With each of his 36 minutes appearing to be taking its toll,
miss after miss, Joel Embiid trotted back up the floor, sputtering
like an old Honda Civic.
By the time his night had ended, his Philadelphia 76ers found
themselves on the wrong side of a 103-100 decision against the
Atlanta Hawks. The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team was
suddenly locked in a best two-out-of-three now.
I couldn’t help but think of what was going through Ben Simmons’
Sure, Philadelphia was one Seth Curry three away from forcing
overtime, and yes, the club had plenty of opportunities to make
plays down the stretch and escape from Atlanta with a 3-1 series
lead. But behind a miserable 0-for-12 shooting performance in the
game’s second half, Embiid couldn’t get his team across the finish
The outcome shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, though.
After all, Embiid looked like he could barely get himself
across the finish line.
Mentally tough as they come, Simmons — somewhat similarly to
Lonzo Ball — has never been overly concerned with living up to the
expectations that others may have had for him. To his credit, the
criticism rolls off his back so smoothly that a duck would be in
So make no mistake about it: Simmons cares not about your
critiques. He worries not of your puny expectations. Admirable in
some ways, though, it makes you wonder what kind of expectations he
has for himself.
In an NBA where plodding, slow-footed centers like Brook Lopez
had to evolve (which he did) or get lost (like Roy Hibbert did),
we’ve been force-fed the narrative that success in the league today
requires a big that’s able to “space the floor” and at least pose a
credible threat from outside of the paint.
Truth be told, the expectation and the modern superstar’s
pursuit of the standard has given us the league’s reigning MVP in
With respect to Embiid, it is his own refusal to be put into a
box and play the game the way centers of yesteryear did that has
made him a superstar. Built like a dump truck, Embiid’s agility,
proficiency from the field and audacity to take big shots has
brought these Sixers to the top of the Eastern Conference’s
regular-season mountain. Aside from his own mortality, his
imagination is his only limiter.
We watched and criticized LeBron James for not having a jumper.
We roasted Russell Westbrook for his inefficiency, dismissed John
Wall as a difference-maker and rolled our eyes when Giannis
Antetokounmpo embarrassingly misses pull-up three-pointers.
Yet many — including his own head coach in Doc Rivers — sit back
and allow the application of an obvious double-standard.
As Embiid dragged his one good knee up and down the court
against the Hawks on Monday night, more and more, he looked like he
was running in cement. The body language was clear; Embiid was
begging for someone to help him — help the team. He needed a Robin,
but Simmons was satisfied being The Joker.
Simmons failed to register a single shot attempt in the fourth
quarter, as Philadelphia shot just 4-for-16 in the game’s final
frame. Meanwhile, Trae Young and Nate McMillan decided the trip
back up the I-95 North to Philly would be more pleasant if the
series were tied as opposed to being on the brink of
In the end, Simmons is a great player with tantalizing
potential. But at a certain point, he needs to take the challenge
upon himself to be a plus in an area where he’s been a big, fat
It’s ironic that Embiid, a player who has dedicated his
existence to bucking the norm of what we’ve come to expect from a
big man, is flanked by someone whose refusal to expand his
offensive versatility is perhaps what's limiting the Sixers’
potential the most.
Perhaps it’s because he’s relatively low-key. Maybe it’s because
the cockiness and outspokenness of Embiid provides enough of a
shield for Simmons to maintain a low profile. But after four years
in the league, according to Basketball-Reference's shot-tracking
data, 98.9% of Simmons’ career shot attempts have been from
That’s probably about the same odds of this version of the
Sixers falling short of winning a championship.
The belief in the modern NBA is that you can’t win with centers
who can’t guard the three-pointer or spread the floor.
But since when have point guards who can’t shoot been the key to
carrying home the Larry O’Brien trophy?
Whether they manage to get past Atlanta or not, the Sixers will
only go as far as Joel Embiid is able to carry them, and
unfortunately, only as far as Ben Simmons will allow him to.
If I’m Doc Rivers, at this point, that’s exactly what I’m afraid