Way back in 2013, when the Philadelphia 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as general manager and president of basketball operations, he purposefully tried to make the team bottom out and collect high draft picks in a rebuilding culture that was nicknamed “The Process.”
A lot has happened in eight years, with the Sixers on their third team president and second head coach since, but one thing that has remained the same is the two foundational players they built their team around: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
As they've blossomed into all-star calibre players and been locked into long-term max contracts, expectations in Philadelphia have risen. However, they’ve never been able to meet them.
And Sunday night, in a Game 7 against an up-and-coming Atlanta Hawks team with a berth into the Eastern Conference Finals on the line, the Sixers once again faltered, losing 103-96 and possibly triggering a shake up of the Philadelphia organization.
Just as a reminder, Philadelphia was the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this season and was heavily favoured against the No. 5 Hawks, whom most assumed were just happy to have made the second round as for many of the team’s core players, such as Trae Young, this was their first-ever NBA playoff experience.
Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing for the Sixers that this series even went to seven, let alone the fact they ended up losing it. There was just no way that they should’ve lost, and they still managed to do so.
Over the years, the mantra “Trust the process” has been used to describe the rationale behind Philadelphia’s team-building exercises.
After Sunday night’s loss, however, it would seem that “The Process” can not only not be trusted, it might have just been destroyed.
Here are a few takeaways from a seven-game series between the 76ers and Hawks that won’t be defined as a classic, but could end up as the catalyst to major off-season change in Philadelphia.
No obstacle appears too big for Young, Hawks
Before continuing with our obituary of the 76ers, let’s not forget that the Hawks actually won this series and are off to the conference finals for the first time since 2015 when, ironically, the coach of the team they’ll meet there, Mike Budenholzer, helped them to a franchise-best 60-win season.
The 41 wins the Hawks racked aren't quite as impressive as that 2014-15 club's total, but what this team has over it is an understanding and fearlessness of the moment.
As mentioned before, for many players on this Hawks team this has been their first taste of the post-season, and despite that they have been completely unfazed.
In the first round against the New York Knicks, the Hawks disposed of them in five games as they appeared more comfortable under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden than their own home floor.
And against the favoured Sixers, Atlanta struck first in Game 1 indicating this was a team that wasn’t intimidated by Philadelphia’s No. 1 seeding. Then the Hawks came right back to even the series after going down 2-1 and closed it out on the Sixers’ home court as they won three times in Philadelphia.
In particular, Young has had quite the coming-out party this post-season, building a reputation as one of the game’s premier clutch performers. The 22-year-old has played a total of 12 playoff games in his young career and is averaging 29.1 points per game with him going for 30 points or more in six of those contests.
But, as Sunday’s Game 7 proved, this Hawks squad isn’t just a one-man team. Young struggled mightily Sunday as he shot just 5-for-23 from the field. He did finish with 21 points and 10 assists, and came up large in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 – including an incredible 29-foot bomb – but the Hawks won Game 7 on the strength of their “other” young players like Kevin Huerter, who had a game-high 27 points, and John Collins who finished with a 14-point, 16-rebound double-double.
So even as their young budding superstar was way off, the Hawks still found a way until he finally came alive when it mattered most.
Normally these are harsh lessons that teams have to learn through playoff failure, but the Hawks seem to defy convention and keep rising to the occasion despite never experiencing it before.
Up next for them will be the Milwaukee Bucks, a team coming off a grueling seven-game series of its own. Like the Sixers, the Bucks will be favoured and, honestly, with the experience Milwaukee just went through against the Brooklyn Nets and the way Giannis Antetokoumpo is playing, it’s hard to see Atlanta winning, but much the same was said about these Hawks coming into the second round and look at them now.
The Ben Simmons dilemma
With about three and a half minutes left to play in the fourth quarter of Game 7 and Atlanta leading 88-86, Ben Simmons had Danilo Gallinari on him in single coverage. The bigger and stronger Simmons took Gallinari into the post, backed him down, spun away from a reach-in attempt and only had Young underneath the basket.
Instead of going up for the easy dunk, Simmons appeared to not even look at the basket and instead passed to a surprised Matisse Thybulle, who went up and got fouled, but only converted one free throw. Two – or even three – points instead became one and an opportunity to tie or take the lead ballooned into Atlanta’s seven-point victory.
That one moment defines Simmons’ problem very succinctly. He’s a very talented player capable of doing many things on the floor, but his inability and unwillingness to shoot the ball makes him a complete liability.
So while there are obvious benefits to having a six-foot-10 point guard who is also a great defender, it’s kind of pointless if he can’t and won’t shoot, particularly on a team without a lot of shooters like Philadelphia.
Just take a look at some of these tweets and you’ll understand just how bad an issue shooting the ball is for Simmons:
Ben Simmons 4th quarter this series:
Game 1: 2-2 FG
Game 2: 0-0 FG
Game 3: 1-1 FG
Game 4: 0-0 FG
Game 5: 0-0 FG
Game 6: 0-0 FG
Game 7: 0-0 FG
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 21, 2021
FT misses this playoffs:
48 — Ben Simmons
29 — Phoenix Suns
28 — Brooklyn Nets pic.twitter.com/1dGBaTXHiC
— StatMuse (@statmuse) June 21, 2021
With a minimum of 70 attempts, Ben Simmons' 34.2% free throw percentage this postseason is the worst in a postseason in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/G12fiDSXVN
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 21, 2021
Those numbers, and many more that could be cited, are why there’s likely to be a big shakeup in Philly. Simply put, Simmons needs to be moved.
The great Embiid-Simmons experiment has failed time and again, and Sunday was perhaps the most spectacular failure of them all as Embiid was brilliant scoring 31 points, while Simmons only had five, taking just four shots the entire game.
These two need to be split up, and given some of the post-game comments from Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers and Embiid, Simmons is the one likely to be shown the door:
"I don't know the answer to that right now."
-Doc Rivers after being asked if Ben Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team. pic.twitter.com/rw51V7rkRE
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 21, 2021
"I don't know how to say it - but I thought the turning point was we had an open shot, we missed and we made one free throw."
—Joel Embiid on the Sixers' Game 7 loss vs. the Hawks pic.twitter.com/wDsw1gVZP0
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 21, 2021
Of course, moving Simmons’ contract is easier said than done, but this is the NBA and where there’s a will to make a trade there’s always a way.
Lowry’s shadow looms large over this 2021 post-season
You’ve probably seen this interesting fact floating around:
— StatMuse (@statmuse) June 21, 2021
Kyle Lowry could’ve helped any of those teams, but for the Sixers, it was really apparent.
Philadelphia’s major weakness was in its guard play and a dearth of strong shooters, something that Lowry could’ve helped with in abundance.
At the very least, Lowry would’ve been a major upgrade over George Hill, whom Philly made a deal for at the deadline instead of the Raptors star because Toronto's asking price of young players Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey was reportedly too high.
Hindsight is 20/20 and whatnot, but this is now a horrible look for president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and the Sixers front office.