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It's Ultimatum Time for Philadelphia Sixers and Ben Simmons

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 21, 2021

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 16: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers warms up prior to a game against the Atlanta Hawks during Round 2, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs on June 16, 2021 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The East's top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers are headed home after a 103-96 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, and the early exit will certainly bring back some variation of the years-old debate about the fit between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

For the latter, it's time to either adjust or be traded. Embiid is 27 years old, and his injury history suggests Philadelphia's contention window could close in an instant. The Sixers can't afford many more playoff runs in which opponents can almost ignore the starting point guard.

In Sunday's Game 7, the 6'11" playmaker with perennial All-Defense potential was 2-of-4 from the field and 1-of-2 from the line. He had 13 assists, but his aversion to scoring allowed the Hawks to focus more attention on the other four Sixers.

Embiid, meanwhile, had 31 points on 11-of-21 shooting, 11 rebounds and a crippling eight turnovers. When he has the ball, opposing defenses, including Atlanta's, can pressure him in a way they might not be able to if he played with a floor-spacing 1.

When asked about the future, specifically whether Simmons can be a championship-level point guard, coach Doc Rivers added fuel to the fire:

Rob Perez @WorldWideWob

Doc Rivers answers a question whether Ben Simmons can be the point guard of a championship team https://t.co/8xL35u98RC

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Demanding for Philadelphia's front office to break these two up based simply on the result of this game and series is overly reductive, though. The decision to move on from this duo is far from a no-brainer, thanks mostly to the uniqueness of Simmons.

He has become one of the NBA's trickiest subjects for analysis. His raw production has been absurd. Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson are the only players in NBA history who matched or exceeded Simmons' totals for rebounds and assists through their first 275 career games.

In his age-24 season, he's already a three-time All-Star and a Defensive Player of the Year finalist. With his ability to guard 1-5, it looks like he'll be a perennial contender for All-Defensive selections.

And his combination of size (6'11", 240 lbs), speed, vision and passing ability make him one of the game's truly unique playmakers. Against regular-season defenses (and, on occasion, playoff ones too), he can pick apart the opposition.

The off-the-cuff "he can't play with Embiid" or "he can't play in the playoffs" takes probably don't give enough credence to all of the above. Philadelphia's net points per 100 possessions is significantly better when the pair are on the floor together (and that's true in both the regular season and the playoffs).

But there are times, particularly in this most recent series against the Hawks, when Simmons appears to be a square peg in a round hole.

For the 2021 playoffs, Philadelphia was plus-12.9 points per 100 possessions when Simmons played and minus-7.9 when he sat (giving him a massive plus-20.8 net rating swing). In fourth quarters, though, that swing plummeted to minus-0.8.

In those important moments, Simmons becomes a ghost. He didn't attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarters of Games 2, 4, 5, 6 or 7, including passing up what looked to be a wide-open dunk with three-and-a-half minutes left in Game 7.

And defenses clearly know they don't have to pay attention to him (unless they're employing the hack-a-Ben strategy, which is a whole different problem).

Forget three-point shooting—Simmons doesn't even have a mid-range or floater game. And defenders being able to sag 10-15 feet off him, whether he has the ball or not, makes spacing a nightmare for Embiid and every other Sixer on the floor.

Philadelphia has done everything it can to work around Simmons' aversion to shooting. It acquired spacers in Seth Curry and Danny Green this offseason (both of whom were good moves then and now). And it's had Embiid work from the perimeter perhaps a bit more than he would with a floor-spacing 1.

"The idea that Joel is stretching his game out to accommodate a dude who is way worse than him instead of the other way around, that's crazy," The Ringer's Wosny Lambre said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. "That would be like if LeBron [James] was accommodating Kyle Kuzma."

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

As far as analogies go, that's probably on the extreme end of the spectrum. Simmons is significantly better than Kuzma, and Embiid is not LeBron. But the point rings true.

Over the course of his career, Simmons has shown no improvement to the biggest flaw in his game. In his first season, he was 70-of-230 (30.4 percent) on shots from 10 feet and out. That's bad, but it was at least a hint that he was trying. Over his next three seasons, he's a combined 51-of-197 (25.9 percent) from that range.

His free-throw percentage has hovered around his career 59.7 mark for all four seasons too. There's no trend in the right direction, and his struggles there this postseason (in which he went 25-of-73 from the line) are alarming.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

With a minimum of 70 attempts, Ben Simmons' 34.2% free throw percentage this postseason is the worst in a postseason in NBA history. https://t.co/G12fiDSXVN

Those issues are understandably under a microscope after losing a series like this. Philadelphia was the No. 1 seed. Atlanta is an upstart. And giving up an 18-point lead in Game 4, followed by a 26-point lead in Game 5, doesn't help either.

Ultimately losing the series brings us back to the two options up top: an adjustment from Simmons or a trade by the front office.

If that means Simmons devotes himself to adding a jump shot (and the confidence required to take it), great. Otherwise, moving him for someone who fits better with Embiid should be a priority.

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

The idea of a swap built around Simmons and Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum has long been a pipe dream of this writer, and it may make more sense now than it ever has.

The Blazers might also be at an organizational crossroads after losing to a Denver Nuggets squad that didn't have Jamal Murray and parting ways with head coach Terry Stotts soon after.

Simmons potentially serving as a bigger, bouncier version of Draymond Green could make Portland something of a Golden State Warriors facsimile, with Damian Lillard playing the Stephen Curry role.

Jusuf Nurkic has dipped his toe in the floor-spacing game (he was 12-of-30 from three in 2020-21), so the Blazers could conceivably surround Simmons with enough shooting to offset his refusal to put them up.

He'd instantly be the best defender Portland has had in years too.

For Philadelphia, McCollum is older, smaller (6'3", 190 lbs) and perhaps possesses a bit less raw talent, but it's hard to not be intrigued by the fit. The 29-year-old took 8.9 threes per game this season and hit 40.2 percent of those attempts. He has plenty of experience running point after years as a pseudo-backup to Lillard.

With him, Curry, Green and Tobias Harris outside, defenses would be in a terrible pick-your-poison scenario. Do we double Embiid and get killed from the outside, or do we stay home and let Embiid dominate the post?

The details may need some hashing out, but the general framework on a Simmons-McCollum swap makes sense for both sides.

If that isn't on the table, 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey almost certainly needs to look around the league for other options. And his history as an executive shows he's probably willing to do that.

If that exploration doesn't lead to any good deals, Philadelphia might have to run it back. Again, there is evidence to suggest Simmons and Embiid can work together. But something has to give. Because in the biggest moments, it doesn't look like the pair will work together.  

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