The symmetry could not have been purer. The contrast could not have been starker.
On a night when the fate of their 2022 seasons might be told, Joel Embiid, in Philadelphia, went to work. Ben Simmons, in Brooklyn, did not.
One showed the heart of a lion. The other, the soul of a rat.
At 7:16 p.m. Monday, Embiid emerged from the locker room, the last Sixer to go through his warmup routine, his right thumb stabilized with black athletic tape. He winced when he pounded dribbles into the floor, winced again and shook the hand when he took his first shot, but he got ready, and he played. He scored 20 points and snagged 11 rebounds, but he didn’t look hurt. He looked lethargic, and afterward he admitted that “I’m not playing freely,” which is entirely understandable.
The Sixers lost to the Raptors, 103-88, and Embiid could have played freer.
At least he played.
Ben Simmons didn’t even show up.
He wasn’t on the Nets’ bench. They lost too, and they were swept out of the playoffs by the Celtics, and Simmons contributed nothing but distraction.
Win or lose, this has been Joel Embiid’s Willis Reed moment. Embiid played in Game 5 on Monday with a torn ligament in his thumb for the second full game, after injuring it in Game 3. It will require surgery to repair and heal, and the surgery will be more complicated the longer he waits, but this is the time of year when players prove their worth. Monday was a close-out game for the 76ers, who led the Raptors, 3-1.
This was to be Simmons’ Waterloo. Traded at the February deadline for James Harden, Simmons begged out of a knockout game with his new team. He will never regain the trust or the respect of his coaches, of his fans, or, most importantly, his peers. Simmons, who has claimed back issues for the last three years, was slated to debut Monday in Game No. 87 of this season, but he said Sunday that he woke up with a sore back, so Simmons sat again. It was an elimination game for the Nets.
Simmons abandoned two Hall of Fame teammates, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who had counted on Simmons, a point guard of sorts, to lead their superteam. But Ben Simmons isn’t a leader. He isn’t even a follower.
He is ... nothing.
Simmons refused to play the first 56 games of the season for the Sixers. He cited mental health issues, but really he was just mad that Embiid and Sixers coach Doc Rivers said he’d played poorly in the 2021 playoffs.
Simmons has since refused to play in the last 29 games for the Nets, including a play-in win and the three playoff losses that preceded Monday night’s Game 4. He first said he wasn’t in good enough shape — outrageous, since he’d had four months to get ready. He then said his back hurt. On Monday, according to ESPN, Simmons and his agent, Rich Paul, met with Nets management to discuss Simmons’ “physical and mental hurdles.”
Correction: His alleged physical and mental hurdles. Because, apparently, the Nets aren’t sure exactly where Simmons’ alleged recoveries are: They believe that Simmons has “put in the work” to return.
Shaquille O’Neal called Simmons a “punk.” Reggie Miller said Simmons had “ZERO competitive [fire emoji].”
These guys are analysts, with nothing to lose from Simmons’ absence. Imagine what Simmons’ teammates are saying.
Come on, man
His audacity knows no bounds. Not only did he squander 56 games for the Sixers, last week he filed a grievance trying to recoup the $20 million they refused to to pay him — after he refused to be diagnosed and treated by their doctors.
He has trivialized and insulted people who suffer from true mental health issues. He has trivialized and insulted the hardcourt warriors who preceded him and play through all sorts of physical challenges: Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot through the 1987 playoffs, Isiah Thomas’ 43 points and six steals on a broken ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals; and, of course, Willis Reed playing on a torn thigh muscle in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers.
Embiid, meanwhile, has joined these giants. He’s playing through significant pain. Rivers had the same injury as a player, and he said the pain and instability compromised his passing. Embiid scored 21 points in Game 4 on Saturday but, more significantly, managed just eight rebounds after averaging 13 in the first three games.
But Embiid, his thumb taped and numbed, helped his legend grow. Simmons, dressed like a homemade pinãta, helped his career die.
This seemed exactly the opposite of how these stories would be told three years ago.
In the second round of the 2019 playoffs, we saw Embiid handcuffed by Toronto all series and weeping outside the locker room after a Game 7 loss.
He had been stifled for the third year in a row by a sound defensive plan that exposed his poor decision making, his limited repertoire, and his abysmal conditioning. Simmons, on the other hand, had played with enough promise to warrant a five-year, $170 million contract extension. That decision effectively divorced the Sixers from Jimmy Butler, who’d become Embiid’s first mentor.
At the end of the next season, Butler was in the NBA Finals with Miami. Simmons, meanwhile, had left the COVID-19 bubble for elective surgery to remove a “loose body” in his knee — a decision that Sixers insiders resented at the time and still question to this day. The Celtics swept Embiid and the Sixers in the first round, but Embiid was magnificent, averaging 30 points and 12.8 rebounds even without his All Star teammate.
Symmetrically, Embiid played through a torn meniscus in his right knee for all seven games of the second-round series against the Hawks. As the series progressed, Simmons shrank further and further from prominence, until, in the final minutes of Game 7, he refused to dunk.
But no moment crystallized the difference between the two men, and how their lives and their legacies have diverged, like Monday night.
Embiid took the court like a hero.
Simmons was too scared to even come to the gym.