This is Ben Simmons’ big chance. This is the series that will cement his status. All Star, or also-ran? The Leader or the led?
Joel Embiid’s torn meniscus has cleared the stage for Simmons and, at least temporarily, left a void; this is Ben Simmons’ Nick Foles moment. The spotlight has found him.
When the curtain rises Sunday afternoon on this second-round series against the No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks, it will fix him in an unrelenting glare, and it will not leave him for a second. This is the cost of stardom. This is the price of fame. When you make $30.5 million, the burden of winning falls on you.
Are you worth it? These moments provide those answers. The window to get those answers might be brief.
Embiid’s coach, Doc Rivers, and Embiid’s teammates all report that the big guy looks better than you’d expect. League sources indicate that the meniscus issue might have been hiding in Embiid’s knee for weeks, and was only exacerbated when he fell in Game 4 at Washington, D.C. on Monday -- which means that The Process was processing with this tear all along.
After consulting with a legion of specialists, the team now hopes Embiid will return: certainly before the end of the playoffs, likely before the end of the Round 2 series against the Hawks, and maybe even Sunday. Of course, Embiid in a knee brace won’t be Embiid, the obvious MVP. Which means Ben Simmons becomes the Alpha.
If Simmons leads the top-seeded Sixers , then yes, his legacy in Philadelphia will be burnished -- but, more significant, his legacy will assuredly continue to be built in Philadelphia. If he plays this week as he played in Game 5, when Triple-Double Ben made the Wizards disappear, he will rise.
But if Ben Simmons proves unable to beat the Hawks, and if he does so in a fashion that can be at all interpreted as timid -- if he’s Five Shot Ben, as he was in the Sixers’ Game 4 loss -- then will the Ben Simmons Story will continue elsewhere?
Rivers and Daryl Morey owe Ben nothing. The first-year coach and the first-year president have no investment in his acquisition, in his development, or in his retention. They are no more a part of the failed, eight-year “Process” than are first-year, 30-something Sixers shooters Danny Green and Seth Curry. And because none of them -- neither the veteran shooters nor their accomplished bosses -- have the time or the patience to waste the next several years hoping that Ben Simmons, their primary ballhandler, one day will deign to take a three-pointer, or one day will shoot 70% from the free-throw line.
Understand, both Morey and Rivers and their billionaire bosses already consider Simmons a gilt-edged playerr. None believe that the Sixers cannot win a title with Simmons playing the way he already plays. Rivers and Morey will push Ben to be better, but both they think he’s good enough. We’ll see.
Any changes Simmons makes won’t happen in the next fortnight -- but then, they don’t need to happen to beat the Hawks. Ben Simmons doesn’t have to turn into Ben Gordon. He just has to play less like Ben Wallace.
Simmons could not have scripted a better stage on which to shine.
The Sixers face an eminently beatable opponent, a team without a true identity, an egalitarian troupe of double-digit scorers. They are led by Trae Young -- a slim, volume-shooting, third-year gunner who ranked third in the NBA in turnovers, a stat in which the Sixers, as a team, ranked No. 2 in the NBA.
Of course, Embiid’s looming presence unnerved opponents as much or more than the perimeter pressure applied by Simmons & Co.’s forced miscues. Since Embiid won’t unsettle anyone anytime soon, Simmons must be excellent. That should not be too much to ask; not against this collection of overachieving vagabonds.
The Hawks fired their coach, former Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce, in March. Pierce taught Simmons the mysteries of defensive basketball, but he could not marshal the disparate talents of this flawed squad. Nate McMillan did. He reloaded, rebranded, and convinced the club its whole matters more than its parts.
Simmons believes this, too. Paradoxically, his selflessness is his biggest shortcoming.
Because, in today’s NBA, where skills are specialized and players seldom play beyond their “roles,” the individual star provides the final boost up the mountain. LeBron. Steph. Kawhi.
Ben? Not so much. He defers. He facilitates. And, at times, he cowers.
Embiid understands that teams need shot-takers, shot-makers, ballers, and beasts. Still, we’ve seen Embiid fail the last three postseasons. This year might have been different, and it might yet still be, since Embiid could return after a few weeks, but “The Process” has had his chances.
In 2018, when the Celtics dispatched the Sixers in the second round, the plainest story line involved how the “C’s” didn’t “D” Ben, daring him to shoot and playing five-on-four defensively, but Al Horford exposed Embiid’s many weaknesses, and that storyline mattered even more.
In 2019, when the Raptors quadruple-doinked the Sixers out of the second round, Marc Gasol (and, apparently, bad poutine -- there were lots of digestive problems in that Sixers era) frustrated Embiid to tears.
In 2020, his fourth season of playing in the NBA, Embiid had his chance to prove his value independent of Simmons, since Simmons missed the playoffs with a knee injury. The Celtics swept Embiid and the Sixers in the first round.
This year, in his fourth season of playing in the NBA, Simmons has a similar chance.
Winning this series against Atlanta -- no matter how flawed the Hawks are and no matter how much Embiid influences the games -- will brand Simmons a winner. Simmons will not be expected to lead the club to victory over the Nets or the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. In fact, if Embiid remains limited, the Sixers could get swept in the Eastern Conference finals, Simmons could score six points a game, and he could foul out by the third quarter, and this spring would still validate his salary and his presence.
For better, or worse.