Sixers: Alright, let’s talk about Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons, Sixers Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Ben Simmons, Sixers Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia 76ers‘ fourth-quarter collapse in Wednesday’s Game 5 will long be remembered, especially if the Sixers are unable to rally back and win the series. Joel Embiid and Seth Curry were downright sublime, and yet the Philadelphia gave up 40 points in the final frame and blew a 26-point second half lead.

It’s not a great look. The Sixers, one-seed in the East and under the guidance of a beloved new head coach, fell into many of the same pitfalls as last season, and the season before that, and the season before that. The bench was disastrous, Tobias Harris disappeared, and Ben Simmons was a complete non-factor in the game’s closing minutes.

Naturally, it is Ben Simmons who has drawn the ire of the fanbase after scoring eight points on four shots Wednesday night. He did not attempt a field goal during the Hawks’ 14-0 closing run, nor did he perform adequately at the charity stripe (4-for-14).

If the Sixers cannot win this series, the Simmons discourse will hit an all-time low. And he will deserve it, because he is clearly at fault for Wednesday night’s outcome. He is not the only person at fault — Doc Rivers, Tobias Harris, and the entire second unit all deserve heat — but Simmons played a central part in the historically bad defeat.

Ben Simmons’ fourth-quarter disappearing act puts the Sixers between a rock and a hard place.

The Atlanta Hawks should be overwhelmingly favored to win this series. It is not over by any stretch — the Sixers are capable of winning two games in a row — but the air is out of the tire, and why expect anything different from a team that has blown consecutive 20-point leads? The Sixers have embarrassed themselves, and I struggle to see them un-embarrasing themselves.

During the second half of games against Atlanta, Ben Simmons has posted a usage rate of 14.4 percent, per Derek Bodner. That is the third-lowest mark on the team, ahead of only George Hill and Matisse Thybulle. That is unacceptable for a max player with Simmons’ gifts.

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Simmons has been totally neutralized by Hack-a-Ben strategies, which have never worked in the regular season. Now, in the playoffs, he has shot 32.8 percent from the stripe and looked every bit the panicked, scared player his critics like to paint him as.

In the fourth quarter, rather than actively engaging with the offense, Simmons is content to hover in the dunker’s spot with no real purpose. He is not cutting hard to open space, looking to exploit mismatches in the post, or pushing the tempo. He is hiding off-ball to avoid the foul line, and mucking up the Sixers’ game plan in the process.

For the series, the former No. 1 pick has averaged 11.6 points on 7.0 field goal attempts per game.  This is not a matter of his jump shot — it never was. Simmons is more than capable of impacting games without a perimeter threat. What he cannot do, however, its consistently exploit mismatches inside, or provide a reasonable amount of rim pressure when the spotlight shines brightest.

It is now a matter of pride for Ben Simmons. How he looks in Game 6 — from his defense, to his transition offense, to the charity stripe — will go a long way toward informing how people speak about him this offseason. If he can help the Sixers pull out two wins, he may restore some goodwill with the fanbase. If the Sixers get eliminated, and he again proves consequential in their defeat, then it will be a summer of no-holds-barred criticism for the 6-foot-10 wunderkind.

Simmons has talked about accountability before, but now it’s a more critical concept than ever. Someone has to hold Simmons accountable. If Doc Rivers won’t, then someone in Ben’s circle, or one of Ben’s teammates, or Sam Cassell — someone has to do it. Someone has to get in Ben’s ear, tell him to get aggressive, and have it pay off for more than one quarter of basketball.

The Sixers have undergone copious personnel change in recent years. Two head coaches, four different lead executives, and infinite variations to the roster. Joel Embiid has improved over time. Tobias Harris has improved over time. The roster around them has improved this season. At some point, when the same problems reoccur time and time again, people will look for the one constant. Right now, fair or not, that is Ben Simmons. He is running out of time to prove his mettle.

I do not think Ben Simmons is a bad player. In fact, I would argue he is still one of the 30 best players in the world. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, has spent all series chasing Trae Young around, and is an all-world transition playmaker. The solution is not as simple as “trading Ben Simmons,” because the Sixers would be hard-pressed to get a better or comparable player in return. Unless Damian Lillard comes walking through that door, the Sixers probably won’t trade Simmons this summer. The solutions will have to come elsewhere.

Ideally, this series is what sparks Simmons’ evolution into the player he was supposed to become. This is the motivating factor that propels him to the next level of NBA stardom. His entire career up to this point, however, would suggest that is not going to happen. In reality, the Sixers will probably need to search for improvement elsewhere on the roster. Kyle Lowry is still very much available. He would look good in Sixers blue. Simmons is too good to haphazardly trade, but he’s not good enough to warrant an offseason of inaction from the front office. Especially if the Sixers lose to Atlanta. Morey may soon be put to the test.

Game 6 airs on Friday, June 18 at 7:30 PM E.T in Atlanta.

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