The Philadelphia 76ers are a good team that needs to make a dramatic change. Could it be any more obvious after the Sixers lost to the Atlanta Hawks at home in Game 7, leaving them on the outside of the Eastern Conference finals yet again? The Sixers are pretenders, and the main reason is Ben Simmons.
Simmons is one of the game’s greatest open-court players. He flows to the rim, where he can explode for ferocious two-handed slams or whip a pass to an open teammate for a 3. He was rightfully a unanimous selection for first-team All-Defense. But goodness gracious, his lack of offensive development is appalling. Simmons attempted only three shots in the fourth quarter in the entire series, finding himself relegated to standing in the dunker’s spot near the rim or occasionally setting a screen for his teammates. For the most part, he did nothing.
Simmons also lost his confidence. He started getting intentionally hacked because of his free throw struggles, and as a result, he feared getting fouled and going to the line. Late in the fourth quarter of Game 7, he passed on a wide-open layup to dish the ball to a heavily covered Matisse Thybulle, another poor free throw shooter.
“I’ll be honest,” Joel Embiid said after the game. “I thought the turning point was when we, I don’t know how to say it, when we had an open shot and we made one free throw.” After the game, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers couldn’t even come to Simmons’s defense when asked whether he believes the 24-year-old can be the point guard on a title team. “I don’t know the answer to that question right now,” Rivers said.
The answer is no—unless Simmons develops a reliable jumper and improves from the free throw line. But will that happen in Philly? The answer to that is likely also no, because time is of the essence thanks to Embiid’s health.
Simmons was a disaster, but Embiid played the whole series with a partially torn meniscus. Hate to say it, Sixers fans, but it’s fair to wonder: How long will prime Embiid last? We have seen how this story can play out for dominant bigs who suffer back or knee injuries. When Embiid isn’t his full self offensively, as was the case against Atlanta, he needs someone who can step up as a scorer. At times, it was Seth Curry. Tobias Harris pitched in. But it was never Philadelphia’s supposed second-best player, Simmons. What the Sixers need is a player who can run pick-and-roll, take some pressure off Embiid, and provide spacing as an effective shooter.
Daryl Morey knows this. That’s why he offered Simmons, draft picks, and young players for James Harden. That’s why he traded for George Hill and Curry. That’s why he drafted Tyrese Maxey. Morey is seeking a guard who can shoot.
Front offices around the league had mixed opinions about Morey’s decision not to go all in on Kyle Lowry ahead of the deadline. Multiple executives said it was a missed chance to add a playmaker who fit what the Sixers needed. Others understood. Lowry is 35 and an upcoming free agent they could pursue in a sign-and-trade this offseason. Acquiring him wouldn’t have necessarily made the Sixers Finals favorites anyway. (Not when they have a coach who decides to play Simmons and Dwight Howard at the same time in a Game 7. Shaky coaching decisions will have Philly sports talk radio questioning Doc, too.)
Opinions differ on Philadelphia’s decision not to pursue Lowry harder, but there is a consensus around the league that Morey resisted because he’s angling for an even greater star. He’s thinking about stars like Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal becoming available. CJ McCollum or Zach LaVine could also appeal to Philadelphia if they are put on the table.
Morey is a star hunter; has the value of Simmons dropped to the point that Philadelphia could easily get outbid for the type of marquee player that Morey covets? The Sixers have already tried to deal Simmons, then he had a stinker of a postseason, and the best player on the team has once again publicly expressed frustration with him. Simmons’s value could be low. (Trading Embiid, on the other hand, is a nonstarter.)
But the Sixers need to be careful. It’s not all Simmons’s fault. Sure, his fourth-quarter offense is about as impactful as Jahlil Okafor’s, but he’s never had a great basketball situation in Philadelphia. Until this season, Embiid didn’t shoot above average from 3, and the Sixers didn’t have a lot of shooters. Simmons also hasn’t been paired with a point guard whom he can screen for to run a lot of pick-and-roll. In a different basketball situation, Simmons can provide plenty of value on offense.
Consider Portland. McCollum for Simmons as the main piece in a Blazers-Sixers deal is what executives around the league, just like fans, think is a reasonable trade that makes sense for both sides. Simmons could be like a supercharged Draymond Green to Damian Lillard’s Steph Curry. For years, the Warriors have shredded teams because Curry would often draw a trap and pass the ball to Draymond, who could get to the rim or make a clutch pass to a teammate. Simmons would thrive in a role like that since Lillard feels the same type of pressure in the pick-and-roll.
McCollum, in turn, would help the Sixers. Any player who can create their own shot at a high level would. But it’s not a no-brainer deal. McCollum is 29, and he has underperformed in past postseasons. A backcourt of McCollum and Seth Curry would also make for a weak defensive duo. Blazers fans have just about had it with McCollum, just as Sixers fans have with Simmons. But they could each drag their problems to a new team too.
There are still some options for the Sixers should they decide to keep Simmons. Morey could make a couple more tweaks to the roster and find a great pick-and-roll point guard. And Simmons could commit to becoming more of a shooter this offseason—including, yes, switching to his natural right hand.
In 2016, Simmons admitted he’s a natural righty but his dad raised him to shoot with his left hand. “I think I was supposed to be right-handed. It’s all natural now,” he said at the time. Is it? People in his life have encouraged him to make the switch. Former Sixers shooting coach John Townsend worked with Simmons on attempting right-handed free throws and jump shots, but Simmons didn’t stick with it. Former teammate JJ Redick recently said on his podcast that he told Simmons (and DeAndre Jordan) they should make the switch to their right hand.
“I’ve seen them shoot right-handed. It’s better form right-handed,” Redick said. “They do everything else right-handed. I don’t understand why you’re shooting a basketball left-handed.” Redick is correct. 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.
Simmons heavily favors his right hand on hook shots from the post, floaters, layups, and dunks. He’s a righty, and has far better touch with that hand. There is undeniable potential, which is why former coaches and teammates have encouraged him to make the switch. It’s up to Simmons whether he will explore the limits of his game or not.
Here’s the truth: Simmons is a reliable jumper away from being a modern Scottie Pippen. Maybe even Magic Johnson if he also becomes more confident. That’s what’s at stake. Maybe switching hands won’t work, but there’s no downside to trying. He could not be any worse than he already is as a lefty.
Simmons doesn’t even need to be more than average from 3. If he’s even a 35 percent shooter from 3 who can aggressively attack closeouts to feast against a rotating defense, we’d be talking. Add in some on-ball screening with a skilled guard, and suddenly he’s a weapon and not a liability. That gives the Sixers superstar insurance should Embiid get hurt again. Until then, their hopes rest solely on Embiid’s injury-prone body.
Embiid is one of the NBA’s toughest competitors. He plays through pain and still has long stretches when he smacks around opponents. But he does have a meniscus injury, which adds to a long list of health issues for his career. He has missed at least one game in three of his five postseason appearances. He’s never played more than 65 games. He missed the first two seasons of his career due to multiple foot surgeries, and thank goodness it hasn’t been a major problem since.
The hope is that Embiid doesn’t fall victim to injuries like many other talented big men before him. He’s one of the best and most fun players in the game today. Yet the Sixers must capitalize on his talents while he’s at his peak powers.
Embiid is a megastar with a durability problem. Simmons is a brilliant playmaker with a shooting allergy. The Sixers know their problems, but they’d better find the right answers soon.