The Philadelphia 76ers’ season shouldn’t be over. They were eliminated by the Atlanta Hawks in seven games in a series that they absolutely could have won within six, blowing multiple 20-plus-point leads along the way in an inexcusable collapse.
The Sixers earned the No. 1 seed with home-court advantage, they had the best possible path to the Eastern Conference Finals, and Joel Embiid reached MVP level. Yet the Sixers blew it. And there’s a lot of blame to go around.
Ben Simmons had a disastrous series against the Hawks. His free throw shooting reached a new, historically-bad low, his lack of offensive development showed, and his painful lack of involvement in the dunker’s spot and offensive aggression made life harder for his teammates, essentially forcing them to play 4-on-5 too often.
Doc Rivers had a poor series as well. For one, he helped the Sixers lose the series opener by using a bizarre plan for the first half of Game 1: having Danny Green guard Trae Young, and relying on deep drop coverage in pick-and-rolls against Young, who has every counter to beat it. From there, Rivers’ rotations had a variety of issues. For instance, overusing all-bench and Tobias Harris-plus bench lineups, overplaying Dwight Howard in a matchup that simply wasn’t suited to him (the team never acquiring another center/stretch option is another problem), and sometimes failing to close games with the best groups possible. The fourth quarter of a Game 7 is not the time to suddenly throw Shake Milton in for 5 minutes.
Tobias Harris, who had a good series for the most part, came up short when his team needed him in two critical games. His 4-point, 2-of-11 shooting performance in Game 5 helped the Sixers blow a 26-point lead. He struggled yet again in Game 7, missing far too many good looks in the paint and finishing with 24 points on just 8-of-24 shooting.
Sure, Joel Embiid made some mistakes against the Hawks. His turnover rate as the series went on was a problem (racking up 16 turnovers over the final two games alone can’t happen). But this was also partly a result of him not having a high-level perimeter creator and playmaker that he could rely on. Not to mention the fact that the man was playing on a torn meniscus. Embiid averaged 30.4 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2 blocks per game, while playing brilliant defense to anchor his team at both ends of the floor. Even in his injured state, the Sixers’ MVP candidate was often dominant and they had no shot of competing against the Hawks without him. As always, Embiid deserves a ton of credit for leading this team.
Throw in other factors like general turnover issues and the bench struggles, and the list keeps going. I could continue, but I won’t anger disappointed Sixers fans reading this any more for the moment.
Now, the Sixers can only look ahead. It’s time to focus on an offseason that will be pivotal in determining their potential to contend in 2021-22.
After some of the team spoke with media following their Game 7 loss, Doc Rivers and a few other players spoke with reporters on Monday to reflect on the season and discuss what’s next.
Working with Ben Simmons
As you’d expect, one of the main topics of discussion with Doc Rivers was Ben Simmons’ play. Specifically, how to approach the offseason and what work can be done to help Simmons get on the right track.
“Without going into detail with what we’re doing, I believe we know what the right work is, and the right type of work, and the right way to do it,” Rivers explained when asked if this offseason will be different for Simmons’ development and shooting.
“You can do the work all the time,” Rivers added. “But if it’s not done in the right way and the right type of work, you may not improve. After being here for a year, I really do believe we’ve identified what and how, and now we have to do the do part. We have to work to do it. It’s not going to be an easy job. But it’s definitely a job that Ben can do.”
While Rivers wouldn’t dive into specifics of what work he and the team have envisioned for Simmons, the coach did say that he believes there are things Simmons can fix quickly to take him to another level, and (unsurprisingly) highlighted the issue of free throw shooting.
“We’re not hiding that Ben has to become a better free throw shooter and a more confident free throw shooter,” Rivers said. “If that happens, I really believe a lot of other parts of his game follows. I said that, if you remember, before the season started. First thing I said was, ‘We got to get him to the line 10 times a night.’ And to want to get to the line 10 times a night. So we’ve got to put in work so he can get there. But if we can get him there, man, his game goes to a different level.”
“I’m very bullish on Ben still,” Rivers added. “But there’s work. There is. And Ben will be willing to do it, and that’s the key. Sometimes you have to go through stuff to see it, and be honest with it.”
Will anything really be different this offseason? We’ll have to wait and see. Besides, there’s surely a good chance now that the Sixers will be looking into trading Simmons this summer, if they can find a move to make an upgrade. It feels like time to move on for both parties.
It’s important to remember in the debate surrounding Simmons that there’s a human element to all of this. Of course, criticism of his play against Atlanta and his lack of development is fair, but he wasn’t himself in the second round. Simmons admitted that his free throw shooting was a mental issue, and his confidence was clearly shaken. He’s still a very good player. Whatever comes next for him, hopefully Simmons is able to get himself in a better place mentally and bounce back.
Rivers emphasized that athletes are still just people like the rest of us. When asked about the family issues Simmons went through earlier in the season, Rivers couldn’t say whether Simmons’ play was affected by it, but did say that it’s something the team talked about with him.
“Players are real people. And they have real lives, and they have real stuff going on,” Rivers said. “I have never had to deal with the public stuff that Ben had to deal with, with my family. But I would say if I had to, it would have affected me in some way or another. I can’t tell you if it affected him on the floor or not, I don’t know that.”
Danny Green also spoke up in defense of his teammate.
“I know a lot of people are gonna be on Ben a lot,” Green said. “They’re gonna harp on this, the whole situation, this whole thing about Ben... He’s my teammate, he’s my brother. I understand the things that he’s gone through this year alone has been heavy for him and rough. But it’s not just him. We all together, win or lose.”
“He’s a mentally tough kid usually,” Green said. “We don’t know what was going on. It happens with players. He’s still young. People think, ‘he’s been in the league.’ He’s still a young player and he can still grow. He still has a lot of room for growth, a lot of potential. Ben has gone through quite a bit this year, and it’s not his fault that we lost. Everybody’s gonna say, ‘Oh, this and that, if he would have made this.’ If I made some shots in Game 1 for us... You could say Shake (Milton), Furkan (Korkmaz), Matisse (Thybulle). You go down the line, there’s so many mistakes that happened. You can’t just harp on one player.”
“Ben is gonna be fine,” Green added. “And I also think it’s a mistake that people think that he doesn’t care. I guess by his tone, his mannerisms, whatever it may be in press conferences. And by his actions, you can see in his play that he cares. I think he might be a little afraid of certain things, but because of how his interviews go, he doesn’t show much emotion. But believe it or not, he cares. It hurts him more than anybody. He’s a bigger critic than anybody of himself and it hurts him deeply that he wasn’t able to be himself and help his team win.”
Will Danny Green return?
Danny Green was obviously frustrated that he wasn’t able to help his team against the Hawks after he suffered a calf strain in Game 3 that sidelined him for the rest of the series. Whether or not his availability would have been enough to swing the series, he was a key part of the Sixers’ success all season. He’s still an extremely smart and helpful team defender, he led the team in three-point attempts at 6.3 per game and made them at a 40.5 percent clip, and provided much-needed spacing with his off-ball movement (especially his baseline “Danny Green Cut”) and quick-trigger shooting. Green also took on a valuable leadership role that garnered praise from his teammates all season.
“There’s always 29 unhappy teams throughout the summer, there’s only one that’s happy,” Green said when reflecting on the season and the disappointment of losing to the Hawks, which he knows was a missed opportunity. “But I thought we had a hell of a year. Had a hell of a season, had a lot of fun, beat my expectations. I didn’t expect to be number 1 in the East. COVID, injuries, all that, we still had home-court advantage. Had a great time with the fans.”
“Overall, the season was amazing. A lot of fun. Hell of a year playing with those guys. Love those guys, they’re like my brothers now.”
Green hasn’t had a chance to think much about free agency yet or formally discuss with the team whether he’ll be staying. However, he did mention that at his exit meeting on Monday he spoke to Doc Rivers, who said, “You’ll be back, you ain’t going nowhere.”
The now 34-year-old wing has been a quality fit in Philly, both on and off the floor. If the Sixers can keep Green for a reasonable amount when he hits free agency this summer (surely for a cheaper annual salary than the $15.36 million he made this season), they should do so.
The rookies reflect on their first season and what they’ll be working on
Tyrese Maxey couldn’t have impressed much more as a rookie. Even though he had some down spells in the middle of the season and wasn’t always a consistent part of the Sixers’ rotation, he showed immense growth through the year. He reduced his floater attempts in favor of more efficient shots at the rim, sharpened his defense, polished his playmaking, and became more comfortable using his jumper. Maxey’s growth in all areas of the game was impressive, and he even had some strong playoff performances, most recently tallying 16 points in Game 6 against Atlanta to help drive Philly to a win.
Now, as someone who’s been known as the hardest worker on the team for some time, Maxey is ready to get straight back to work in his first NBA offseason.
“I’m gonna break down some film of myself with my father, trainers, coaching staff, and I’m gonna try to get one percent better every single day in all aspects for sure,” Maxey said. “Look at some defensive situations, how to take away tendencies from guys. Just looking at playmaking, creating plays for others, creating plays for myself, just working on everything. Shooting, passing, the whole nine.”
Maxey is hoping to get back in the gym on Friday to start his offseason training. He mentioned this plan to one of the Sixers’ development coaches, and quickly received a “no” in response. Naturally, as is the case with all players, they want Maxey to get some extra rest first after only just finishing the season.
“We’ll see how that argument goes,” Maxey said.
“One thing I will say that will be going on during this offseason is that I will get one percent better every single day. I’ll make that promise to myself.”
Paul Reed is happy with his first year in the NBA. He’s grateful for the time he had in the G League, and appreciates what he’s learned from the Sixers’ coaching staff, Doc Rivers, and teammates like Joel Embiid — including tips on how to draw fouls and keep his confidence up at all times from the latter. Reed also highlighted passing, shooting, finishing around the rim, and adding strength as a few of the key areas he wants to work on.
“Being able to finish around the rim against bigger players, moving guys out the way with these new muscles I’m finna have,” Reed said with a laugh. “That’s what I want to get better at. And my explosiveness, too. Getting more bouncy and more athletic.”
Rivers said that Maxey and Reed are probably the hardest working young players he’s ever coached in his career. With a full NBA offseason ahead of them, they’ll both have a valuable opportunity to continue their development.
As Maxey frequently says, it’s all about getting “one percent better every day.”