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You don’t need to choose between Doc Rivers and Ben Simmons when assigning blame for the Sixers’ collapse

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Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

In the wake of a collapse like the one the Sixers suffered at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks and completed on Sunday night, fans are shellshocked. How could the Sixers, after a tremendous season which saw its star player vault into the best-player-in-the-league conversation while it secured the Eastern Conference’s number 1 seed and the easiest path to the Conference Finals in recent history, peter out in such tremendous fashion?

The two gentlemen (rightfully) receiving most of the blame for yet another second round exit are head coach Doc Rivers and point guard (I guess?) Ben Simmons. And much of the discourse following the game has surrounded what both men could’ve done to improve the team’s situation and avoid the embarrassment that took place.

At times like this, fans often will head to opposite corners. There will be the Blame Doc people and the Blame Ben people. Some will get into the weeds about the causation of each’s poor performance.

Doc misused Ben, which led to his awful series.

If Doc had a perimeter initiator who wasn’t religiously opposed to taking jump shots, we wouldn’t be so concerned about the coach.

Well, I’m here to tell you that in this case you do not have to choose. No need to parse. It’s all of it.

Rivers and Simmons are absolutely the two people most culpable in this disaster, and while they both contributed to each other’s difficulties, they both deserve individual, custom-fitted blame, as well.

Let’s start with Doc.

For an extremely decorated and respected head coach in the NBA, Rivers did not arrive in Philadelphia without copious warnings from his prior fanbases. Much of his coaching career since winning the title with the Celtics in 2008 has been defined by an inability to get over the proverbial hump in the postseason. From the rest of his Celtics teams, to the Lob City Clippers, to the Paul George/Kawhi Leonard Clippers, for one reason or another, Doc’s teams have been unable to bring home the trophy despite immense talent.

Personally, I was willing to give Doc a pass for most of those failures. The Lob City Clippers seemed to erode from within, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul couldn’t get along towards the end, etcetera. Of course, waiving away the disintegration of that locker room was perhaps an overly generous read of the situation from Rivers’ perspective. The head coach is at least partially responsible for the culture and camaraderie within a team.

Then there was the George/Leonard team, which was ousted from the NBA Bubble in Orlando after blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round. That was a failure, sure, but I thought that there was something soulless about that particular LA team. And maybe the wonky, start-and-stop nature of the season allowed me to look beyond that struggle as well.

And then, Rivers coached the Sixers to the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in year one in Philadelphia. Throughout the season, fans would grit their teeth at some of Rivers’ rotations or his perceived stubbornness or his aversion to experiment, but I stayed fairly sanguine about the head coach because the Sixers kept winning games. And in general, I’m not a “blame the coach” person — I find it often to be somewhat of a fail-safe copout when fans or team brass are unsure of who to blame. Disappointing series? Eh, fire the coach.

But Rivers was demonstrably bad in the Sixers’ series against Atlanta. In Game 1, the team’s nonsensical game plan for guarding Hawks star Trae Young was not only to check him with 33-year-old Danny Green, but to also deploy deep drop coverage for the Sixers’ bigs. Young brutalized the Sixers all day, and Atlanta stole game one. Then, as the series progressed, Rivers simply refused to adjust his rotation to account for Dwight Howard’s complete ineffectiveness in this particular matchup. Howard was giving the Sixers nothing on either end, and it was plain to see by the the middle of the series. But Rivers kept trotting Howard out there, refusing to try the most obvious adjustment: playing Ben Simmons at center when Embiid rested.

Now, I am far from a proponent of this strategy, normally. It’s never provided us with data that it’s actually an effective strategy over any length of time. But within the confines of one series — a series with a Ben Simmons who was completely without a paddle and in need of some reinvention (more on that later) — why not give it a shot? Usually, my worry with the Ben-at-5 strategy is that Ben’s never proven to be a good rim protector, and sticking him at center nullifies his elite perimeter defense. Using Matisse Thybulle in these lineups mitigates that concern a bit, as the sophomore can check the best perimeter option on the other team. But Rivers simply never tried it, and that’s inexcusable.

I also think that Rivers owes Sixers beat writers an apology for chiding them for questioning whether or not he’d considered removing Ben from the game in the Washington series when they started to hack him, only to go ahead and adopt that strategy when Atlanta did the same and Ben continued to miss. I don’t mind Doc changing course on a substitution pattern, I mind the way he implied the reporter’s idiocy for even floating such a sacrilegious idea.

Doc also played 10 guys in a Game 7, which is unusual at best. Partly, I understand the inclination to do this, as the Sixers’ bench players were so terribly hit-or-miss that he simply didn’t know which of them he could rely on on a given night. But deploying Shake Milton for the first time in the fourth quarter of Game 7 was a bridge too far.

Another blight that must appear on his resume is that Doc was the head coach who presided over the Sixers’ two 18-plus-point blown leads in Games 4 and 5. There are plenty of players to blame for those two putrid performances, but the head coach deserves blame when he’s unable to stem the tide in moments like that. Really, it seemed like when the Sixers won a game in this series, they won, at best, accompanied by Doc and at worst, in spite of Doc. He certainly wasn’t a positive difference-maker for a Sixers team that could’ve deeply used one, and his rigidity throughout the series proved not only to be a surefire detriment to the team’s chances of winning, but a damning referendum on all of the complaints that had followed Rivers to Philadelphia.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Now let’s talk about Ben Simmons.

First, I must say: on a human level, I sympathize with Ben Simmons. He admitted that the issue at the free throw line had become mental, and that must be an incredibly difficult thing to grapple with on such a large stage. There is plenty, in my opinion, that Simmons had within his control during his Sixers tenure which he could’ve kept from going awry, but the free throws clearly reached a point where Ben was so far in his head that it became impossible to correct or overcome in one series. I hope that he’s able to clear his mind this offseason and move on.

Let’s get to his play. If you’re eating, I apologize for spoiling your appetite:

Simmons was just absolutely terrible in this series, and his presence on the court became actively detrimental to the Sixers’ ability to score points from Game 5 on. Of course, the free throws became a problem bigger than we could’ve anticipated, but Simmons’ lack of offensive development showed plain as day in this series. He simply couldn’t generate his own shot, he couldn’t abuse the defenders matched up on him, he completely lost any and all assertiveness in his game. He became unplayable.

I don’t think Ben is a bad player. On the whole, he’s very clearly good. He has a number of awards and distinctions to confirm that thesis.

But what has he gotten better at since he’s been in the league, on offense? Nothing.

He looks the exact same. He is remarkably limited in the half court. So while I do think that Rivers could have and should have gotten more outside the box with how he was using Simmons, many of the issues that arose were borne out of Ben’s refusal to change his game in any way on offense. That is unacceptable for the lead on initiator on a contending team. But it’s especially unacceptable for the lead initiator on a contending team that is led by a center in 2021. Time and again, we’ve heard Joel Embiid talk about how he’s taking more threes than he wants to, or merely spacing more than he ought to because he’s making room for Simmons.

What has Ben ever done to retrofit his game around Joel?

During the season, Sixers fans seethed with anger at Dwight Howard for being an unseemly fit with Simmons, or at Rivers for playing the two of them together, or at Daryl Morey for failing to get a stretch big on the team. I couldn’t help but think: maybe (just maybe) we should direct our discontent more toward the max-contract star player who has the exact same flaws he’s always had than toward the journeyman veteran-minimum-level backup center. The only reason Sixers fans salivate at the sight of Luke Kornet, for chrissakes, is that the Sixers desperately need the team’s centers to be able to shoot because the point guard cannot! And will not! From anywhere! I truly am not arguing that Doc didn’t need to put the kibosh on the Simmons/Howard lineups, or that Morey didn’t err by failing to acquire a stretch big to give the team another look — my argument is that focusing on either of those things for too long distracts you from the bigger issue, which is Simmons’ lack of development.

Somewhere along the way, many Sixers fans stopped hoping Ben would improve and instead took issue with anyone who dared suggest that he should — just appreciate him for who he is. Why? Why did it become unreasonable to demand improvement from a massively deficient offensive player who’s being recognized as one of the best young stars in the game? Or even, to merely demand an effort to address any of the issues that plagued him and the Sixers for years? Many of us simply decided to stop wasting air on the matter because it became clear that these changes or efforts to make these changes weren’t coming; so instead we shoved these demands into the dark recesses of our minds for use at a later date. That later date is here. It all came to a head here versus Atlanta, and it sure was ugly.

So where do we go from here? A divorce, certainly.

The Sixers need to once and for all pair Joel Embiid with a real, dynamic, perimeter initiator. Since that clearly isn’t Ben Simmons, and there isn’t a way to get one without subtracting Simmons, the Sixers need to deal him. It is an absolute shame that the Sixers will be trading an All-Star at his lowest possible value, but this is the situation the team has found itself in. The guess here is that Morey will attach whatever he must to Simmons to ensure the highest-level player joins the Sixers. While the Sixers will likely struggle to get 100 cents on the dollar, the move will likely be best for both parties. The Sixers and Simmons are now better off without one another.

The eulogy for Simmons’ career with the Sixers needn’t be written yet, but if he’s traded this summer, it will be an unfortunate end to what was once such a promising Philadelphia tenure. The Sixers must wholeheartedly throw support behind their MVP candidate, and that starts with eliminating the player who’s bogged down the spacing when it counts for too long.

In the end, the Hawks series would represent a miserable coda for the exciting and enigmatic 76ers career of Ben Simmons.