Inside his Stoughton, Mass., basketball facility in November 2019, one of the best shooters in 76ers history pointed to a television in the highest, farthest corner of a conference room and began to explain why Ben Simmons was destined to drive people crazy for the rest of his NBA days.
Dana Barros made 41% of his three-point shots and 86% of his foul shots during his 13 years in the league, and he was so productive and efficient a scorer in 1994-95 that, for that single remarkable 82-game stretch, he could be credibly compared to Allen Iverson and Stephen Curry. Now he was sitting at the head of a long table, and he was pretending that the television was a hoop, and he was pretending to shoot a basketball through that hoop. Perfect form. Elbow tucked in tight.
“You look at the greatest shooters,” he said. “They stay in this three-inch window. Once you go outside this window, you can’t be consistent.”
Then he pretended to be Simmons, his elbow flared out to the side, into an ugly L.
“If your elbow is like this,” Barros said, “you can’t shoot straight. It’s an unnatural motion. Your hand has to go this way. You can take a million of these a day. You’ll never be a consistent shooter — ever. To me, if he doesn’t get in this window, he can do whatever he wants. It’s not going to work with the elbow. Once you go outside that window, your percentage is going to drop.”
“If your elbow is like this, you can’t shoot straight. It’s an unnatural motion. Your hand has to go this way. You can take a million of these a day. You’ll never be a consistent shooter — ever.”
True to Barros’ prediction, Simmons’ percentage — and presumably, his confidence over his shooting struggles — has been falling for the last year and a half. His overall field-goal percentage, his two-point percentage, his free-throw percentage: All of them have dropped from the 2019-20 season to this one, a trend that suggests that Doc Rivers’ kid-gloved approach to Simmons has been no better, and in many cases worse, than Brett Brown’s slightly-tougher-love stance.
And the Sixers’ 128-124 loss Sunday to the Hawks, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, was only the latest example of Simmons’ descent, his journey to solidifying his status as one of the worst shooting guards the NBA has ever seen. He made just three of his 10 free throws Sunday. He is shooting 34.2% from the free-throw line in the 2021 playoffs. The league-average shooting percentage from the three-point line in this postseason is 36.5%.
It has become banal and exhausting to point out these and similar truths, for doing so unleashes a chorus of Simmons defenders who pooh-pooh this obvious and damaging weakness, who see only the considerable strengths in his game, and who insist that you follow their lead and shut your eyes. But the discussion is tiresome because — nearly four years after Simmons’ debut with the Sixers, two years after his father, Dave, assured everyone that Ben’s shooting would sort itself out over time — it is still a discussion.
This is a problem that Simmons not only hasn’t fixed but that has gotten worse. Just because everyone’s tired of talking about it doesn’t make the conclusion of Sunday’s game any less excruciating to watch, and it doesn’t make his inability to sink the simplest of shots any less consequential to his team.
For all the other factors that led to the Sixers’ loss — Danny Green’s poor defense on Trae Young, Rivers’ misguided strategy to slough off Young and let him dictate the terms of each Atlanta offensive possession — and for as fierce as the Sixers’ comeback from a 26-point deficit was, there’s no getting around this: Simmons shot 1-for-4 in the first half and 2-for-6 in the second, missing twice in the game’s final 38.1 seconds. Laud him, rightfully, for his chase-down blocks and his smothering defense, but the Sixers lost by four. As Andy Reid once said of a couple of costly misses by a kicker, we can all count.
You can love those other aspects of Simmons’ game: his defense, his competitiveness, his court vision, and his unselfish sharing of the ball. They are often wondrous, and truth be told, if he were a 60-65% foul shooter, if he were merely below average from the line, the Sixers and everyone else could live with his refusal to take an open three-pointer or a pull-up jump shot. We would view him as a player who understood his limitations, who played to his own strengths.
No one views him that way, though, because the distance between the player he is and the player he could be is at once so small and so vast. He can strike any cool, confident pose he wants in an Instagram post, can claim he disregards and doesn’t listen to the doubters and the haters. Yet those protestations only reveal and reaffirm that his flaw remains at the forefront of his mind. His free-throw shooting is a thing, a big thing, and an opponent can exploit it in a playoff series. In fact, one did.
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The Sixers can address their other failures from Sunday. They can adjust and improve. Rivers can put Simmons or Matisse Thybulle on Young more frequently, and Green and Tobias Harris aren’t likely to go a combined 1-for-8 from three-point range again. But at some point again in this series or this postseason, Simmons will step to the foul line as the loneliest man in the arena, and you don’t need to be a deadeye like Dana Barros to know what will happen next. His wrist will turn at that awkward angle, and his elbow will fly out the window, and the Sixers will be powerless to stop their championship chances from following.