By now you’ve probably heard about Ben Simmons’ monumental stinker of a play-off series against the Atlanta Hawks in the semi-finals of the NBA’s Eastern Conference play-offs. You may have even seen clips of the specific play where Simmons beats his defender, Danilo Gallinari, and has an open dunk, with only the diminutive Trae Young looming as a possible but barely credible threat.
It’s a crucial moment in a close game 7 but instead of throwing it down, Simmons passes to teammate Matisse Thybulle in traffic.
Thybulle is fouled and goes to the line, making only one free throw instead of the near-certain two points and possible and-one that would have come if Simmons had been fouled.
A collective groan echoes around the Wells Fargo Centre. Sixers’ centre Joel Embiid’s shoulders slump in frustration. The moment becomes an instant meme. The Sixers lose momentum and ultimately the game and series. Simmons becomes persona non grata in Philadelphia. His name is now squarely on the trading block. There are reports that he won’t be playing for the Boomers at the Olympics.
The moment provides a snapshot of Simmons’ four-year run in Philly, where his failure to develop his offensive game and lack of on-court chemistry with teammate Embiid have been a perpetual source of frustration for fans and led to constant speculation that one of the two ‘Process’ stars needs to go. After Monday’s meltdown, calls for Simmons to be shipped out have reached fever pitch. The problem for the Sixers is that his value may have plummeted so far from his shambolic performance in this series, they’ll find it hard to get fair return.
After the game things got ugly. Embiid threw his teammate under the bus, pinpointing Simmons’ passing up of the open dunk as the moment the game was lost, despite committing eight turnovers himself – to be fair Embiid was playing on a partially torn meniscus. Coach Doc Rivers, who’s defended Simmons all season long joined in, saying he didn’t know if Simmons has what it takes to be a point guard on a championship team. Pundits like Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson piled on, all highlighting the fact that the Sixers are hamstrung by having a star on a $217 million dollar contract who can’t play in crunch time due to his lack of shooting ability. O’Neal, even went as far as to say that if he was Simmons’ teammate, he’d have “knocked his ass out”.
Yeah, you could call it a tough week for Australia’s biggest basketball star.
I interviewed Simmons for a cover story in Philadelphia back in 2018 and have followed his career closely ever since. As a fan, Simmons’ mental disintegration and the subsequent media and internet pile-on has been brutal to watch. But I have to say, I share the frustrations. Simmons is the type of enigmatic star that teases you with glimpses of his other-worldly talent one game, only to completely disappear the next. It is infuriating, something Simmons’ cool demeanour and dismissive attitude to criticism only makes worse.
Back when we featured Simmons on our May 2018 cover, he was riding high. Touted as the next LeBron James, his rookie stats were gaudy – 16, 8 and 8. The problem is, offensively Simmons has regressed since then. This season he logged 14, 7 and 7. To his credit, he’s made himself into an elite defender, making the All-NBA Defensive First Team for the second straight year and finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting this year behind Utah’s Rudy Gobert.
I have a theory that Simmons has deliberately worked on this side of his game to deflect attention from his offensive stagnation. He remains an electrifying force in transition, with astonishing court vision that allows him to find teammates for open looks. It works well enough in the regular season but come play-off time, when the game slows down to a half-court chess match decided by ‘knights’ like Devin Booker, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant who can create their own shot, Simmons becomes a liability, giving the ball up like it’s a hot potato and lurking aimlessly in the dunkers’ spot. It forces Embiid to come out of the post and play a face-up game when he should be dominating on the block. It basically means the Sixers are a man down on offence.
Simmons’ refusal to take outside shots has now been compounded by his unwillingness to drive to the basket for fear of being fouled. First the Wizards, and then the Hawks, employed a successful ‘Hack-a-Simmons’ strategy that saw him shoot a record low 34 per cent in this year’s play-offs – worse even than Shaq!
Theories about Simmons’ struggles are everywhere online right now and I’ve developed a few myself. Back when Simmons fronted our cover, everyone expected his offensive game to develop, assuming that he’d eventually start taking three-pointers. At the time Simmons told me he was working on his jump-shot and once it improved, look out. “The thing with shooting is that once I get it to where I want it to be, then I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to stop me,” he said. And so we waited. Each year during the off-season Simmons posted videos of himself shooting from outside in practice, raising Sixers’ fans hopes, only to dash them once the season started and he clamped up. Teammates talked about how he shot the ball freely in practice and hoped he would begin shooting in games but it never happened. Instead, it’s perhaps created a dichotomy between practice and games that’s become a gaping mental chasm Simmons is unable to cross.
That’s if he is actually doing the work. Simmons lack of progress on the offensive end has led many to speculate (and point to his Instagram account as proof) that he’s more concerned with his flashy cars, his dogs and his gaming, than getting in the gym and fixing his broken jumper.
ESPN’s Stephen A Smith said this week he’d received a text from someone close to the situation in Philadelphia about Simmons: “Quote, he doesn’t work, he doesn’t listen, and everyone around him is family, and he’s constantly babied”
Smith then added on SportsCenter: “They’ve asked him for four years to improve his jump shot. He ignored coaches, he ignored assistant coaches, he ignored teammates, he ignored his agent, he ignored family members because he liked being in LA, being in South Beach. He likes saying he went to the gym to play as opposed to going to the gym to work on my game. And it came back to bite him – because the one thing you can say about Ben Simmons is that he can’t shoot.”
Who knows if that’s true, but it does seem likely that things have always come a little too easy for Simmons. As a preternaturally-gifted player with an absurd skillset for someone who stand 6’ 10”, he’s grown up being the best player on any team he’s ever played on. He’s never had to really fight, leading to a complacency about his game and, possibly, a shaky work ethic. Contrast him with Hawks’ point guard Trae Young, who is similarly gifted but only stands 6’ 1”. Young has been told he’s too small since he was a kid. He’s had to fight every step of the way. As a result, as he showed first against the Knicks, then the Sixers and now in game 1 of the EC finals against the Bucks, he’s a stone-cold killer on the court.
At times Simmons has seemed a little too content with where his game is at. During our interview he was defensive about his shooting and pointed to his stats as proof that his game was in good shape. He seemed to be saying it didn’t need improvement. “I’m not worried that much because I’m averaging 17, 8, and 8,” he said at the time. “Guys haven’t done that in their whole careers so for me to do that in 50 games, I think I’m playing well.”
But while the mental side of Simmons’ game appears to be in freefall right now, it’s possible the ultimate source of his struggles could lie in a mechanical issue that over time has mutated into a psychological problem. One theory popularised by the The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, is that Simmons is shooting with the wrong hand. The stats back it up: Simmons released the ball using his right hand on 67 shots this postseason, compared to just nine shots with his left hand. That rate is consistent with his career rate of using his right hand going back to his time at LSU, O’Connor writes.
Simmons told The New York Daily News back in 2016 that his dad encouraged him to shoot lefthanded growing up. “I think I’m meant to be a righty. But it’s all natural now”. I asked Simmons about this directly. He scoffed and then sighed in exasperation, as if I’d asked him if the world was flat. “People like to make shit up,” he said. “Maybe I’m writing with my wrong hand, too?” There are reports that the Sixers are now finally looking to address this and get Simmons to shoot with his right hand. They may as well for it could hardly get any worse.
There also reports he will use the off-season to work on “skill development” rather than represent the Boomers at the Olympics. That made me think back to what Simmons told me in 2018 when I asked him about his goals. He replied that they were to win a championship, win a gold medal at the Olympics and “be the greatest player of all time”. “You’ve got to set the bar high,” he said. At the time those goals seemed lofty, now they appear to be pipe dreams.
The problem is, when it comes to his offensive game, I’m starting to think Simmons might have set that bar too high. So high in fact, that he’s been afraid to fail. Whatever your sport, once that particular seed takes root in your head, you’re in mental quicksand. Simmons took four shots total in game 7 against the Hawks. You have to shoot to score. You have to take risks to progress and sometimes, you have to fail in order to build the chip on your shoulder and mental resilience you need to succeed. Having now failed on the biggest stage of all, let’s hope Simmons is finally ready to address his physical and mental blocks. He may be in a bad spot right now but there’s a chance that having sunk so low, Simmons is exactly where he needs to be: a player with nothing more to lose.