Ben Simmons is a broken young man, responsible for the failure—and likely end of—a basketball era in Philadelphia. That is the story today, anyway. In part, it’s a true one: there is no denying the existence of a psychological obstacle course inside of the 24-year-old All-Star. His immediately infamous decision to pass up an open shot at the rim in the closing moments of his 76ers’ Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks was the surest sign of a beguiling allergy to shooting his shot. But the way the play has been digested by NBA media and fans, like how much of Simmons’ career has been discussed, protests a bit too much.
Merely one asinine decision in a sequence of them, Simmons was contributing stupidity to an ecosystem of the stuff. As the game slipped away from Philadelphia, Matisse Thybulle committed one of the postseason’s worst fouls on Kevin Huerter from beyond the arc, and Joel Embiid had the most embarrassing of his eight turnovers as he once again eschewed low-post physicality to explore his Kobe-esque bag of mid-range scoring tricks. The Sixers are one of the least sharp, most poorly configured, oddest teams to ever even get this far—nearly all of them believe in themselves as, and play like, different beasts than they actually are. This group of dogs acting like cats and cats acting like dogs deserves credit for being as good as it is despite such self-imposed, yet seemingly unfixable defects.
Because Simmons is worse than Embiid, and because the results of his own identity crisis are often so optically humiliating, he is the subject upon which critics most frequently seize. As a tool for sports pundits, he is very useful in this way—but especially so in a media landscape that rewards alpha-loving, fight-or-flight appraisals and scoring totals, above all. But despite his obvious failures in Game 7, he was an effective floor general, taking care of the ball and finding open shooters and fast movers like he typically does, to the tune of 13 assists. The Sixers don’t have another player with close to as much vision for the floor, and the idea that he hasn’t been a major reason they even get to this point of the NBA season is laughable—this is not even mentioning how difficult he makes things for the other team as a defender, and how many at-the-rim defensive sessions he relieves the perpetually injured Embiid from with his point-of-attack containment.
But aggrieved gym teacher truisms and Skip Bayless level flame-takes are likely to continue to stick to Simmons, in place of a more holistic lens on the Philadelphia mess. Best described as double-dumb heroball garbage, their offense was built to collapse under the pressure of a seven-game series against a team of shrewd game-planners and decision makers. Watching Trae Young and the Hawks gradually pick the Sixers apart was like watching a poop scientist at work on a particularly mystifying turd. Young bested everyone as a full-on gamer in the series, emerging as a true superstar as his adaptable, gutsy play stood as a damning contrast to Embiid’s intractable habits—and the stultifying Spectator Effect it breeds in his teammates—as well as Simmons’ fear of big moments.
Going forward, it’s obvious much needs to change for the Sixers. Simmons will certainly be the topic of trade talks, but Tobias Harris likely should be as well: there just isn’t a lot of space for big boys most at home within the arc, next to Embiid. Though he dominates his spots on both ends of the floor more thoroughly than anyone in the sport, Joel’s spots are most certainly his spots. He is more blunt weapon than systems man, on the ultimate “doesn’t understand or implement systems” team. Sans Danny Green, Simmons is their only player with much view of the forest above the trees, but his being alone in this regard mixes with his timidity to cancel that quality out when his team most needs it, and we end up instead with a series of ill-considered one-man Embiid shows.
All of that needs to be different, and there’s just nowhere close to enough evidence to believe it can be different with these people in this place. Embiid is the thing that won’t be moving, because his productivity too significantly outpaces his lack of feel—he’s the one you build around. Luckily for Philadelphia, they are not the only team with high-salary pieces that underperform, don’t fit, and have brought them to a crossroads. A sort of musical chairs of second and third stars is potentially on the way in the NBA this offseason, with the Sixers probably eyeing more perimeter scorers who can do their own thing right away, without having to fret about the dubious long-term project of trying to mesh their strange overlaps with Embiid.
Imagination has failed for this weird epoch of the Sixers, if they can be said to have ever attempted it in earnest. More accurately, Simmons, Embiid, and Harris are a logjam that no one ever tried very hard to solve. Without a dynamic offense or distinctive bench units, you end up with solutions like putting Simmons in a hellish “dunker spot” where his size, wiles, and speed are virtually nullified. It has been painful to watch the eagerness for motion die in Simmons’ eyes over the years, as his team has remained a stand-still solo fest, a jazz band that takes turns riffing instead of ever combining for harmony. In the open court, he has often been a revelation, but when the halfcourt walls close in, he and his team have conspired to reduce him into a hardly recurring cowbell player.
A meaningful two-man game never developing between Embiid and Simmons has been a disappointment to both Sixers fans and people who like strangely effective things to happen in the sport of basketball. They have had their brief flickers of chemistry together, but in retrospect, the idea that it would ever happen on offense was always silly. Together, they are vibeless. Simmons’ best offensive contributions alongside his MVP candidate teammate were to make hay in transition without him, and get out of his way in the half-court. The badness of the Embiid-Simmons fit will always be exaggerated, nonetheless; such is the general public’s dismissal of defense. As 22 and 19-year-olds in 2018, Embiid and Simmons immediately instilled a solid postseason floor for Philadelphia, and it hasn’t gone away. They are, after it all, good together in the aggregate. But good isn’t good enough anymore—instead the inability to take further flight is deeply painful, for everyone involved—and it’s past time for something different.