If Ben Simmons had left open even the narrowest of space in which to feel bad for him, you might actually take him up on the offer. Fifty games into the regular season, 10 days ahead of an NBA trade deadline where Simmons figures to play a starring role, we have arrived at a point where it is no longer easy to discern whether the Sixers are all that much different a team with or without their erstwhile star.
That’s a remarkable thing to say. It’s also a grossly inaccurate one. But perception is often what matters most at the NBA’s annual swap meet, and, right now, the perception around the league is starting to come around to the fact that the anonymous sources might actually mean what they say when they say that Daryl Morey is more than willing to hold on to Simmons until the offseason.
This was never more apparent than it was on a cold Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center, when an electric sophomore who was barely on the court at this time last year looked one of NBA’s emerging superstars dead in the eye and said, “Yo, check it up.”
It is not a stretch to say that Simmons may never have done what Tyrese Maxey ended up doing against Ja Morant and the Grizzlies in a 122-119 overtime win that moved the Sixers to within a half game of a three-way tie for first place atop the Eastern Conference.
Sure, Simmons has produced a handful of games that look better on paper than the 33 points and eight assists that Maxey logged in the box score. And we should not forget that he has appeared in and contributed to a multitude of wins that were equally as impressive as the Sixers’ home-court upset of the Western Conference’s trendiest contender. But have we ever seen him put those things together in the way that Maxey did for 42 minutes on Monday night?
“He’s a helluva basketball player, a great leader at such a young age,” said Sixers center Andre Drummond, who started in place of Joel Embiid. “He has a lot on his shoulders being in the position that he’s in to carrying an entire team, he’s great. He’s a great basketball player, and I’m glad that he’s my point guard.”
The Wells Fargo Center was buzzing, and it was buzzing on a night in which the MVP center was out of the lineup and the opponent was favored by 3.5 points and the second-level tickets on the secondary market were going for less than a round-trip train ticket from the suburbs and back.
When the training staff came to Doc Rivers before the game and told him that now was the right spot to rest Embiid, the head coach’s body language afterward suggested that he’d reacted with the expectable resignation. Welp, fellas, we’ll do our best. The situation offered little recourse but to roll the ball out there and kindly request that somebody show him something. That Maxey obliged him may no longer qualify as a surprise.
The buzz was a product more of magnitude than multitude, a consistent answering of a bell that barely stopped tolling throughout a track meet of a game. There was Maxey in the second quarter, calmly collecting the ball from Tobias Harris with six seconds left on the shot clock and waving for a clear-out: an unguardable first step to the right, a 60-to-zero stop on the baseline, a fadeaway jumper ahead of the red light. Five minutes later, there he was again: the half ticking down through its final seconds, Maxey beating his man to the right, stretching in a contested finger roll, picking up the foul, punctuating the play with a pectoral flex to the crowd.
“His speed all throughout the game, his energy level, big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime, really the whole game,” Harris said. “He just had that energy, that look in him out there that he wanted to get to it and he had a great night for us. A big reason why we won that game.”
For four quarters, this is how it went. Every trip down the court, it felt like the other guy’s All-Star would do All-Star type things. Morant was Morant, which is to say that he was the Truth, a wild combination of entertainment and substance that in a few short years will leave him as the undisputed best guard in the league. Maxey might not have been on that level, and he may never be. But however far behind Morant he may have been in feel and flow and body control, not to mention the defensive end, he was right there with him in tenacity.
With 25.3 seconds left in overtime, he exploded by Ziaire Williams, this time to the left, and elevated above the hands at the rim to drop in a layup that gave the Sixers a 120-119 lead. And then it was over, Maxey’s breakaway layup off a defensive stop banking home as the buzzer sounded to cap off the win.
“Just two competitors trying to win,” said Maxey, who upped his scoring average to 16.8 points per game and now has three career outings of 33-plus points. “That’s about it.”
Not everything is about Simmons, but you can’t escape the ghost. Six months after his holdout started, he has gone from the haunter to the haunted. Wherever he is, he is there because everyone else grew tired of waiting for the sort of singular performances you have seen out of Maxey this season.
Consider the three times he has scored more than 33 points in his career. One was a win over the 18-24 pre-Kevin Durant Nets. Another was a 47-point win over the 5-17 Cavaliers. The third was an 11-point loss to the Jazz in which he finished minus-7.
The shame of it all is to think about what the Sixers might be if Simmons was here in his proper role, giving Rivers a defensive stopper of a three-man and Maxey an open-court running mate. As it was, Rivers spent the game’s highest-leverage moments shuffling back and forth between a mover who can’t shoot (Matisse Thybulle) and a shooter who can’t move (Danny Green). Clearly, this remains an imperfect team.
Yet, in the end, the imperfection did not matter, and it was Maxey rendering it moot. Maybe Simmons’ absence has facilitated this emergence. What’s perfect is that he must wonder. And he might have plenty of time to do so.