Sports

Ben Simmons, the Pass, and the End of the Process

This week at The Ringer, in honor of the release of Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, we will explore events that changed the world as we knew it—specifically ones that marked the ends of established eras and triggered the beginnings of then-unknown futures. Some will be overt and well established. Others will be less trodden and perhaps more speculative. But all will entertain an immovable idea that when things die, there is someone or something that pulled the trigger. Welcome to This Is the End Week.


Chris Ryan: [Mare of Easttown voice] Yo, John. This exchange is happening in order to answer a question, or uphold a premise, or poke holes in an assertion: that the Process—the much debated, maligned, celebrated, and misunderstood way in which the Philadelphia 76ers built a perennial … [puts on Ben Franklin bifocals] second-round out—is dead. We have been tasked with figuring out whether Ben Simmons’s doomed “pass” to Matisse Thybulle in the closing moments of this year’s Game 7 of Philly’s Eastern Conference semifinals (home!) clash with the Atlanta Hawks was, in fact, not a pass but an abdication of responsibility, and an unintentional eulogy for whatever the last five to eight years have been for the Sixers franchise, a certain tortured sect of their fans, a band of their NBA media onlookers, and the way we ball now.

I’ll go first: My name is Chris, and I’m addicted to the idea of Ben Simmons. In my more private moments, I have been known to confess to friends and confidants that I’m more enamored with the best version of Simmons than the regularly available version of super-meme center Joel Embiid—the all-conquering basketball reincarnation of Hakeem Olajuwon who plays through meniscus tears and is literally nicknamed “The Process.”

Simmons is not Embiid. He doesn’t mug. He doesn’t inspire. He doesn’t represent an ethos. Since his arrival, Embiid has embodied a certain goon-greatness that all Philly legends have, from Utley to Dawkins. He is a city landmark. Simmons has always felt like a bit of a fling—an affair that never quite panned out. He is a two-way beast who, somewhere along the way, lost one of his ways. Pretty soon into the opening round of this past postseason, as the Sixers dispatched the Wizards, two things were pretty clear: There was a window for Philly to go to the promised land (pretty much all of the NBA’s top-10 players were felled by or battling significant injuries), and if they didn’t get there, newish team president Daryl Morey would make some serious changes. By the end of the Sixers’ playoff run, one change is pretty obvious: Simmons will most likely have to go.

How do you describe Ben Simmons in the playoffs? He was a boat captain looking for an iceberg. As the Sixers sank against the rising Hawks, Simmons finished the series scoring 19 points over the final three games. He was petrified to finish at the rim and frozen in carbonite at the free throw line. It all culminated with about three and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 7, with the Sixers down two points. Simmons had the ball on the block, put Danilo Gallinari through a turnstile, and had nothing but the rim and the faint suggestion of some Trae Young help defense between him and motherfucking destiny.

And then he passed.

This will, in all likelihood, be the last significant play of Ben Simmons’s Sixers career. But is it the last play of the Process? Does it end a way of thinking about the Sixers, about team-building, and maybe even about “trust” in a player-personnel philosophy started in 2013 that, I think, was supposed to have paid off by now?

John Gonzalez: You mentioned the pass to Thybulle as an “unintentional eulogy” for the last five to eight years for the franchise, which I think is right and sad and depressing—but only because during that period this team has been functionally Groundhog Day–ing a never-ending funeral. How many times have we buried the Process at this point? Off the top of my head, we mourned its demise on occasions including but not limited to Sam Hinkie’s departure, Bryan Colangelo’s normal-collar burner controversy, Kawhi’s unforgettable four-bounce shot to Philadelphia’s collective groin, when Jimmy Butler decamped for Miami, when Brett Brown’s long and underappreciated run as head coach finally came to an end, when Doc Rivers was hired to be the head coach (and also signify a new era), and when Daryl Morey was brought in to run the front office (and also signify a new era). Hell, with your help as my editor, you and I put the Process in the ground four fucking years ago. And yet here we are, once again, grabbing our bugles and playing taps because Ben Simmons did what Ben Simmons does in the playoffs—which is not much.

Are you tired? I’m tired.

This is the problem with the Process. It’s basically the Undertaker meme. It was over ages ago and yet it will live on forever as a torture device for Sixers fans who will never be free of its specter. This is our lot in life now—to be haunted in perpetuity. What was the saying on Game of Thrones? What is dead may never die? Pretty sure Benioff and Weiss stole that from Philly.

There will be plenty of people who will hang what turned out to be a disappointing end to the season on Ben Simmons for not playing like a superstar—or even a star, or even someone who doesn’t look so allergic to free throws that you half expect the medical staff to rush in an jab him in the neck with an EpiPen every time he goes to the line. Which, whatever. There is plenty of blame to go around, and Simmons certainly deserves his. But when he’s gone—and it seems pretty clear that it would probably be better for everyone involved for that to happen sooner than later—I wonder who the blathering hot takers will say killed the Process the next time around. And then the time after that.

If we’re going to continue this wake, we’ll need more booze.

Ryan: Let me throw a couple of scenarios at you. Which of the following is your preferred future?

  1. The Sixers go all in, deal Simmons and some combination of Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, flexible contracts like a re-signed Danny Green or George Hill, picks, furniture, foam fingers, and hip-hop posters for Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal— essentially mortgaging roster continuity, youth, and the dream of Simmons for the can’t-miss disgruntled superstar.
  2. The Sixers trade Simmons for a player not quite as good as Beal or Lillard—say, CJ McCollum—perhaps replacing one flawed star player for another.
  3. The door marked Pure Process: trade Simmons to the Thunder for a grip of their picks and Kemba Walker.

Your answer will probably say a lot about how long you’ve been cheering for this team, how much longer you really want to be doing so, how close you think they are from a title with a healthy Embiid. I am firmly in the camp of “do anything you need to do to get Lillard.” The concept of starting over with picks and anyone who has recently been on the Celtics is too triggering to even contemplate. As for the second option, so much time has passed between “the pass” and today, I’m almost weirdly nostalgic for Simmons and could make an argument that holding on to him is a better bet than an injury-prone, defensive liability like McCollum, despite his obvious offensive talents. How do you want to move forward, and is it at all important that the future feels at all like the past?

Gonzalez: The future (and the present) always feels like the past with the Sixers. That’s the issue; past is forever prologue. Breaking that loop would be much appreciated. With that in mind, we’ll take your options in reverse order. As tempted as I generally am to hoard picks/assets in the hopes of eventually spinning garbage into gold as the great Marc Zumoff might say (quick aside: Zumoff will be greatly missed as the play-by-play man), I can’t imagine kicking the championship-aspiration can down the road again. My kicking leg is exhausted.

To your point about no. 2 and already feeling “weirdly nostalgic” for Simmons, I’m worried that you might have had a stroke or that you’re being held somewhere against your will. Blink twice if you’re OK. Simmons is a really good player; a star even, though I wouldn’t use super as a prefix. He can impact a game in so many ways. He’s excellent on the break. He’s an incredible passer. He’s an all-world defender. Those are all positives. But he can also influence a game by passing up dunks because he’s afraid of the free throw line—which is only slightly less awful as outcomes go than when he actually gets to the free throw line and has to take uncontested shots while the world watches. Even thinking about it erases any possible feelings of nostalgia or goodwill. But as much as I believe the Sixers and Simmons would both benefit from an amicable parting, I am not overly excited to swap him for McCollum or someone else who is also good but not great. The lateral move is the least interesting of the three scenarios you presented.

That leaves the first option. Yes and please. Where do I sign up? I’ve always loved Portland. Ben Simmons would have a grand time there. I’d be happy to offer up food and drink suggestions as he gets settled in. And Dame, my God. Not only would he fit perfectly alongside Embiid on a team that has been desperate for scoring for years now, he’d make a great fit in Philly. It’s the best possible outcome. Of course, these things don’t happen magically or in a vacuum. Prying Lillard away from Portland would require an absurd sum, and I’m not sure that Simmons and all the fringe benefits you outlined would be enough. But I hope Morey tries.

That’s the part that actually makes me cautiously optimistic about this entire enterprise moving forward: Morey is unquestionably one of the smartest and best general managers in the league, and he has been for a long while now. Plus, he’s repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to tinker and move big pieces around. Simmons is a big piece. Dame is an even bigger piece. Maybe Morey can crack the calculus on how to subtract one and add the other. Here’s hoping.

Then again, as honorary Philadelphian Ted Lasso once rightly said, it’s the hope that kills you.

Ryan: So you’re ready to move on, and I’m feeling weirdly sentimental, but neither of us sound like the people we were back when Sam Hinkie swapped Jrue Holiday for the pick that became a then-injured Nerlens Noel—a deal that exemplified the then-general-manager’s preference for an uncharted future versus a mediocre present. We’re no longer idealists, fantasists, or utopians.

The Process was about figuring out how to build a title-contending team in the face of the Heatles and the reality that superstars were unlikely to congregate in Philly unless they were drafted to play there. For the better part of the last six years, we thought Simmons and Embiid were those homegrown superstars. When Simmons made that pass to Thybulle, it had intense Kendall Roy “it’s not gonna be me” energy. Maybe he becomes a franchise player for another franchise, but his time with Embiid and with Philly will have to end.

There’s a part of me that’s bummed those two will never get to the promised land together, but as a pretty close Process observer over the years, I know this: It was actually never about the specific players, it was about the results. If Simmons was somehow flipped into Lillard … what could be more Process than that?

Gonzalez: Simmons suffering an acute peanut allergy that the medical team botches?

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