Will Ben Simmons' Biggest Weakness Cost Sixers a Title?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IJune 11, 2021

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons plays during Game 5 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Washington Wizards, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Trailing the Philadelphia 76ers 114-97 with a little more than three minutes to play, the Atlanta Hawks were desperate. 

The defensive stops that the Hawks needed to get back into Game 2 against the 76ers just weren't happening. So they resorted to an all-too familiar tactic, with Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari purposely fouling Ben Simmons before he got the ball past half court.  

Simmons' first free-throw attempt was off the mark. 

The second? 

Yup. He failed to make that one as well. 

The Sixers would go on to win the game 118-102 to even up the best-of-seven series at one game apiece. 

As Philadelphia heads into Friday night's Game 3 in Atlanta, that late-game sequence—one that quickly prompted 76ers head coach Doc Rivers to take Simmons out of the game only to bring him back with less than two minutes to play when the Hawks could no longer purposely foul him—is a reminder of what looms as the Achilles' heel of this Philly roster. 

During the regular season, Simmons shot 61.3 percent from the free-throw line. In the playoffs, he has connected on a dismal 32.5 percent (13-of-40) and has been just as bad in the pivotal fourth quarter, where he has shot just 33.3 percent (6-of-18).

That is why, as impressive as the Sixers have been this season, there's a growing sense that their title hopes will, like Simmons' free-throw shooting, come up short when it matters most.  

"It's a tough spot for Doc to be in," said a former NBA head coach. "Ben does so many things that you as a coach love for your guys to do. But his free-throw shooting is going to cost them a playoff series. Hell, you can make a case that it cost them Game 1 against the Hawks. Who knows what it would have done if Doc didn't take him out for a minute or two there when Atlanta was trying to foul, and bring him back when they couldn't intentionally foul him."

This is not the first time Doc Rivers has had to balance how to utilize his best playmaker, who also doubles as one of his worst free-throw shooters.

While in Boston, Rivers' Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen garnered most of the headlines. But down the stretch, the ball more times than not was in the hands of Rajon Rondo, who has never shot better than 64.7 percent from the free-throw line—and he did that as a rookie.

There is a clear distinction, however, between the challenges Rivers had with Rondo in Boston compared to what he's dealing with now with Simmons. 

"Rondo, even when he was struggling at the line, was a different dude in the playoffs," said a veteran Eastern Conference scout whose team faced Rondo and the Celtics during Boston's 2008 title run. "There's a reason why he's known as 'Playoff Rondo.'" 

During the Celtics' 2008 title run, the aforementioned scout said they had given some thought to going with a Hack-A-Rondo strategy.

"We decided not to because when we fouled him unintentionally, he went to the line and made them with confidence," said the East scout. "That's not the case with Ben. He actually looks less confident in the playoffs than in the regular season."  

And while Simmons' ability as a defender (he was runner-up to Utah's Rudy Gobert for Defensive Player of the Year Award this year) and playmaker has tremendous value and is a big reason why the Sixers have been among the better teams in the NBA this season, league executives believe opponents will continue exploiting his struggles from the line the deeper Philly gets into the postseason. 

Simmons' struggles have also generated a bit of "what if..." about whether the Sixers did the right thing in not being more aggressive pursuing a trade for James Harden.

Harden eventually wound up being traded from Houston to Brooklyn, his preferred destination, in a move that has made the Nets the favorite to win it all this season. 

However, rival executives were split on whether Philly regrets keeping the 24-year-old Simmons, who has been an Eastern Conference All-Star each of the past three seasons.  

"I just think in this day and age of the NBA when the rules make it a hell of a lot easier to be a great scorer than a great defender, I think you have to go all-in if it means getting one of the best scorers ever," said a league executive.

While the Hawks have been very selective in when to go Hack-A-Ben, both coaches anticipate the Hawks being even more aggressive with that strategy.

During Philadelphia's first-round series against Washington, Rivers said he would not take Simmons off the floor if teams went with a Hack-A-Ben strategy.

So what happened in Game 2 against Atlanta?

"We took him and Matisse (Thybulle) out because we had an extra timeout," Rivers told reporters after the Philly win. "It's funny, that's why you try and save timeouts. I was tempted to use the extra one in the first half, and I didn't and it really came back and rewarded us because when they started fouling."

Rivers later added, "I called it at 3:00 (3:10), I knew it was just one minute. They were going to foul Ben or Matisse, and with an extra timeout in your pocket, why let them? That was the thinking."

Figuring out how to best utilize Simmons will continue to be a key to Philly's success in this series with the Hawks. Simmons will continue to play major minutes because of his top-shelf defense and playmaking ability. But Simmons' horrendous free-throw shooting will continue to be a concern that the Sixers have to address, the kind of concern that will be key in determining how far this Philly team will go.