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If Simmons had performed to the level his résumé might suggest — three straight All-Star selections, two consecutive All-Defensive first-team nods and a third-team All-NBA bid last season — the Sixers would not be in this mess, facing another win-or-go-home game against an inferior team in the second round.
There is no couching that fact.
His defense is not the problem. That is a weapon Philadelphia has fired at Atlanta star Trae Young with some accuracy, save for the five fouls that limited Simmons to 25 minutes in Friday's must-win Game 6. The Sixers won despite him, earning him a stay of potential trade execution for at least one more outing.
Simmons was unplayable offensively down the stretch on Friday, largely because the Hawks employed a Hack-a-Ben strategy that had worked to some degree in their 26-point comeback victory in Game 5. As a double-digit lead dwindled for a third straight game, Sixers coach Doc Rivers played rookie Tyrese Maxey on offensive possessions in favor of Simmons, who has not attempted a fourth-quarter shot since Game 3.
That's right: With their season on the line, the Sixers played a rookie late first-round pick over an athletically gifted 6-foot-11 point guard they drafted No. 1 overall in 2016 and committed $177 million to through 2024.
That's not good.
Simmons is a tremendously talented player. He should be celebrated for his elite defense, which earned him a runner-up Defensive Player of the Year finish, and he is brilliant in the open floor. He was the second-best player on a team that won nearly 70% of its games and entered the playoffs as the East's No. 1 seed.
He also cannot be the second-best player on a championship team, at least not with the Sixers.
Simmons' flaw is fatal to Philadelphia's title hopes. Granted, those hopes are still hanging by a thread, but his inability to shoot has the Sixers struggling to complete their cakewalk to the conference finals. He has attempted four shots outside the restricted area against the Hawks, all in the paint, and made one. He is now 24-for-71 from the free-throw line in the playoffs. His flaw is the retractable roof on his sky-high ceiling.
"Definitely mental," Simmons said earlier in the series of his cataclysmic free-throw struggles.
Not exactly what you want to hear from a franchise cornerstone, even if it is painfully obvious. Simmons has shown no signs of development in his shooting outside of five feet, and the mounting pressure of that persistent narrative might be making it worse. He is what he is, and that is a damn fine player, just not for a Sixers team boasting Joel Embiid, a bona fide MVP candidate whose spacing is crunched by his costar.
Embiid could be the Shaquille O'Neal of his generation, but he needs his Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade — someone who can go get a bucket when it matters most — and Simmons is not that. He is, essentially, a rim-running center, often relegated to the dunker's spot on the baseline, who can run a transition offense, create for others and defend all five positions. You can build around that guy, just not alongside Embiid.
A Game 7 win over the Hawks on Sunday and the franchise's first conference finals appearance since 2001 — opposite either a Milwaukee Bucks team with a similarly flawed superstar or the walking infirmary that is the Brooklyn Nets — may be enough to convince Daryl Morey and Philadelphia's front office this summer that roster tweaks around Simmons and Embiid are still the answer as they enter their fifth season together.
A scenario in which Embiid's repaired meniscus still makes these Sixers a contender is at least plausible. A win may also just delay the inevitable for another series, barring a miraculous turnaround from here on out.
A loss will almost certainly spell the end of Simmons' tenure in Philadelphia, so long as they can extract anything approaching equal value. The Sixers offered Simmons for James Harden earlier this season, only to be rejected. We can debate whether the Houston Rockets should have taken Simmons over Brooklyn's draft stash, or whether Harden would've helped Philadelphia advance any deeper this season, but we can say with certainty now that Simmons no longer gets you in the conversation for a player of Harden's caliber.
That is the harsh reality for a star who sets his team's sights no higher than a second-round exit.
Teams will not be clamoring to acquire a player who cannot be counted on down the stretch of a close-out game. We're talking return packages centered on fringe All-Stars like Brandon Ingram, Gordon Hayward, CJ McCollum or (maybe best-case scenario) Zach LaVine, possibly with another rotation player attached.
That would count as a depressingly disappointing end to a tenure that once held so much promise with the Sixers, but at least they can give themselves a shot with someone who has one to make clutch buckets. If Simmons has any chance to rewrite his narrative in Philadelphia, he will first have to script a win in Game 7.
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