If you can concentrate on this over the shrieking sounds and fetal-ball-shaped ouroboros coming from Comrade McQuade’s Dungeon O’Fun known as Philadelphia, imagine you have a favorite team and someone comes to you and says, “Do you want Ben Simmons?” Now imagine the amount of time it takes you to figure out the answer. It used to be measured in nanoseconds. Today, it is measured in staff meetings. For never in modern history has a great player so rejected such a basic tenet of his or her sport, to such universal damage.
Part of the tradition of playoff series is to find out who the big-name villain is and tear his reputation into tatters (this does not seem to be coin of the realm in women’s team sports yet, but we can dream). It usually stops short of every other fan base hearing a badly cobbled trade rumor and shrieking “No! No! Anyone but HIM!” I mean, millions of people hate the way James Harden plays, but until his body turned him into a 46-year-old claims adjuster, most of them would have cheerily accepted his services without hesitation.
Ben Simmons, though, is the outlier that proves the unicorn. Right now, he is spectacularly unpalatable as a building block for any team, including the one he’s on. He is considered the kind of playing liability one normally finds getting 27 minutes a night in Orlando. He is the all-star who doesn’t get picked by either captain. He is the pathologically shot-phobic guard who prevents even Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal from faking disagreement with each other over his merits. He is the max-contract disgust magnet. You name the basketball-related slur, and someone has used it on him within the last 14 hours.
Simmons is the new and higher-powered face of post-elimination revulsion, for his refusal to shoot has gone past mere mental block and transcended into Pavlovian studies. His self-inflicted opt-out in the Philadelphia 76ers’ second-round shame bomb against the Atlanta Hawks is the undisputed signature of the piece. Joel Embiid’s devotion and earnestness on one leg will always take second place in this Daliesque paint spill to Simmons’s open lane to the basket that he turned into a dump=off to a Hawk-bracketed Matisse Thybulle—all because he has not only lost even the instinct to shoot, but stamped it out with clear and evident malice.
He took fewer shots in the last three games than Atlanta’s Trae Young missed on Sunday, and Young is a hero in large part because of that fact. Simmons’s fear of the box score has taken on such epic proportions that one of the game’s most coveted players is now regarded as an outright liability in any late-game situation short of up-nine, under five seconds.
In the next few days, we will find several fresh versions about how he came to shrink from all the moments available. We will learn how eagerly the Sixers are to find someone who will find the good in Simmons that they are no longer privy to. We might even learn if this is actually the rock bottom from which Simmons will rise and become at least a long shadow of his anticipated self. After this season, anything that can be conceived can be bet on with a decent chance of paying off.
But it has been a long time since someone so good has willfully become so unusable, and almost never in the one area in which almost no other players have ever engaged: shot aversion.
Simmons made Sixers coach Doc Rivers cover for him so often that Rivers could legitimately charge him billable hours as his lawyer, and the always generous Philadelphia sports community probably will leave him be only because there is no real sport in beating him down now. The new trick, for those who are willing to try it, is to convince oneself he is actually quite good anyway in his current twitchy state, if only to see if some fresh-faced general manager (hello, Brad Stevens) might fall into the sinkhole of thinking his self-loathing of his own shot can be repaired.
But when Daryl Morey makes those calls (while denying ever making them), he will quite likely find few eager partners. Simmons has elevated (well, defenestrated, more like) his one glaring liability into the central essence of his game, even though everyone agrees there are still elite parts to his skill set. And unlike players whose reputations are sullied by their laconic, combative, or goofy natures, Simmons’s legacy is entirely fact-based. He won’t join in with the other 76ers at the most critical times because … well, at this point, fear is only part of it. And he’s in the wrongest of wrong towns to show weakness.
But Simmons’s mudslide of a postseason may have reduced his desirability to other teams to the level of a stress fracture, and as a result might actually make Sixers fans think that booing him next October would be counterproductive. And they’re always willing to lend Morey a helping boot.