The abyss between Ben Simmons and his potential


Well that was a disaster. Ben Simmons threw some nice transition passes and got his steps in, and that was it from the former first overall pick against the Hawks, not just in Game 7 but for most of the series.

He made four shots on Sunday night and six in Game 6 and four in Game 5 when he also went 4-on-14 from the free-throw strip. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Simmons cost the Sixers their season. He’s supposed to be the standout buddy. Scottie Pippen, Kevin McHale. Or maybe something less straightforward, but no less obvious, the fluid in which the mechanism hums, Draymond Green with treacherous athleticism and a cooler head.

You want to watch the Sixers and think Joel Embiid is the superstar, the workhorse, but Ben Simmons binds the whole company. Friends, Ben Simmons doesn’t. There are times when it is unclear what he is doing. It’s not subtle. He’s just silent. Strong nerves, incomprehension, whatever it is. Fourteen shots in three big games. Offensive stuff.

Are two post-seasons making a trend? Simmons was injured last year when the Sixers poked Boston and dumped Brett Brown in the first round, but in 2019 against the Raptors, that crucial inclination when Kawhi hit every part of the rim en route to a championship, he was noticeably meek: 4-for-5 in 42 minutes, five assists and five turnover. That wasn’t an atypical game. His scoring average for the series was barely double digits.

There are other devastating numbers we could throw around, but watching Simmons and measuring his presence is all you really have to do. The guy just isn’t assertive when it comes down to it. He has played 34 playoffs and they are remembered as days when nothing happened. There was no arrival of Simmons, no high water mark achievement a few years ago that he has not been able to live up to since then. You still have to use your imagination on him. He’ll be 25 in a couple of weeks. It’s going to be a little consolation for Jeff Greenish.

It sounds ridiculous to say that Giannis barely steered the car into the garage last Saturday against the Nets – 15-for-24, 40 points, and 13 boards – but his game is undeniably insecure. Perhaps the best way to put this is by walking 8-on-14 off the line, making two attempts out of the balloon, and thinking about his mortality on all of them. It’s the immutable nature of this superstar with awkward arms and limited reach who plays in a league where shooting has become oversized. He’s great, he’s a world history talent … and with the ball in Khris Middleton’s hands you just feel more comfortable on the track. Giannis seems to be as close to peace as a two-time MVP can be. It has the juice to ask for late game ISOs, but it doesn’t. He steps back, not out of fear – he still steps into that group of three, trying in vain to keep the defense honest – so much as if he is grasping his limits. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s not the fact that you can be heroic without taking the final shot. Giannis has found a near-perfect application for the game he has, not the game he would like. It has an unmistakable hole, and well, there are 46 minutes he can get around it, often with spectacular effects.

So Ben Simmons can’t approach that approach, can he? Nobody is asking him to shoulder the scorers ‘burden or lead the Sixers’ offensive for long stretches, but there has to be a handful of moments in every game when he decides it’s time to do something.

It’s tricky because the Sixers have a lot of good players. With every single course down, it is not unreasonable to have Tobias Harris or Seth curry cooked. Tyrese Maxey even on a night he senses it. But there’s one fundamental aspect of being a star in the NBA, which is the occasional telling your teammates to get out of the way, blow past your defender, and grab a bucket. Next time: the same. Property number three: find a feint and an open shooter. Simmons can do that. (Especially the last part; he’s a great passerby.) What is evident at the aimless end of his fourth professional season is that he is stuck with the prospect of trying and failing in a competition where everyone is watching .

Maybe that’s some kind of self-awareness. Maybe he knows he’s got stage fright, which makes impossible what we saw him in the playoffs on a random Wednesday in the regular season that he’s physically inhibited. We tend to think of fear as a veil that athletes just have to break, but it can be much more impressive. It’s possible that what we’re actually doing, when we ask Simmons to shoot more, stretch his legs and attack the track, is asking him to miss and fumble and screw it up because he’s feeling sick, the rim doesn’t see well and his pulse threatens to burst through his forehead. He can go 3-on-4 or 6-on-19. These are the options available. It is not that anyone who is afraid of public speaking stands up from behind the lectern and finds that their fear burns like morning mist. Some people stutter and sweat under the lights. It turns out that they correctly assessed their weaknesses.

The insoluble problem is that Ben Simmons works in some form of show business. This is the thousandth column that will run on him today, far, far too short. At this moment, doesn’t it seem like he’s just like that? It’s a depressing thought that shouldn’t haunt the career of such an elegant and strangely gifted player.

The Sixers need to figure out what to do, build, or deliver with Simmons this off-season, but beneath the usual summer transactional talk is going to run into a more compelling human drama of grumbling about what could have been and mumbling about what could have been . Is there a bridge between Ben Simmons and his potential or is it two characters who long to cross the abyss?


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