Ben Simmons Photo: Getty Images
Perhaps one day Philadelphia sports fans will forgive Ben Simmons for not taking the field at all for the 76ers last season, failing to shoot in four straight fourth quarters and the game in which he passed the ball to the only sixer passed on, who was arguably a worse shot than he was, instead of diving into Trae Young.
Stranger things have happened. I’m sure no one would have guessed in 1967 that Mike Ditka would return to the Chicago Bears and win a Super Bowl as head coach. Jay Z and Nas recorded several songs together.
On Tuesday night, Ben Simmons will be making his first appearance in Philadelphia in a uniform other than the home team. Fans will be in full “Ether” and “Takeover” vibes from the moment he steps out of the hotel. It will be just like last time the Brooklyn Nets played in Philly last season and Simmons got injured. But if fans can truly express their displeasure with an active Simmons, hopefully a disappointing period in 76ers basketball can be concluded.
Simmons wasn’t just number 1 overall. He was considered a potential generational talent. Longer than LeBron James but with all the courtroom vision. Simmons was drafted to direct Philly’s offense from Day 1, but he fractured his foot and missed the entire 2016-17 season.
The next season, Simmons was named Rookie of the Year and the 76ers had their highest winning total — 52 — since reaching the 2001 NBA Finals. They lost to the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2018 playoffs, but it appeared Embiid and Simmons had a bright future ahead of them. Jimmy Butler was added ahead of the 2018-19 season and took the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors to the brink.
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Instead of keeping the three together with Tobias Harris, Butler was traded and the keys to the offense were firmly back in Simmons’ hands. Ask any 76ers fan and they’ll likely tell you that he steered the team into a tree.
Discontent plagued Philadelphia, as did Simmons’ appalling free-throw record and his refusal to shoot outside the paint. The Sixers were atrocious in the 2020 Bubble playoffs, after which Brett Brown was fired and Doc Rivers hired. In the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, the 76ers finished first in the East. Embiid was an All-NBA player and Simmons was first-team all-defense.
I listed all of this to show not only how much success Simmons has had with the 76ers, but also that last season was only his sixth in the NBA and he didn’t even play in his first.
Losing in the second round to a team that crept into the fifth tier after firing a coach mid-season, there had to be an explanation for that epic failure. Yes, the blame lay with Doc Rivers and Embiid, but that chipped dunk was treated like the final judgment of Simmons’ career. After losing Game 7, his coach and star teammate did little to try to defend himself before the jury of public opinion.
Simmons admitted to The Old Man and the Three in September that he had mental issues both during the series and in the months that followed. He also didn’t feel enough support from the organization and that bothered him too. It all led to this practice when everything boiled over. Rivers knocked him out of practice and that was it for Simmons’ time in Philly, or at least it should have been.
Two days later, Philly general manager Daryl Morey decided that in 2021, a great idea to show strength was on local sports talk radio, where he said a trade could take years. By years he meant to close and he had to trail Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks – one protected in the top-8 – in exchange for a Paul Millsap and a limping James Harden.
Simmons chose not to play for the 76ers. It wasn’t the back injury that completely ended last season for him after the swap, he didn’t want to play for them anymore. A split would have been best for both sides, but Morey held out until the last minute. In the process, he set his team’s season on fire and failed to significantly improve the roster. The team’s biggest improvement is Tyrese Maxey taking another step this season, which is still not enough to avoid a difficult start.
The detention also forced Philadelphia sports fans to take a daily hit to the head because a player refused to play for them. Combine that with bad feelings since the last time he wore a Philadelphia jersey and of course they had a tidal wave of hatred towards Simmons in a game he didn’t even attend when the Nets visited last season.
This time they can see him being introduced to the starting lineup, dribbling the ball around the pitch and shooting free throws. It will be LeBron’s first game in Cleveland with Miami Heat energy.
But perhaps it is necessary for all sides to have this moment. That Simmons will face off against Rivers and Embiid and that he will – within reason – accept whatever the fans have to dish out. He recently told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that expressing himself on the podcast feels good and that he can handle whatever he needs “day in and day out.”
There’s a lot of history between Simmons and the 76ers that happened in a short amount of time. Award-winning highs and ugly playoff-upset lows. This game could go a long way in helping everyone finally come to peace with what happened, and maybe even help put both teams — although the Nets have a lot more public internal drama than the 76ers these days — on a runback come towards the tip of the east.