BY DAVID THORPE
Ben Simmons’ basketball career has been an explosive ride. Top overall NBA draft pick, massive contract, best perimeter defender on the planet, crazy elite passer, and he has played for the top overall team in the conference. At an age when Michael Jordan’s playoff record was 5 wins and 15 losses, Simmons has 19 wins and 15 losses.
Not long ago, Ben Simmons was piloting a rocket to the stars.
Except now Simmons is demanding a departure from that top-ranked team, whose fans can’t wait to see him go. It’s unique in NBA history. Have we ever seen a star player, with years left on a huge contract, demand a trade from an elite team? This isn’t James Harden or Anthony Davis asking to leave bad teams for good ones. Or a player who is holding out because he’s being underpaid. This is Ben Simmons not being able to face his teammates or fans again in a Sixers uniform. When a player who can still get much better tells his team publicly that he wants to leave and is willing to sit until that happens, we have a very ugly divorce.
Ben Simmons will get a new home—but what he needs is a hug. And a plan to get back in that rocket.
A year ago we saw a tremor of trouble when—is there any way to deny it?—the 76ers tried to get James Harden at the expense of Simmons.
Then we felt another rumble after the team lost Game 7 to the Hawks. Simmons’ Coach Doc Rivers answered “I don’t know” when asked if Simmons can be the point guard for a championship team.
Then the earthquake. Simmons told the team this summer that he wouldn’t return? Who was shocked?
The 76ers had been on a steady climb from the bottom of the standings to the top, a bounce of the ball from beating the title-winning Raptors a couple of years ago, the top seed in the East the last time Simmons wore a uniform.
Now, uncertainty and disaster. There’s a lot of talk about trades that work for the 76ers, and who’ll win the title after all the dust settles.
After nearly 35 years helping players, I can’t help but ask: “What about Ben Simmons?”
What will happen to this young man who just turned 25 and could improve considerably on a game that already earned him three All-Star births? With all the attention Team Simmons is spending on pulling off a trade that works for him, there needs to be an even deeper discussion about how to get back on track--wherever he plays.
Will Smith is a role model. He was crushing the music business in the 90s and early aughts. He helped to create, and starred in, a hit TV show. He was a household name. But Smith told his manager, James Lassiter, that he wanted to figure out how to be the “biggest movie star in the world.”
Fred Topol reports that Lassiter and Smith studied the top ten movies of all time, searching for patterns. And they found one: They all had special effects. “Nine out of ten were special effects movies with creatures. Eight out of ten were special effects movies with creatures and a love story,” Smith recalls. “So Independence Day is not really a hard call to make when you look at the numbers.”
Independence Day made over $800 million. Hancock earned over $600 million, I Am Legend just under $600 million, and the Men in Black franchise just under two billion dollars. Will Smith became exactly what he asked for, the biggest star in the world.
Ben Simmons, this is your plan: Figure out where you want to go, and then reverse engineer a way to get there.
First we dream. Then we do.
Lost in the daily drama of what has happened and what might happen is, what does Simmons want for himself? “Out of Philly” isn’t a life plan. What kind of player does he want to be?
He’s far from the first star to hit a rough patch.
Magic Johnson dribbled out the clock of an important Finals game, lost the series, and earned the nickname”Tragic Johnson.”
LeBron James played like a bench player in his first Heat Finals that ended in a shocking defeat.
Will Smith starred in Wild, Wild West and After Earth.
Ben Simmons’ sins barely compare. He passed up a dunk attempt in a Game 7 for fear of getting fouled, and played poorly in the fourth quarter of the entire series against the Hawks. For all of his gifts, he’s clearly reticent to attack the rim, shoot from distance, or do anything that might result in free throws.
If Ben Simmons were my student, or if I ran his team, I’d give him a big hug. Then I’d tell him straight to his face, “forget about what has happened, let’s scheme together how to earn you your first MVP trophy. Whatever we can do to make that happen, we will, because given your ability to defend and pass, if you are contending for that trophy, we will win a ton of games.”
Then I’d remind him that failure is a part of growth, it’s inescapable—and we’ll go through it together.
There is nothing that helps us deal better with those experiences than our connections with others. Social connection is the number one salve for most of the pain, and the hurt, and the trauma that we will experience. And communities that come together naturally will provide that kind of buffer. What makes the trauma worse is not the event itself. It’s the isolation, the secrecy, and the shame that you have to then live with afterward.”
—Psychotherapist and author Esther Perel
There’s a lot of power in real, deep, human trust.
Magic Johnson once had a teammate who was scared to attack the rim, and do you know what Magic did? “Magic just kept installing in my head the idea that they can’t guard you,” Byron Scott told Chick Hearn. “You’re too quick for ‘em. You jump too high. You’re too strong. He just built up that inner confidence I think I needed.”
Byron Scott was once timid to score at the rim. Over time, though, he expanded his game, and more than doubled his free throws attempted. Watch Magic Johnson getting in close to offer Scott support after a big rim attack.
Joel Embiid can do a lot of things on the basketball court, but he didn’t use his considerable size, leadership, and sway with Philadelphia fans to lead Simmons to greatness.
Ben Simmons knows this scene—they play it constantly at 76ers games. It’s Rocky’s wife Adrian, awaking from a coma. Her husband has lacked focus preparing for a rematch with Apollo Creed. She asks him to do one thing for her: win. She says it twice. When I saw that the first time in 1979, the whole theater erupted. Simmons needs to hear that bell, signaling a change is coming.
Let’s reverse engineer Simmons’ path to his first MVP award.
“Is this the best you have,” I’d ask Simmons. “Or can you be better?”
If he thinks he can do more, then he needs to claim it. To want it. His personal team and his NBA team need to ride shotgun if he does.
Once the decision is made to become the MVP, then we can get into studying what that will take. We know two things: He has to be on a contender to win that award, and he must remain the best defender in the league not named Rudy Gobert.
Will Smith learned something incredible from looking up the ten biggest movies of all time: They all had special effects. It was almost like time spent on the set of movies without special effects was a waste. Does anything in basketball work like that? Being drafted high, winning, being an attacking wing … all matter. But there’s one magical factor to win an NBA MVP award: Points.
The last 10 NBA MVPs averaged 29 points per game on 19 shots from the field and seven free throws a game.
Simmons plays MVP-level defense, and his rebounding and passing numbers as a primary ball handler are MVP level too. Unlike 98 percent of the league's players, Simmons has only one area to improve. He’s well ahead of the pack. But the truth is he’ll have to add a “me” gear to his “we” game. More shots, more drives, more post ups, more floaters, more free throws.
In his career-best year, Simmons scored 17 on 12 shots and five free throws. If he adds “primary scorer,” to his bag of tricks, Ben Simmons is a top MVP candidate.
Not everyone loves to shoot.
Steve Nash never averaged more than 13 shots a game.
Chris Paul has averaged 14 shots per game in his career.
Magic Johnson averaged 13 a game, John Stockton nine.
Simmons plays like they all did, more or less—with two staggering differences. All of them loved to take big playoff shots, and none avoided making plays that might result in getting fouled and going to the line.
In the 2018 playoffs, Simmons attempted six free throws a game and made 71 percent of them. That’s a great start. His attempts dropped to 3.3 the next year, making just 58 percent, and then last season he bottomed out at 33 percent on 6.1 a game, most of which resulted from intentional fouls, because teams saw he was not even the 61 percent shooter they saw in the regular season.
The MVP journey for Simmons has to go through that scary place for him. Unlike poor free throw shooters like Shaq and Giannis, Simmons hates going to the line. We’ll have to work through that to get where he wants to go.
Of course Simmons already knows he can use his size and agility to get to the line constantly. Far more shot fakes would get him to the line even more. How can he make that jump into just not caring about misses, which is what has kept him from attacking and faking more?
His new team can start with a look to DeMar DeRozan. He’s an excellent free-throw shooter. But he didn’t have the mindset to draw fouls, and spent four seasons shooting fewer than five free throws per game. Then, something changed, and he has had five years hovering around eight.
For mindset lessons, of course, there’s Giannis. Against the Nets and Hawks this past postseason, Giannis made less than 50 percent of his free throws. It didn’t matter. He attacked relentlessly and even though he was 62 percent in the Finals on 14 free throws a game, he hit 17-19 in Game 6 and won the title. The way he played overall can help Simmons and his new offense too (as we discussed at the time).
To get Simmons playing like Giannis, everyone in his corner has to applaud his attacks, no matter the result, like Magic Johnson putting “they can’t guard you” ideas in Byron Scott’s mind. Games might be lost to missed free throws, but that’d be a good thing because it means great things are in the works.
His head coach can help, pulling him from games to revisit a decision to pass when he might have attacked. No emotion, no yelling—just a quick visit to the bench showing that the staff is on his side in trying to address the problem. (Ignoring the mistake is the mistake that keeps it going.) Then send him back in.
If he gets attacking, and his teammates get fired up, and he makes some highlights, it can get infectious. If Ben isn’t careful he might set an all-time record for free throws missed per playoff game. To get to the top of that list he’d have to climb past the current leaders—Wilt Chamberlain (5.4 misses per playoff game), Shaquille O’Neal, (5.1), Dwight Howard (3.5), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (3.5).
Wilt, Shaq, Dwight, and Giannis have eight MVPs and eight championships between them. Nobody likes missing free throws—but it comes with a whole lot of success.
Will Smith had his manager. Rocky had his wife. Byron Scott had Magic Johnson.
Ben Simmons needs some magic in his life, in the form of some genuine love and a plan to climb to new heights. If he just misses, and ends up only averaging 17 points a game along with eight assists and rebounds a game while earning his first defensive player of the year award, it will heal a lot of the wounds he has right now. Getting him excited to chase that future is what coaching is all about.
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