There were 40 seconds left in the game, 40 seconds left in the season, 40 seconds left for Ben Simmons to do something, anything to silence the critics and legitimate his place in the 76ers’ championship blueprint. He didn’t. He couldn’t. Simmons was on the bench.
Of all of the images you could have used to explain why the Sixers are where they are now, this was the one that will remain burned in the fan base’s memory: Their All-Star point guard, their $30 million man, their alleged centerpiece, wearing a red T-shirt and looking on from the sidelines as guys like Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton desperately tried to pull them from the brink. If it had to end — and it probably did, for everyone’s sanity — this was as good a way as any for the end to arrive. No longer can the Sixers deny the crossroads that will confront them this offseason. No longer can the coach dismiss the legitimate of questions like the one he faced Sunday night in the wake of the Sixers’ 103-96 loss to the Hawks in Game 7.
Is Simmons still capable of being a point guard on a championship-caliber team?
“I don’t know the answer to that right now,” head coach Doc Rivers said.
Everybody else does. How could they not? All game, the Sixers put the ball in the hands of a player who clearly did not want it. Forget guarding him, Simmons didn’t even give them a choice. By the end of the game, the Hawks were barely paying attention as he dribbled alone among ghosts 18 feet from the rim. He wasn’t hesitant. He was nonexistent.
A team cannot win with a player who does not force a team to assign him a defender. Playoff basketball is difficult enough at even-strength. It’s nearly impossible when you allow your opponent to play four-on-five. That’s what Simmons did. His passivity was so total that it somehow became the opposite. He actively gave the Hawks the game. The fact that he only attempted four shots is pitiful. The fact that he did it in a game where the Sixers desperately needed buckets? Inexcusable. This was as close to malpractice as a point guard can get.
Everyone on the court knew it. Game 7s are when legends are made. This one made Simmons into the opposite of that. He was the anti-Jordan, the anti-Durant, a player so uncomfortable in the moment that he couldn’t even bring himself to try. For four quarters, Simmons exuded a fear that infected everyone in its radius. He attempted just four shots from the field, didn’t even look to attack. It sucked the life out of the crowd. It sucked the life out of his teammates. It sucked the benefit of the doubt right out of his coach.
“I still believe in him, but we have work to do,” said Rivers, clearly exasperated after watching his point guard fold like a fitted sheet in the biggest game of their season. “We’re gonna have to get in the gym, put a lot of work in, and go forward.”
A lot of things will have to change to even warrant him that opportunity. The Sixers can talk all they want about the value that Simmons brings to the court on the defensive end. They can point to his All-Star berth, his passing and rebounding numbers, his relative youth. But they owe it to the rest of the roster to consider a change. This was a series where Joel Embiid played 262 minutes with torn cartilage in his knee. This was a game where Tobias Harris played 45 minutes, where Seth Curry had to peel himself off the court after an awkward collision with a player who outweighs him by 50 pounds. It was a game where Milton tried his best to get into the paint and put the ball in the basket, where Matisse Thybulle shot and slashed and threw himself into traffic. These aren’t All-Stars. They aren’t tabloid fodder. They haven’t signed contract extensions that will set them up for life. Their games have the same sorts of holes the Simmons’ does. Their weaknesses are just as glaring. They just don’t allow those flaws to hold them hostage.
“We lost. It sucks,” Simmons said. “I am who I am, it is what it is. It’s not easy to win and it shows. Nets got finished by the Bucks, it’s not easy to win.”
That is what Simmons is right now. A hostage. A prisoner of himself. The problem is that he has locked his teammates inside with him. And they’re uncomfortably close to screaming to get out. You heard it in Embiid’s voice. You saw it in his body language in the fourth quarter, when Simmons shook a statue named Danilo Gallinari and then inexplicably passed up a dunk to hand the ball off to Thybulle. The Sixers were down by two points. There were less than four minutes left. They needed a bucket. Instead they got Thybulle going 1-for-2 from the line.
“I’ll be honest,” said Embiid, who scored 31 points on 11-of-21 shooting from the field. “I thought the turning point was when we — I don’t know how to say it — is when we had an open shot and we made one free throw.”
These are the sorts of comments that will need to factor into Daryl Morey’s decision-making process as he charts the future for this team. Simmons deserves credit for his effort on the defensive end, where he played a key role in holding Trae Young to 5-of-23 shooting from the field. A change in role should warrant plenty of consideration. Move Simmons to the four, add a point guard who can score and create against postseason-caliber defense. Maybe it can work. Given Simmons’ current trade value, it might make the most sense. Some of it depends on Embiid, who has the political capital to demand that changes be made.
“That’s a tricky question,” Embiid said when asked what the team needs to do to get over the hump. “I don’t think now’s the time to be talking about that kind of stuff.”
One thing is clear: Simmons had a golden opportunity in Game 7, a chance to wipe the slate clean and play a meaningful role in leading the Sixers to their first Eastern Conference Finals in 20 years. He had a chance to show people that he could conquer adversity, to be the player his team desperately needed. Instead of confronting the challenge, Simmons stayed true to form. He passed.