Marc Lamont Hill: The 76ers coddled Ben Simmons, then turned on him
Ben Simmons has demanded a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers, per Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Simmons reportedly informed the 76ers that he wants to be traded and doesn’t plan on attending training camp if a deal isn’t done by that time.
On “The Collision: Where Sports and Politics Collide” with Dave Zirin, our guest was Marc Lamont Hill, a political columnist, commentator, host of BET News and Black News Tonight, and lifelong Philadelphia 76ers fan. He unpacked everything about the Simmons situation from who’s to blame, if a reconciliation is possible and potential trade scenarios involving the 25-year-old.
Etan Thomas: “Let’s take it from the top: Where did the Sixers go wrong? And did they do anything wrong in their handling of Ben Simmons?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “They went wrong. I mean, the big picture thing is: Ben Simmons, to me, isn’t a point guard. And I've said this since he was drafted. He is a very talented basketball player with a wide-ranging skill set with, of course, one glaring omission, which is shooting. Ben Simmons is not an extraordinary playmaker. He's a great passer. He has great court vision. Lots of guys do who don't play point guard. And I think the fact that he has such deficiencies in the halfcourt [means he] really is not an effective facilitator in the NBA. I mean, you see guys take 15 steps back when he gets the ball at the top of the key, because he's not a threat. He's not a threat on pick-and-roll. I mean, we can go on down the list. This is why Ben Simmons is a problem in the halfcourt.
“So, the Sixers never forced him to develop a shot and they never played him in any position other than point guard. And I think some of that was due to playing to Ben's ego. Brett Brown had no control, and Etan, you know this. The coaches are trying to make the team too. When you're a coach like Brett Brown, a rookie coach, no one knows who you are, you got one shot at this and you do what the owners say, and they said, ‘We want Ben on that court. We want Ben playing. We want Ben as the point guard.’ Brett Brown couldn't sit Ben if he wouldn't shoot a jump shot. He couldn't sit Ben Simmons if he didn't follow instructions. And Ben had no commitment, in my estimation, to being a better shooter, not in a way that I think most NBA. But when you fast forward to the Doc Rivers era, that horse is out of the barn, and Ben wasn't a shooter. That's just not who Ben was. But where they went wrong was they failed to support him. Doc Rivers comes out and says, ‘Ben's a great point guard. He's a great player. Y'all don't know basketball if you think he's not or if you think he's a problem.’ And he was lying to us, y'all. I mean, come on.
“When a point guard goes 1-for-2, or any player goes 1-for-2 from the free-throw line in four-straight possessions in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, and Doc says, ‘Well, I will take one point per possession,’ that ain’t it. We all know you've got to make your free throws. You can't be a 50% free-throw shooter. So, Doc coddled him and played to his ego because he didn't want to mess with his head. He said, ‘I'm not taking him out in the last seconds of the game.’ But then by the end of the Washington series and the beginning of the Atlanta series, he had to take him out, because you can't have a guy that can't make free throws in the game.”
Etan Thomas: “You said he coddled him, but did he support him at the end? Just to be fair, and I love Doc. But I saw Doc in the post-game press conference after they lost and they asked him something like, ‘Can you be successful with Ben Simmons as your point guard?’ And Doc said, ‘I don't have the answer to that question.’ I was like, ‘Oh, that was a little chilly.’ So, what was your interpretation of that?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “My main interpretation was that Doc Rivers had finally become a Philadelphian, because that's what Philly does. We love you, we coddle you, and then we throw you away in a moment. We go from one extreme to the other.”
Etan Thomas: “That's cold.”
Marc Lamont Hill: “But you know it's true. What Doc Rivers did there was wrong, because first of all, you don't throw your player under the bus at the end of the game. He wasn't wrong. His analysis wasn't wrong. He wasn't wrong to say that, ‘I don't know if Ben can be the starting point guard on the championship team,’ because none of us know the answer to that question. I mean, I think that's obvious. The problem isn't that. The problem is you don't say that in the press conference. And Joel Embiid didn't do him any favors, either. He basically blamed the game on him. Was he wrong? Of course not. Do I want my point guard to give up a wide-open dunk because he's afraid of potentially getting fouled and having to make free throws? Of course not. But that's not what you do at the press conference.
“So, the Sixers mishandled him in terms of throwing him under the bus, but they put him in a position where he was extraordinarily sensitive leading up to that, and they played to his ego and coddled him. And so the combination of those two things was not good. Ben is thin-skinned and then they threw him under the bus in a way that even a thick-skinned player would be angry about. And I think that that combination is really bad. The Sixers never developed Ben Simmons, but Ben Simmons has to take responsibility for that too, because Ben Simmons never hired a shooting instructor – he let his brother be his shooting instructor. Many NBA players, coaches, etc. tried to develop Ben's shot and rebuild, reconstruct his shot the way Lonzo Ball did. He refused to do it. He doesn't want to listen to instruction. You can't get better if you're not willing to take instruction.”
Dave Zirin: “That's true. One of my coaches said to me, "You can't learn how to jump 45 inches, but you can make yourself into a decent shooter." Everybody from Magic Johnson to, you said it, Lonzo Ball has been able to make themselves into an acceptable shooter or at least acceptable enough to stay on the court during close games. Marc, one of the things that makes you so dynamic – and I'm not just trying to gas you – is you've got this academic bonafide, but you also keep your ear close to the ground. So, where are the Philadelphia faithful right now? Are they on Team Sixers or Team Simmons in how they're feeling about this?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “There are people who are still Team Simmons, but look, I'm Team Sixers. I want him traded, not because I want to throw Ben under the bus, [but] because at this point, his mind's not here. He may develop into a great player, but he won't develop into a great player here. And I think most people here either think that or there's a sector of Philly fans that are saying, ‘We don't think he's great. We think he's a fraud. We think he has all these skills, but they don't matter if you can't be in the game. They don't matter if you have to sit the fourth quarter. They don't matter,’ etc. And then there's a slice of people that say, ‘Y'all just don't get how good Ben is. And y'all don't understand how he affects the basketball game. The eye test shows how good Ben is, and we should keep him. We're making a huge mistake.’ I think that percentage is 25%. The other 75% want him to leave for various reasons.
“I personally say, ‘Trade Ben, and I hope he goes to a place that will let him play small-ball 5, that will let him play the 4. And as Ben develops even a reasonable shot or is just willing to attack the basket, [he’ll be fine].’ Because let's be clear: It's not just that Ben can't shoot, it's that he won't shoot. He doesn't even keep defenders honest. And so when you have those kinds of dynamics going on, you can't thrive. So I say trade Ben to a place where he can thrive and we get [some pieces back] that will allow the Sixers to be competitive.
“The other problem with the Sixers faithful is we've seen so many bad trades, man. We traded Allen Iverson for nothing. Remember when we traded Charles Barkley for, who was it, Andrew Lang and Jeff Hornacek? And then the next year, Charles was in the NBA Finals. Jeff Hornacek turned out to be a great player, but he didn't last long here; he played well in Utah afterward. Tim Perry was a great Temple player, but not a great NBA player. We've been on the wrong end of too many bad trades, and so we're just skeptical that we're going to get back a bag of magic beans for one of the most dynamic players of this generation.”
Etan Thomas: “Well, Marc, let me ask you this: I've seen some footage of Ben shooting in pick-up games and things like that in the summer, so it looks like he's been working on his shot. He was working out and shooting jumpers. And while everybody could look good in the summer, that at least shows that he is working on it. Would that be enough to warm up some of the 76ers fans, the fact that he is at least trying to work on it?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “Every summer, he says [this]. First of all, if you give me an hour in the gym and a camera phone, I can look like at least Seth Curry. You know what I'm saying? If I can edit the footage and you give me 30 [minutes]...”
Etan Thomas: “Hey, no offense to Seth Curry. He's a good shooter.”
Marc Lamont Hill: “I love Seth Curry! Seth Curry's one of the top 10 shooters [in the league] right now. Seth Curry is great, he's just not Steph Curry. But Ben Simmons ain't even Mark Curry!”
Etan Thomas: “Dang, that's tough. That's tough.”
Dave Zirin: “Shout out to 'Hanging with Mr Cooper.' (laughs)
Marc Lamont Hill: “Exactly. But the thing is, I mean, there are two problems. One, maybe he is killing it at LA Fitness, right? I don't know...
Etan Thomas: “(laughs) You gonna keep on with the jabs, huh Marc?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “I'm having a rough day, man. This trade’s got my mind all messed up. But look, if Ben is able to shoot in competitive runs in the summer, [does it matter if he doesn’t shoot] when he gets the ball wide open in the corner? At this point in the NBA, that’s the red meat of the NBA offense, a corner three – who wouldn't take a corner three, right? If he came to the NBA game and [doesn’t shoot], it's not just a physical issue, it's a mental issue. And I think that's the part that we have not given Ben enough grace for. We can't be out here protecting Naomi Osaka, as we should, and we can't be over here protecting Sha’Carri Richardson, as we should, and then beat up on Ben when he talks about mental illness.
“And this is a mental problem, whether he says it or not – and he has alluded to it. When you're at the point when you're 6-foot-10 and athletic and won't dunk the basketball in an NBA playoff game because you are afraid of the consequences of having to go to the free throw line, then it's become at least a mental block that we have to take seriously. And instead of bullying him about that, we have to figure out how to develop him. Sports are tough, and I know all of that, but I do think there's more to this than just his lack of desire to get better. I don't think he doesn't practice basketball. I do think he's stubborn about reconstructing his shot. I mean, you don't have to be an NBA pro to look at his elbow and look at how he doesn't square up and look at his body language at the free throw line. He's just not a very good shooter. And you can have bad form and make it, but you can't have bad form and miss it. So I think it's both.”
Dave Zirin: “Let's talk a little bit about Joel Embiid's reaction to this. To me, [if] Joel Embiid doesn't get hurt, he's the MVP this year. So we're talking about one of the short-list, top-level players in the entire league and a team leader. And he tweeted: ‘For clarity, I love the criticism. I love when I'm told I can't do something. It makes me work harder to prove everyone wrong, but not everyone is built like that.’ I've read that tweet over and over because I'm thinking, is he trying to show support or is he basically saying, ‘Yeah, we're done’?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “That was the worst show of support I have seen in a very long time. I don't want that kind of support. He basically said, ‘You know what? Be nicer, because some people can't take it.’ Right? ‘Some people are insert any hyper-masculine, inappropriate adjective here’ He's basically saying, ‘Yeah, Philly shouldn't be doing this.’ Right? He's saying, ‘Philly should not be treating players like this. Philly fans are problematic for how they respond to players, but it made me better. I'm not complaining, but everybody can't take it.’ And implicitly saying Ben can't take it. And he's not wrong. Ben is thin-skinned. Ben is not used to having to be criticized. He's been the star basketball player his whole life. He's the number one pick in the NBA draft. He's not used to that, but he's not wrong. But I think Ben is going to take that as another jab, even if it was intended as a show of support.”
Etan Thomas: “It's interesting, because Joel was doing good with the tweet right before that. He tweeted, ‘Stop using my name to push people's agendas. I love and hate drama, but I love playing with Ben. Stats don't lie. He's an amazing player. And we all didn't get the job done. It's on me personally. I hope everyone is back, because we know we're good enough to win.’ He had some other tweets saying the same thing. And then he had the one today. It's like three or four great tweets, and then one line that was just a little bit different.”
Marc Lamont Hill: “Yeah. That was the tell right there. And these guys, they've grown into a good relationship. They didn't always have a great relationship. They've grown into a great relationship. They like each other. They want to play together. But I think, again, it was also an assertion of power. If you really subject that to scrutiny, when he said, ‘It's on me,’ what he's really saying is, ‘It's really on me because it's my team,’ i.e. not Ben's team. So, I mean, there's all kinds of layers of authority being asserted, even in his so-called show of support.
“But Joel Embiid is 100% right. It is his team. If everybody comes back, they are good enough to be competitive. They're not good enough to win unless Ben magically starts shooting the basketball. If Ben starts shooting the basketball, the team gets instantly better. I mean, the team gets instantly better. But that's a lot of ifs in somebody's career. But the ultimate thing is Ben and Joel don't fit. They don't fit personality wise. They don't fit basketball wise. They take up the same space on the court. This marriage just doesn't work. And I think it's time for the Sixers to think about what kind of pieces, realistically, they can bring back. Not the Daryl Morey ‘give-me-half-your-team’ trade requests, but a real, sincere trade request to bring in some players that can fill out the Sixers' roster, give them some bench depth, give them a playmaker at point guard who can score, but also not be compromised [defensively]. Ben Simmons is probably, and y'all might disagree, the best on-the-ball defender, in my estimation, in the NBA right now.”
Dave Zirin: “Yeah. He's on the list, for sure. And if used right, that's an absolutely lethal weapon.”
Marc Lamont Hill: “Oh, it's a completely lethal weapon. There was some talk about him going to Golden State, which isn't going to happen just because it's a ridiculous request, but imagine him on Golden State with a healthy Klay Thompson, a healthy Steph Curry. I mean, suddenly you've got an amazing team with an extraordinary defensive dynamic that can get out on the open floor, etc. In a place like that, Ben would thrive. Ben would absolutely thrive there. And that's the type of environment Ben wants, but Ben [doesn’t have leverage]. Ben has four years left on his deal. He don't get to pick where he goes. The Sixers need to bring back some young players, some draft picks, and somebody who can score. But again, it's hard to do that when you've got a player who everybody in the world just saw not play so well in the playoffs.”
Etan Thomas: “Yeah. But as you mentioned earlier, you have to look at the 76ers' past and the way that they've traded away players. I mean, I still think Markelle Fultz is going to do great when he's healthy. I think he's going to blow up, and he was on pace to do that before he got hurt. But I think, who are they going to get back for Simmons? And I really do feel that Ben Simmons is going to blow up wherever he goes, but I'm looking at realistic destinations. I mean, you throw out different things. I heard Toronto and, like you said, Golden State. But what realistically are you going to get back that's going to equal Ben Simmons?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “Again, it's one of those things... You have two approaches, right? You wait for the superstar; you go superstar for superstar. That's plan A. That rarely happens in the NBA, because you rarely have two [stars available]. You rarely get the Danny Manning [for] Dominique Wilkins kind of deal, right? You rarely get the kind of star-for-star approach. You usually end up getting back pennies on the dollar, because usually if you're trading a superstar, it's because it's a so-called distressed asset. Right? So not to commodify the player, but just to think about the logic of it. So that would be where I began.
“So when you asked me what I would want to get back, Dame Lillard would be plan A. And if Dame Lillard says, ‘I want out,’ I think the Sixers are the primary destination, even though they're going to have to also give up Tyrese Maxey, which I think is a lot to give up because I really think he's a player. But you can find another Tyrese Maxey, no matter how good he is. Dame Lillard's in his prime right now. If you give me three good years of Dame Lillard with Joel Embiid, I think you'd have a puncher's chance at a championship every year, as long as you keep Tobias Harris and you have strong role players, like Seth Curry, etc.
“If that doesn't work, then you've got to go and talk about what package of players you can get. Minnesota seems to have the best haul of pieces. Sacramento would be interesting, but they said, ‘We're not giving up [Tyrese] Haliburton. We're not giving up De'Aaron Fox,’ so that's a non-starter for the Sixers. Buddy Hield is a guy that everybody's willing to trade for, but they're not willing to give up so much. The Lakers had that challenge. I don't want Buddy Hield here as my replacement for Ben Simmons. It doesn't make basketball sense. It doesn't make any sense. I personally think Minnesota is probably the best suitor right now, given what we see on the table.
“The question is do you, as a Sixers team, want D'Angelo Russell as your primary return here? You'll get a shooter. You'll get a decent playmaker. You'll get somebody who's not afraid of the limelight. But you also get somebody who's been on multiple teams. Again, he's like a Tobias Harris. He's a great player, excellent player, but also a guy who sometimes gets traded because he's not the number one option. He might be the number two or the number three option on a great team. Give me D'Angelo Russell and some pieces. At this point, it might be the best thing on the table. If you get a lineup with D'Angelo Russell and Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid isn't terrible. But you're not defending like you did last year.
“The last thing I'll say is: we can't underestimate what Ben Simmons does on the basketball court. Ben Simmons as a defensive rebounder, as a help defender and as an on-ball defender… Ben Simmons is an all-world defender, and he makes up for a lot of the mistakes. And as Danny Green gets older, and Seth Curry... Seth Curry's just not a defender. When you have these shooters on the floor that don't defend well, all of these 3-and-D guys on the Sixers, losing an extraordinary perimeter defender like that is no small thing.”
Etan Thomas: “Is there any scenario where you can see it working if Ben Simmons comes back, if none of those trade scenarios work before training camp?”
Marc Lamont Hill: “I remember when Kobe Bryant was saying there ain't no way he was coming back to the Lakers and he wanted to be traded. It's happened before. I've seen guys [change their mind]. But the problem is this: Kobe wanted a better roster. This isn't a roster issue. This is an accountability issue. This is a support issue. This is an ego issue. This is a team [issue]. These issues are deep. And so, I don't know if this can be fixed. I'm not convinced that it can be fixed.
“Do I see a scenario where he comes back? Yes. Philly is not taking a bad deal, so I think the most likely scenario is [Morey] brings him back. He doesn't go to camp, but his agent, of course, Rich Paul, convinces him to actually play the games so that he doesn't look like a cancer. And then we see the James Harden situation, where five-to-10 games in, you have a trade. I think that is possible. But I'd love to be a fly on the wall in that locker room, man. I would love to see him and Doc talking. I'd love to see him and Joel talk. I mean, I'll be at the game just for that.”