Just a few years ago, the 76ers’ future was looking incredibly bright. Philadelphia finished 52-30 during the 2017-18 regular season, good for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers earned a playoff berth for the first time since 2011-12 and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Most importantly, they had Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as their foundation following some miserable “Process” years.
Fast forward to September of 2021, and it’s not nearly as sunny in Philadelphia. The 76ers have failed to advance to the Eastern Conference finals in each of the past three seasons, and title contenders such as the Bucks and Nets have only gotten stronger. That once-promising foundation? Now it features a crack rivaled only by the one running through the Liberty Bell.
Ever since the Hawks eliminated the 76ers from the 2021 NBA playoffs, all signs have pointed to Philly trading Simmons with the most recent reports indicating that the 25-year-old would prefer to play elsewhere and doesn’t plan on attending training camp. Unless there is a drastic change in the relationship between Simmons and the Sixers, a deal feels inevitable.
How did the franchise arrive at this point so quickly? Let’s step back and take a big-picture view of Simmons’ professional career.
76ers take Simmons No. 1 at 2016 NBA Draft
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Simmons was a one-and-done star at LSU. In his lone season with the Tigers, he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals in 33 games and was named Sporting News’ 2015-16 Freshman of the Year.
And yet, there were concerns about how Simmons’ skill set would translate to the NBA, not to mention questions about his competitiveness. Check out this particulary prophetic evaluation from Kevin O’Connor, who had Brandon Ingram ahead of Simmons in SN’s 2016 prospect rankings:
“You won’t find a more polarizing prospect in the draft than Simmons. He’s a 6-10 forward with the lightning quick speed of a guard. Blink your eyes after he grabs a rebound, and he’ll be dunking on the floor on the other end before you open them. He’s a flashy passer with elite vision and will likely find himself on many top-10 highlight reels. It’s easy to fall in love with him. But he’s a poor shooter, and NBA defenses will limit him in the half court by sagging off him. It’ll be hard to build around him as a centerpiece unless he does add a jumper, at least off the catch, since he’s a non-factor without the ball in his hands.”
While Simmons had obvious weaknesses, he was still widely expected to be the first player off the board at the 2016 NBA Draft. The 76ers stuck to the script and selected him with the No. 1 pick, establishing Embiid and Simmons as their core pieces moving forward.
Simmons sits, then wins Rookie of the Year award
Unfortunately for the Sixers, visions of Simmons speeding down the floor and dishing to Embiid for rim-rattling dunks had to be put on hold. Simmons suffered a foot fracture in September of 2016, forcing him to sit out a few months. Former Philadelphia general manager Bryan Colangelo announced in February of 2017 that Simmons’ foot had not fully healed, so he was shut down for the 2016-17 season before he had even played a game.
“Nothing has changed with the plan and the vision,” Colangelo said at the time. “The plan is to build and sustain a successful basketball program.”
Simmons exploded onto the scene the next season, averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 81 games. After a strange beef with Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and debates about whether he was truly a rookie, Simmons earned 90 of 101 possible first-place votes to take home the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year award.
Even the biggest Simmons critics had to acknowledge that the do-it-all point-forward out of Australia had shown plenty of promise in his first real NBA season.
Simmons rises to All-Star level, but 76ers come up short
The 2018-19 campaign kicked off a run of three consecutive All-Star seasons for Simmons. From 2018-2021, Simmons filled up the stat sheet with 16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.7 blocks per game. He emerged as one of the league’s premier defensive forces, as he capably switched from perimeter scorers to athletic wings and routinely hounded top offensive talents.
Despite the ascendance of both Embiid and Simmons, the 76ers weren’t able to break through come playoff time, most notably falling to the Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals on Kawhi Leonard’s famous four-bounce buzzer-beater. Optimism within the organization remained, but Simmons’ most glaring flaw — his inability to consistently take and make shots outside of the paint — continued to loom large.
In December of 2019, former Sixers coach Brett Brown declared that he wanted Simmons to shoot at least one 3-pointer per game. Simmons finished with seven total 3-point attempts in 2019-20, one more than the previous season. He has launched 34 times from beyond the arc in 275 career games.
“There are things I need to work on, which I’m going to do, but I think the way I play, my style, I’m able to create things,” Simmons told Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman in January of 2020. “I’m a creative player, I make things happen, which 90 percent of the league can’t do. There’s only a select few players who can make plays and get guys good shots.”
Simmons wasn’t wrong in that moment. He does things on a basketball court that most people can only do on “NBA 2K.”
Whether fair or unfair, though, it was the thing that he couldn’t do — the thing that he wasn’t even willing to try — that was defining him as a player.
A playoff meltdown and a summer of trade rumors
After ending the 2020-21 regular season as the No. 1 seed in the East, the 76ers entered the NBA playoffs as one of the few teams with a realistic shot at winning the title. Philadelphia’s championship dreams came crashing down against Atlanta, but the damage done far surpassed that of a typical loss.
Simmons’ confidence in his shot dropped to an all-time low. He failed to log a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter of Games 4-7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a continuation of similar disappearing acts down the stretch of playoff losses from past seasons. He also ended the 2021 playoffs at 34.2 percent from the free throw line. After shooting 70.7 percent from the charity stripe in his first-ever postseason run, Simmons found himself alongside some of the worst free throw shooters in NBA history.
That disappointing performance brought on brutal comments from Embiid and Sixers coach Doc Rivers. Embiid called Simmons’ decision to pass out of an open dunk in the fourth quarter of Game 7 a “turning point” in the contest, and Rivers declared that he didn’t know whether Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team. (Months later, Embiid pushed back on the idea that there was a “rift” between him and Simmons.)
Philly’s offseason quickly turned into a Simmons-centric soap opera with constant reports and rumors circulating about his status. Several fake trades have been floated out by analysts and fans alike, but with training camps right around the corner, there doesn’t appear to be an obvious landing spot for Simmons.
The 76ers don’t have a ton of leverage because suitors aren’t desperate to overpay for a guy who just fell apart on the playoff stage. Simmons doesn’t have a ton of leverage because he has four years left on his contract and no control over where he goes.
When will this “Process” finally come to an end? It’s anybody’s guess.
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