This off-season NBA fans have suffered through the unfortunate tale of two lottery picks who cannot get along, or perhaps better stated, one who can no longer coexist with the franchise that drafted him.
After finishing the 2015-16 season with ten wins and 72 losses, the third worst record in league history, the Philadelphia 76ers landed the rights to the number one pick in the NBA Draft. They selected LSU’s phenom Ben Simmons, a tall, lanky ball-handling guard who, at his size, was drawing comparisons to Magic Johnson. Simmons left Louisiana State University after one season and was commonly viewed as player who would turn around a struggling Philadelphia franchise.
There he would join big man Joel Embiid, who had been drafted by Philly two years earlier. The Sixers would finally have their 1-2 punch: Embiid, the mountain of a man who had missed the first two seasons due to injury, alongside Simmons, their new over-sized, ball-distributing prodigy. This newest guard-big man combo would undoubtedly run the league for years. Alas, Simmons missed his first season with a foot injury as well. Things in Philadelphia were off to a Rocky start; the winning would have to wait.
In 2017-18, the Sixers finally turned things around. With both Simmons and Embiid healthy, the Sixers made the playoffs. They even won a playoff series that year. They finished with 52 wins, a far cry from the ten wins of a few seasons before.
Simmons averaged eight rebounds and eight assists and shot an impressively high percentage from the floor for a point guard. His counterpart, Embiid, was pouring in 23 points per game. This was what Philadelphia envisioned. Trust the process.
Then came the 2018-19 season and a moment I don’t think can be overlooked when it comes to the eventual crumbling of this relationship.
As Kawhi Leonard sat crouching on the sidelines, his last second jump shot banged multiple times off the rim and in. Everyone in Philadelphia watched as their hearts were ripped from their chests. In a riveting Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Kawhi’s buzzer-beating jumper sent the third-seeded Sixers packing and a crying Embiid to the podium. He couldn’t believe what he had just been a part of. The Raptors went on to win an NBA Finals that many thought should have been Philadelphia’s.
The following season, the Sixers were swept out of the playoffs. Last year, they were beaten soundly by the Hawks, which pretty much leads us to where we are now, with the Sixers once again in a state of disarray and their two best players unable to coexist. While Embiid has put up MVP-like numbers in recent seasons, fans feel Simmons has regressed, or at a minimum, not lived up to his potential as a number one pick. Those fans are right.
After only four full seasons in Philadelphia, the six-foot-ten, left-handed point guard wants out. He has insisted he will not show up to training camp which is imminent. The irony in this case is that if anyone could use training camp, it’s Simmons. His productivity has fallen off significantly, as has his aggressiveness. While still under contract, Simmons has officially worn out his welcome amongst an already skeptical Philadelphia fan base. A once promising union between two of the game’s best young players has soured. Neither player has yet to turn 28 years old.
The franchise will, and probably has, looked to see what it can get in return for the young guard but teams aren’t beating down their door to land Simmons, especially at Philadelphia’s hefty asking price. Early rumors abound involved him going to Golden State and even take on a change of position, wrestling the ball out of his hands and playing him at the forward spot. Whether this will work remains to be seen. Why ask a guy who doesn’t like to score to score?
Simmons brings with him the baggage of shying away from the moment or even worse, not caring, which is one thing Philadelphia fans do not tolerate. This is a town that cheered on Irving, Barkley and Iverson. They’d let Simmons slide if they felt that at least he tried but that’s not what they’ve seen, which is a shame.
I look back to the great guard-big man combinations in league history: Kobe-Shaq, Penny-Shaq, Magic-Kareem, Oscar-Kareem, Stockton-Malone, Payton-Kemp, Cousy-Russell, West-Chamberlain, Parker-Duncan, all historically great. Many looked to Simmons-Embiid to take their rightful place in history alongside those others. Alas, that was not to be as all signs point to them no longer wearing the same uniform.
As one who played basketball in the vertically challenged lane, I always loved playing with big men. They made the game easier. The whole point of basketball is putting the ball into the basket while stopping your opponent from doing so. Playing with guys like Embiid make that goal considerably easier. Magic relished getting the ball to Kareem. The 6’1 Gonzaga product named John Stockton became the NBA’s all-time assist leader by getting the ball year after year, game after game, to the svelte 6’10 Karl Malone. Coexist and score: lather, rinse, repeat.
I’m not inside the Philadelphia locker room so I can’t tell you exactly how or why Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid failed to figure this thing out or whether anything could have been done to avoid it. Simmons isn’t a scorer so it couldn’t be that he wanted the ball in his hands more. In fact, most agreed he didn’t shoot enough.
Theirs won’t be the first one-two punch to fail to live up to expectations although they have to rank near the top considering how long Philly suffered to get those top picks. I’m not saying anyone’s at fault although if you were looking to assess blame, there is plenty to go around. All parties should shoulder their share: Simmons, Embiid, ownership, management, scouting, media, fan base, coaching or simply that this is a different time. Feel free to assess the damages as you may. Perhaps one day we’ll find out the real story instead of speculating on what happened behind closed doors. I just can’t help but think when you’re playing basketball with someone who makes the game easier, you take advantage of that ideal circumstance.
Maybe that was it. Maybe Simmons didn’t make life easier for Embiid and vice versa. Maybe that’s why this partnership was doomed to fail before it got a fair shake. But unless Philadelphia lands fair value for Simmons, the franchise will be set back considerably in an increasingly strong Eastern Conference.
Philly fans were hopeful. They’ve lost that hope. They were also patient. They’ve lost that as well. When Ben Simmons returns to Philadelphia wearing another uniform, he’ll find out just how much. If he thought the fan base wasn’t supportive of him then, just you wait.