It's almost assuredly over in Philadelphia after a disaster offensive series.
Good morning. Helluva weekend of action in the NBA. Let’s basketball.
Saturn (Time) and Historia, Paolo Veronese
Ben Simmons is probably not playing another game for the Philadelphia 76ers. He had a disastrous series against the Atlanta Hawks on offense, taking just 14 shots in 100 minutes over the last three games of the series, an issue that culminated with a Rondoesque pass out of an open layup or dunk on a critical possession.
Refusing to shoot threes because of a correct lack of confidence in the stroke is one thing. You can survive that in this league. Refusing to go up with a potential and-1 down two with three minutes and change in a Game 7 because you have no confidence from the line right now … that’s impossible to work around. You see Joel Embiid immediately talking to Simmons and Simmons appearing to defend himself. Embiid talked about it after the game too, without mentioning Simmons. He said Simmons’ decision not to take the layup was the turning point of the game.
It gets worse: when asked if Ben Simmons can be a championship point guard, Doc Rivers — perhaps the world’s biggest Ben Simmons booster over the past eight months — said he didn’t know.
That’s about as critical of one of his own players Doc could plausibly get in the aftermath of crushing disappointment. What he wants to say is “no” because he surely sees it as well as we do, at least on this team. Simmons is an incredible defender, and had a stellar performance on that end of the court. But on a team that lacks high-level shot creators beyond Embiid and Tobias Harris, Simmons just doesn’t have enough offense to make it work for 16 wins in the postseason.
This is actually similar to Utah’s problem with Rudy Gobert after the Clippers broke the Jazz’s hearts on Friday: having an elite defender is absolutely great during the regular season and in certain match-ups. Simmons, in fact, is so flexible on defense that you can’t really “play him off the floor” like you can Gobert. He’ll be useful in most match-ups on that end. The problem is that he becomes so easy to defend that you’re playing at a disadvantage on offense, and the Sixers simply don’t have the horse power to be able to survive that in situations like this Hawks series.
Why shouldn’t Simmons play more like Draymond Green? Like Green, he has excellent court vision and defends as well as anyone in the league. The difference is that he plays point guard and has the ball in his hands a lot, which is a liability when intentional free throws are in play and apparently in other potential foul situations like the play in question from Game 7. Green can go long stretches without touching the ball; as the point guard on a team that plays several one-note players, Simmons can’t. The adjustment, then, is to get the Sixers some perimeter creators or trade Simmons to a team where he can be more of a specialist. (The other option is for him to develop a jumper and get comfortable at the line. It’s happened with other plays! It’s in play. We’re in a “need to see it to believe it” mode with that, though.)
Seth Curry is not a perimeter creator, and it showed as the Sixers required that out of him. At his best, he’s a catch-and-shoot two-guard. Tobias Harris is not much of a creator for other players: he can get his own shot with frequency — not always a great shot, to be honest — but doesn’t get easy shots for teammates. Embiid is a supreme scorer who is not a supreme passer. In retrospect, George Hill — a low-usage, high-character, steady veteran — was the absolute wrong veteran guard for this team. They didn’t need a caretaker off the bench: they needed some punch. Someone to get downhill and spray the ball to shooters and dunkers. Rajon Rondo could have been a good fit in that regard, if Doc would have had him.
Simmons can work at a high level, but not on this team. And unfortunately, due to previous trades the Sixers don’t have a ton of talent to trade out to get an Embiid-Harris-Simmons team the perimeter punch they need … without trading one of them. Embiid’s an MVP candidate; he’s going nowhere. Harris has solid trade value, I imagine, but I don’t imagine the Sixers feel that comfortable moving Harris to get talent that can cover Simmons’ deficiencies. Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey have some strong value too, but with a pricey roster you need that young, cheap talent to keep payroll in line.
We’ll get plenty of fake Ben Simmons trades and rumors in the coming months. I think this is the summer it happens: the Simmons-Embiid battery gets broken up, and we find out if Simmons can achieve his destiny with another team, with another co-star, in another role. There are models out there, and frankly it should be easy to convince Simmons he’s not a high-end offensive player, a focal point. He already seems to have admitted that to himself, if this series is an indication. Now we just need to convince his coaches and general managers.
Jazz 119, Clippers 131 (LAC wins series 4-2) — The Hawks’ comeback in Game 5 had been the greatest comeback in maybe five years or so … until the Clippers’ comeback in Game 6. Holy smokes. The Jazz led by 25 in the second half, and then Terance Mann and Paul George went nuts to bring them back. Rudy Gobert played the entire second half. The Clippers didn’t play any true centers a single second of the second half. Gobert was a -34 over the final 24 minutes. And as with Simmons, it’s about team construction: with Mike Conley hampered by injury and Royce O’Neale asked to do too much, the Jazz just don’t have enough perimeter defense.
Hey wait, I’ve got it: Gobert to the Mavericks, Kristaps Porzingis to the Kings, Buddy Hield and a pick to the Sixers, Simmons to the Jazz.
Anyway, what a time to have the best game of your NBA career. This kid is a lot of fun. Credit to Ty Lue for calling on him and putting him in position to succeed. Credit to Mann for being ready to succeed, and to his teammates from trusting him on big possessions.
Bucks 115, Nets 111 (MIL wins 4-3) — A truly incredible Game 7. It wasn’t always pretty — in fact, it was at times distinctly anti-pretty — but it was always close and we had a few memorable performances from the biggest stars in the league: Giannis Antetokounmpo (40-13-5) and Kevin Durant (a heartbreaking and exhausting 48-9-6). I can’t imagine that any subscriber to this newsletter missed the game without extenuating circumstances but just in case: down two with seconds left, Durant hit the longest possible two-pointer to send it to overtime.
In fact, Durant has size-17 feet but wears size-18 basketball shoes. Had he worn size-17 sneakers, the Nets would have won in regulation and would be heading to the Eastern Conference Finals! Fate is cruel. Anyway, incredible game. The Bucks can absolutely win a championship.
Clippers 114, Suns 120 (PHX leads 1-0) — Chris Paul (protocols) and Kawhi Leonard (knee) both missed Game 1, and it sounds like Leonard is quite possibly done for the season. So this is a big game for L.A., and Paul George continued to play at a high level and Reggie Jackson continues to feel himself. But the Clips didn’t count on Devin Booker picking up his first career triple-double in the Western Conference Finals. That’s right: a 40-point triple-double on 50% shooting with just two turnovers for Devin Armani Booker in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals with his co-All-Star out. Incredible performance. All hail the Suns.
Hawks 103, Sixers 96 (ATL wins 4-3) — We focused on Simmons and the Sixers’ future up top, but Atlanta of course deserves heaps of credit. Trae Young was ice cold in the wrong way until the closing minutes but maintained his confidence, enough to drill a 29-footer late and force Philly’s defense to continue to come up on him. John Collins played hard for 42 minutes, no easy feat when you’re banging against Joel Embiid on most rebound attempts. And Kevin freaking Huerter was the victors’ leading scorer in a Game 7 to win a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
This world is a beautiful place.
Lynx 77, Wings 95 — I still believe heavily in the Wings even though Charli Collier is off to a quiet start to her pro career and Awak Kuier isn’t getting much run. When you have the best scorer in the league in Arike Ogwunbowale and then bring in a vastly improved Marina Mabrey off the bench, that’s just a great advantage.
There’s no basketball on Monday!
Just after I sent Friday’s newsletter, the Celtics traded Kemba Walker and their first-round pick for Al Horford and Moses Brown. This is half of a salary dump for Boston and half a move to address a hole at the center position the C’s have had since Horford left in free agency two years ago. At The Athletic, Jared Weiss reports that there was tension between Walker and Brad Stevens, who of course is now the team’s GM. ($)
James Jones wins Executive of the Year, barely edging Dennis Lindsey of the Jazz. Jones hit on every summer move.
Mike Brown wants to lead Nigeria to becoming the first African team to medal in men’s basketball at the Olympics. It sounds like they’ll have several NBA players. Training camp is in Oakland.
Spencer Dinwiddie is declining his player option. Interesting free agent case.
Be excellent to each other.