in the inevitable.

We haven’t really learned anything new talking about Ben Simmons in recent years. His fit next to Joel Embiid, questionable. His lack of a jump shot, confirmed. Otherworldly defensive abilities, elite. Playmaking abilities, context-dependent.

All things we’ve known since his rookie season. We’ve gathered everything we need to know about Simmons with the Sixers. The non-traditional point guard, former first-overall pick has rarely been the focus, except when it comes to criticism. The conversation about Ben has created a civil war of sorts among people who care about basketball– Ben needs to go vs. Ben can work here. The argument is multi-faceted with several layers of questions that get to the heart-of-the-root issues. 

Was Ben Given A Fair Chance?

His first season in the NBA coincided with Embiid’s first full season and fellow former first-overall pick Markelle Fultz’s rookie season, and his shooting woes. His second full season, a crucial year in his development, was interrupted with the arrival of Jimmy Butler. Instead of coming into his own and continuing to figure out the on-court partnership with Embiid, he was regulated to afterthought.

The next season was a lost year for everyone. Butler and crucial floor spacer J.J. Redick were gone.

In came Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Fine players, yet terrible fits next to Embiid and Simmons. This season has arguably been the most stable of his basketball career since high school. All it took was a roster that made more sense, more vocal support from an established, championship coach, and time to grow. It has produced a second first-team all-defensive selection, and visible signs of an improving relationship with Embiid. 

On one side of the coin, not having the attention of a No. 1 overall pick is oftentimes a good thing, allowing a player to quietly develop over time. Fultz never got that opportunity in Philadelphia.

On the other side, he’s also been a No. 1 pick that’s been treated like an accessory his entire career. Instead of an offense catered around his skill set, he’s the one being told to adapt.

In short, it’s one of the most unusual environments for a top pick to develop.

What did we expect of him?

Any time you start to think that maybe we’re being unreasonable with our expectations of him, he does something like this.

Sprinkle in some of his summer league shot selection and you’ve got something. This is someone using all of his powers at his maximum. No presence to overshadow his own. In the absence of their charismatic superstar, Ben was free to fully be himself with the dial turned all the way up.

As an introvert, I can relate. Why waste the energy trying to outshine a dominant personality when you can redirect that energy to the stuff that needs to be done? I’ll do what is needed, but I’m not going to compete for the spotlight.

If you give it to me, however, without anyone trying to take any of it — where I can be appreciated singularly for who I am — I’ll show you my range. Basically, me, Ben, and other introverts are the same person.

What would Ben as a willing shooter mean for him and the team?

It can be assumed everyone would like Ben to be more offensively inclined.

Where it gets tricky, though, is how much you feel Ben’s lack of shooting should be the focus of the conversation. Moreover, how much does Ben’s lack of shooting impact Embiid and the rest of the team? To keep the focus on Ben, given the flashes we’ve seen, a commitment to being a willing in-game shooter means a commitment to adapt. Even if he’s a terrible shooter, it means he’s willing to try, to put in the work. Oftentimes, trying is the most important part of keeping any relationship together. There’s something else being a willing shooter opens up. 

Years ago, people were pleading for Giannis Antetokounmpo to add an outside shot to his game. Shooting was considered the last infinity stone for Giannis to add.

Flashforward to present day. People are finding new ways to criticize him– his free-throw shooting, taking too many outside shots, not having the “it” factor to carry a team to a championship.

All of this for a former two-time MVP winner.

I’d like to imagine that Ben notices that. The criticism never stops. Once he gives us a jump shot, we’ll want something else from him. It’s a never-ending cycle that mirrors everyone’s pursuit of approval– if you cater your fulfillment around something as volatile as what everyone else wants you to be, no one will ever be satisfied.

Perhaps his mindset is to be the best version of himself possible. Depending on who you are, you can call that enlightened or you could call it stubbornness. And round and round the Ben Simmons debate takes us.

Does Ben Need to be Saved from Himself?

Doc is loyal to a fault. He will go down with his guys. In some cases, it’s been frustrating, seemingly sticking with something or someone that just doesn’t work. It’s difficult not to think about a rumored coach for this team after Brett Brown’s exit in Tyronn Lue. The work he is doing with the Clippers in making the necessary adjustments over these last two rounds has been fantastic.

Meanwhile, other than a few minor changes — like taking Danny Green off Trae Young and getting away from all-bench units — it’s worth discussing whether there were more adjustments that could’ve been made. We need some distance to decide whether loyalty to Ben, even when Atlanta resorted to intentionally fouling him, was a coaching error. 

There are young stars almost everywhere, but none are as unique as Simmons. We want what’s best for Ben, and we also want things to work out for him here. He hasn’t had a fair start to his career. Despite being an ex-No. 1 overall pick, not Embiid, the central question has always focused on how do we make things easier for Embiid? How do we construct the team around Embiid’s talents?

I still wonder if they’ve tried everything. You can’t underestimate how the Fultz experiment ended may have affected Simmons. Fultz, if he lived up to his full potential, could have been that true, traditional point guard Philadelphia has needed all this time. He also would have come at the fraction of the cost that other names fans (e.g. Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul) would have come for. Since then, Philadelphia has never been able to acquire that type of player.

Rapid Fire Questions

Have they tried more lineups with Ben and a stretch five that takes advantage of the extra space? Have they tried more lineups with Ben as the four next to Joel instead of Tobias Harris? Is there a Harris trade out there that could make that lineup a reality with more of a full-time point guard and Ben embracing a role as a full-time front court player (at least with the starters)?

There are years of pain the Sixers have endured to reach this point, and that’s not including the tanking the Sixers did to get Embiid and Simmons in the first place. The counseling, mediations and attempts to rekindle a souring marriage aren’t very pleasant, but they’re essential to getting to that good place. Daryl Morey will do everything possible to build a championship. The only rotation player he drafted was Tyrese Maxey.

Still, I have to imagine and hope that a Simmons exit strategy will be his last resort.

Looking Ahead

Philadelphia is out of fall guys. Brett Brown is gone. Elton Brand is in a different role. Al Horford and Josh Richardson have been replaced. Joel Embiid is in shape. There’s only so much Maxey and low future first-round picks (don’t tell that to Houston). Even after a near all-star-level season, there’s only so much Harris (on that contract) can get you.

Simmons is the last piece. How Philadelphia proceeds will be a pivot point in the league’s future.

These are all the facts. What you do with those facts, and how they translate to your feelings towards Simmons is the ultimate tentpole to describe what kind of fan you are. The conversation about Simmons has little to do with Simmons and more about ourselves.

Simmons is the lens through which we can discover our own values, as fans and people. It perfectly ties to the idea of unrealized potential.

Success is a function of expectations. To the extent that people criticize Ben determines how highly you view him. While the early Magic Johnson comparisons were a bit lofty, you don’t have to squint too hard to see a world in which he’s Giannis-lite. It’s possible it can happen in Philadelphia with Embiid.

Anything is possible, but the probability lessens with every big playoff loss.

The Obscure Road Ahead

Normally, I’m an agent of chaos. The Los Angeles Clippers’ playoff exit last season was more entertaining (at least on Twitter) than it had any right to be. The Sixers’ recent collapses in this playoff round is karma. Punishment for such misplaced glee.

And all the focus is unfairly on Ben.

He’s been unapologetically who he is in his short time in the NBA, and I respect that. Perhaps matching up against NBA fans’ outsized expectations was always an unfair fight. If the Sixers go down, and Ben plays how he has played throughout his tenure with the team — occasional flashes of aggressiveness, all-world defense, and disappearing in stretches — it will be his last act of defiance.

My last message to him after facing the inevitable wrath of what would follow such a performance– you have my respect Ben. I hope they remember you.

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About Matthieu Hertilus

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