Well, that was a disaster. Ben Simmons threw some beautiful transition passes and got his steps in, and that was about it out of the former first overall pick against the Hawks, not just in Game 7 but for most of the series. He took four shots on Sunday night, and six in Game 6, and four in Game 5, when he also went 4-for-14 from the free throw stripe. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Simmons cost the Sixers their season. He’s supposed to be the eminent sidekick. Scottie Pippen, Kevin McHale. Or maybe something less straightforward but no less obvious, the fluid in which the mechanism hums, Draymond Green with treacherous athleticism and a cooler head. You want to look at the Sixers and think Joel Embiid’s the superstar, the workhorse, but Ben Simmons binds the whole enterprise. Friends, Ben Simmons does not do that. There are times when it’s unclear what he does. He is not subtle or syncopated. He is simply quiet. Powerful nerves, a lack of understanding, whatever it is. Fourteen shots in three big games. Mortifying stuff.
Do two postseasons make a trend? Simmons was injured last year as the Sixers punted in a first-round sweep against Boston and sloughed off Brett Brown, but in 2019 against the Raptors, that decisive tilt when Kawhi hit every part of the rim en route to a championship, he was conspicuously meek: 4-for-5 in 42 minutes, five assists and five turnovers. This wasn’t exactly uncharacteristic play; his scoring average for the series barely cleared the double-digits. There are other damning numbers we could throw around, but watching Simmons, measuring his presence, is all you really need to do. The guy just isn’t assertive when it matters. He’s got 34 playoff games under his belt and they live in the memory like days where nothing happened. There has been no arrival from Simmons, no high water mark performance from a couple years back that he has since failed to live up to. You still have to use your imagination with him. He’ll be 25 in a few weeks. It’s getting a little too Jeff Greenish for comfort.
It sounds ridiculous to say that Giannis barely steered the car into the garage against the Nets this past Saturday—15-for-24, 40 points and 13 boards—but there is an undeniable unsteadiness to his play. Maybe the best way to put this is he went 8-for-14 from the line, airballing two attempts and contemplating his mortality on all of them. It’s the immutable nature of this superstar with ungainly arms and limited range, featuring in a league where shooting has taken on an outsize importance. He’s awesome, he’s a world-historic talent… and you just feel more comfortable with the ball in Khris Middleton’s hands down the stretch. Giannis seems as close to peace with this as a two-time MVP can get. He has the juice to demand late-game isos, but doesn’t. He recedes, not out of fear—he’s still stepping into those threes, trying in vain to keep the defense honest—so much as a grasp of his limitations. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s not, internalizing the fact that you can be heroic without taking the last shot. Giannis has found a near-perfect application for the game he has, not the game he wishes he did. It’s got one unmistakable hole, and oh well, there are 46 minutes when he can work around it, often to spectacular effect.
So Ben Simmons can’t approximate that approach, huh? No one’s asking him to carry the scoring load or run the Sixers’ offense for long stretches, but there have to be a handful of moments in each game when he decides that it’s his time to do something. This is tricky, because the Sixers have a lot of good players. Each individual trip down the floor, it’s not unreasonable to let Tobias Harris or Seth Curry cook. Tyrese Maxey, even, on a night when he’s feeling it. But there is an elemental aspect of being a star in the NBA, which is that you occasionally tell your teammates to get the hell out of the way, blow past your defender, and grab a bucket. Next time: same thing. Possession number three: feint and find an open shooter. Simmons can do this. (Especially the last part; he’s a terrific passer.) What’s evident at the desultory end of his fourth professional season is that he seizes up at the prospect of trying and failing, in a contest where everyone is watching.
Maybe this is a kind of self-knowledge. Maybe he knows he’s got stage fright that renders what we’ve seen him do on a random regular season Wednesday impossible in the playoffs, that he is physically inhibited. We tend to think of fear as a veil that athletes need only to charge through but it can be much more formidable than that. It’s possible that what we’re actually doing when we ask Simmons to shoot more, to stretch his legs and attack the lane, is asking him to miss and fumble and screw up, because he feels sick, he’s not seeing the rim well and his pulse is on the verge of bursting through his forehead. He can go 3-for-4 or he can go 6-for-19. Those are the available options. It’s not like everybody with a fear of public speaking gets up behind the lectern to discover their anxiety burning off like morning fog. Some folks stammer and sweat under the lights. Turns out that they assessed their weaknesses correctly.
The unresolvable problem is that Ben Simmons works in a form of showbusiness. This is the thousandth column that will run today about him coming up way, way short, and Can Ben Simmons Deliver In Game X? will be a prominent discussion topic if and until it finally happens. Doesn’t it seem, right this moment, like it never will? That’s a depressing thought, one that shouldn’t haunt the career of such an elegant and strangely gifted player. The Sixers will need to figure out what to do with Simmons this offseason, build him up or ship him out, but a more compelling human drama will run beneath the usual summer transaction talk, grumbling about what could have been and murmurs about what might. Is there a bridge between Ben Simmons and his potential, or are they two figures longing for each other across the abyss?