What did Trae shoot?
It was one of the more infamous sound bites of a postseason that left us with enough one-liners to fill a movie trailer. The world wanted to know where Ben Simmons had gone with the season on the line. Simmons wanted to know his defensive stats against Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young.
The question — spoken rhetorically to a Sixers staffer in the aftermath of a Game 7 loss to the Hawks in June — was everything fans had come to loathe in their point guard. It was cringe-worthy, passive-aggressive, beside the point, and emblematic of a psyche lacking that big-picture-awareness thing the greatest competitors possess. It was vintage Simmons.
It was also true. Or, at least, it contained more truth than many of us are willing to acknowledge given the course of events in the intervening months. The concept Simmons didn’t seem to grasp in that news conference is something his detractors struggle with now: that two things can be true at the same time. The Sixers weren’t good enough offensively with Simmons on the court. Yet they were much worse defensively with him off it.
It’s a paradox that is almost entirely to blame for the current state of play in Sixersland. And on Saturday night, the Wells Fargo Center will play host to the team that exposed it.
The last time the Hawks were in town, they departed leaving the Sixers in shambles. Four months later, they will arrive to find an organization that is still struggling to pick up the pieces.
The questions confronting the Sixers are disconcertingly similar to the ones they struggled to answer throughout the Eastern Conference semifinals. Is Joel Embiid healthy enough to carry the team on his shoulders? Is anyone else capable of sharing the load? And, most relevant, where did Simmons go?
There’s a good chance the Sixers’ looming showdown with the Hawks was responsible for the urgency in their voices after nearly collapsing in a win over the lowly Pistons on Thursday.
“We need to be way better,” Embiid said following the underwhelming 110-102 victory over a winless Detroit squad. “We couldn’t guard our own men. We need to be way better defensively than we have been. We’ve got to guard our own men.”
There is more than a little irony in that evaluation, given that it came roughly 48 hours before tip-off against the Hawks, and on the same day that Simmons made news for participating in a Sixers shootaround. After all, it was Simmons who drew the primary responsibility for defending Young, the Hawks’ prolific superstar point guard, last postseason.
That includes Game 7, when, as Simmons noted in his postgame news conference, Young shot just 5-for-23 from the field in the Hawks’ 103-96 win. In the last six games of last year’s series, Young shot 31% from three-point range and 37% from the field. Compare that with his first six games of the postseason (against the Knicks, and in Game 1 against the Sixers, when Danny Green spent time guarding him), which saw Young shoot 34% from three-point range and 44% from the field.
Assuming Simmons does not suit up Saturday, the Hawks will find a Sixers team ripe with mismatches everywhere outside the five spot. Through five games, the Sixers are allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions, 11th-most in the league and two more than they allowed in 2020-21, when they finished the regular season with the NBA’s second-stingiest defense.
With or without Simmons, the Sixers will be facing a team far more capable than the one that ended their season in June. One bright spot in the Hawks’ 3-2 start has been the play of young wings Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom missed last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals with injuries.
Reddish, the third-year pro out of Duke, is averaging 16.2 points per game and shooting 44% on three-pointers while taking five attempts per game off the bench for Atlanta. Hunter, the No. 4 pick in the 2019 draft, has started four games and is shooting 40% from three-point range.
Still, Young remains the clear and present danger. He’s off to a slow start to the season, shooting 29% from three-point range while averaging 24.2 points per game. But when he’s on, the 23-year-old is one of a small handful of players in today’s NBA who can justifiably claim to be unguardable. And with the Hawks coming off an upset loss to the Wizards in which Young scored a season-low 15 points, the Sixers should be steeling themselves for an assault.
Last summer, after facing a hostile New York crowd, Young arrived in Philadelphia expecting to play the villain. By the end of the series, it was a member of the home team who had claimed the role. Now, after a tumultuous offseason and a sluggish start to 2021-22 for the Sixers, the lingering question is one that Young played a big role in creating. Will their paths ever again cross with Simmons in a Sixers uniform?