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Throughout the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals playoffs series against the Atlanta Hawks, then-Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons slowly became unglued.
His body language was absent. His presence was fleeing. And the frail look in his eye would only be worsened by his putrid play.
Simmons, a former NBA All-Star and then-veteran of the Sixers had been celebrated throughout his career for his athleticism and defensive capabilities. Yet, in all professional sports, what you do when it matters most is how your legacy is often defined. And Simmon’s legacy has taken a huge hit.
76ers Simmons experienced Dreams & Nightmares
Every sport has its own version of either playoffs or a tournament to crown an eventual worthy champion. In the NBA, to earn a spot in championship contention, you must first perform well during the regular season. Formerly 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has always shown up during the regular season, but the playoffs have been an entirely different story.
NBA players come in all shapes and sizes. Colors too. They come from Compton and Cameroon alike, even Slovenia. Some dunk like LeBron James while others shoot 3-pointers like Steph Curry. Some are known for their defensive prowess like Rudy Golbert and others for their infectious effort like Marcus Smart. Yet, regardless of their individual skill, all NBA players get fouled. And when they do, they often walk to the free-throw line and stand 15 feet away from the hoop, which for Ben Simmons must feel like a country mile.
A free throw is no gimme, but they’re makable with consistency and practice. A player stands at the line alone, often in clutch situations with rabid fans either booing their hearts out or praying for a miracle. The mounting pressure to simply shoot a “free throw” has crumbled mighty men before, but not like Ben Simmons.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Simmons
The NBA season is defined by the playoffs. When the effort is most high and the intensity is matched by the crowd, players either rise or fall. Simmon’s decline at the free-throw line is nothing short of a precipitous nosedive.
According to Basketball-Reference, Simmon’s free throw percentage has declined in every single playoff series he’s participated in.
In 2018’s Eastern Conference playoff series against the Miami Heat, Simmons shot a solid 71% from the free throw. He would dip to 69% in the next round against the Boston Celtics before he and the Sixers were eliminated in only 5 games.
During the following season’s first-round playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets, Ben Simmons shot 58% at the line. After advancing past the Nets, Simmons would go on to shoot a tick below at 56% versus the Toronto Raptors. A series the 76ers would lose.
Even still, it wouldn’t be until the 2021 playoffs series against the ATL Hawks that fans, players, and teams began to wonder if Ben Simmons was scared to shoot.
In a moment that’s lived a lifetime, Ben Simmons had a wide-open layup and decided to instead pass the ball to a teammate. It baffled the minds of everyone watching and also validated whispers about Simmons not being “mentally tough.”
What further validated their suspicions was the fact that Simmons often refused to shoot throughout that playoff series and would instead defer to teammates when given the ball. Even still, the free-throw line exposed the insecurities his stoic face refused to show. In the 2021 playoffs, Simmons averaged shooting a measly 34% at the free-throw line against the Hawks and Washington Wizards. By far his playoff career-low.
Since then, Ben Simmons has retreated into a shell and refused to play for the Sixers after being called out by his teammate and coach for his poor play immediately after his playoff meltdown. Simmons has lost millions of dollars for refusing to play this entire season and was largely unseen until it was announced two weeks ago he’d been traded to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for James Harden.
So when will he play?
Simmons surely believes his next move will be his best move, however, he’s still not scheduled to play. Even after missing over 5 months of basketball due to his self-imposed sit-out, he’s now scheduled to miss more time for no clearly-stated reasoning.
His new team, the Brooklyn Nets, is scheduled to play against the 76ers on March 10. Sports pundits speculate he may make his official return after that game to avoid his former team and fanbase. If true, that speaks more to Ben Simmons’ character and less about his ability.
Facing one’s fears is what sports are all about.
While only one city is known to throw batteries at Santa Claus, Ben Simmons thrived in Philadelphia for years. It was his home. The same fans he’s ducking now once welcomed him with open arms. And by avoiding the inevitable, he’s made himself a bigger target.
A lot has been discussed regarding Simmon’s mental health, and most assuredly his playoff performances would support those suspicions. However, refusing to play for and dodging games against a team he himself quit on is the epitome of cowardice.
L.A. Clippers Guard Paul George was dogged for his ineptitude during the 2020 playoffs, but after harsh public scrutiny and better playoff performances, the jokes went away, the memes too. Perhaps the Australian-born Ben Simmons doesn’t know the popular idiom that “half of life is just showing up.” In order for him to reclaim the narrative on his NBA story, he has to show up bigger and better than ever before.