Not since the days of Chuck Knoblauch’s phobia about throwing the ball to first base have we seen a player’s anxiety on the grandest stage.
In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Ben Simmons did not want to shoot. What’s more, when he had a chance to tie the score with a resounding fourth-quarter dunk against the Atlanta Hawks, he abstained.
Instead, Simmons refused to attack the basket and passed to teammate Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled at the rim and made just one of two free throws. The 76ers would not tie or take the lead again, and center Joel Embiid said the game’s momentum-changing play was Simmons passing on that dunk for fear of being fouled.
The 76ers were bounced from the playoffs as the top seed, and Simmons’s offensive decline was no longer camouflaged by Philadelphia’s team success. It was one of the primary reasons the 76ers lost the series.
Simmons, a three-time All-Star, averaged just 11.9 points and shot just 34.2 percent from the free throw line in the postseason. When it was apparent he had trouble making free throws, he stopped being aggressive, especially in the fourth quarter. In his first postseason two years ago, Simmons made 70.7 percent of his free throws (41 for 58).
This postseason, he made just 25 of 73. His regression is the 76ers’ biggest offseason issue and sparking more questions as to whether he can be an adequate second option behind Embiid.
The 76ers have to determine if Simmons can improve offensively enough to help the team toward its championship aspirations. Simmons has played point guard throughout his career but can a championship team have a lead guard who only plays defense and is a putrid free throw shooter?
Simmons has to develop a reliable jump shot and become more comfortable at the free throw line. The ex-LSU product and former No. 1 overall pick has never been an offensive-minded player but he was decent early in his career and had grown to master floaters and short jumpers using his length.
But his foul shooting struggles have led to his hesitancy to shoot, and the 76ers spent fourth quarters of the Atlanta series playing four on five.
76ers coach Doc Rivers said he wasn’t sure Simmons would be his point guard next year. And there have been discussions between club management and Simmons’s agent Rich Paul about his future in Philadelphia.
“A lot of pain here and I know in the fan base,” general manager Daryl Morey said. “You don’t get a lot of opportunities [to win titles]. I think we put ourselves in a very good opportunity to win the title this year and didn’t get it done.”
The 76ers coasted to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference but they were never the favorites to win the conference. A healthy Brooklyn team and Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo were considered more complete clubs. Yet, the 76ers faced the Wizards and Hawks in the first two rounds, not considered a daunting road to the conference finals.
They blew leads of 18 and 26 points in two of the losses in the Atlanta series. And now there is a question as to whether Philadelphia needs a complete overhaul. They were swept by the Celtics last season in the bubble with Simmons injured and lost on a last-second shot by Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard in Game 7 the prior year.
“We have a lot to build on, an MVP candidate, an All-Star, a player who should be an All-Star [Tobias Harris],”Morey said. “I had the pleasure to work with Red Auerbach early in my career. He always felt strongly that you want to have a structure like we have now. For myself and the front office, it’s our time to go to the drawing board and figure out what’s next.”
Morey, who took over as GM after Rivers was hired last offseason, lauded the coach repeatedly. He put the onus of the disappointing end on the players and the shortcomings of the bench. The club missed sharpshooter Danny Green, who missed the final four games of the Atlanta series with a calf strain.
“We’re going to figure out how to make the team better. It’s a great disappointment that we’re here,” Morey said. “We didn’t have quite good enough players. I love how our young players are pushing our top players. The reality is we need to be a better team overall with better players and we’ll make that happen.”
A few questions Morey wouldn’t address: Whether Simmons is guaranteed to be on the roster next season; what’s the offseason program for Simmons look like?; and will they make Simmons work with a shooting coach?
Morey did his best not to implicate Simmons for the series loss, but he did acknowledge a roster issue.
“We’re committed to this group. This was a really good group that played at a very high level and part of my job is to self-reflect and read what others are writing because you can learn from that,” Morey said. “A lot of what I’m reading, I frankly don’t understand, people saying the Sixers are in a bad situation. Twenty-six teams would love to be in our situation. We’ve got a good foundation, we’ve just got to do better. I can tell everyone in Philadelphia, there’s going to be a ton of effort.”
The Simmons issue is fluid. Morey made sure to avoid any heavy individual criticism but made it apparent there needs to be change.
“Ben is just like all our players in the organization. We would expect the players to do whatever is necessary [to improve],” Morey said. “You can’t go into an offseason and say, ‘we need exactly this.’ You will fail that way. We believe in the young players we have. We have a very strong group we believe in. We love what Ben brings. We love what Joel brings. We love what Tobias brings.
“I’m still stunned sitting here, we lost Game 7 at home. We didn’t knock the shots down in transition. It’s a little raw still. I think you replay that Game 7 a bunch of times. If we’re squeaking by in the second round that tells you we’re not good enough to win the title.”
Kidd gets another chance, this time with Mavericks
With Ime Udoka taking over the Celtics and Rick Carlisle hired by Indiana, the most attractive job appeared to be the Dallas Mavericks. Carlisle left Dallas saying he hoped the club would bypass on promoting assistant Jahmal Mosley and hire Jason Kidd. And that’s exactly what happened.
The Mavericks also made the unusual move of naming Nike executive Nico Harrison as general manager. Harrison has a pristine reputation as a player liaison with a deep knowledge of the NBA. The Mavericks decided to go in a completely different direction with team leadership and don’t be surprised if other teams follow suit if Harrison is successful.
For Kidd, it’s a third chance at coaching success. He took the Brooklyn Nets with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Eastern Conference semifinals in his first season but had two first-round eliminations with Milwaukee. He was fired by the Bucks in the middle of the 2017-18 season.
Kidd has been interested in coaching for a few years but waited patiently for the right opportunity while he served as an assistant coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. The hope is Kidd has learned from his experiences and can bond with star guard Luka Doncic and procure more production from Kristaps Porzingis.
The remaining coaching openings are the Portland Trail Blazers, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups, a finalist for the Celtics job, is a finalist in Portland along with Spurs assistant Becky Hammon.
The Wizards want a strong voice who can lead the franchise to the next step. Celtics assistant Scott Morrison interviewed but is considered a long shot. Billups and Sam Cassell, a former Washington assistant, are prime candidates.
In Orlando, the Magic can take more of a chance because they are in rebuild mode with two lottery picks and a slew of younger players. There is more emphasis on player development than winning right now. And it may be the best landing spot for Hammon, Kara Lawson or Dawn Staley as the first female coach in the NBA.
Orlando general manager Jeff Weltman is taking his time in the search.
Mastering the system
Warriors reap benefits of trade with Timberwolves
The Golden State Warriors are the Warriors for a reason. And the Minnesota Timberwolves are the Timberwolves for a reason. The trade that netted Andrew Wiggins for the Warriors and a potential first-round pick for D’Angelo Russell paid off Tuesday.
The Timberwolves would have retained the pick if it finished in the top three, but Minnesota finished seventh in the draft lottery, meaning one of the league’s worst teams had to hand over its first-rounder to Golden State. The Warriors now will have two lottery picks — seventh and 14th — while the Timberwolves will not have a pick in next month’s draft.
Minnesota sent its second-round pick to the Warriors in that same deal. The Warriors eventually sent that pick to Oklahoma City.
Golden State has two first-rounders to pad its roster as it attempts to rise back to the NBA Finals. The Warriors took James Wiseman with the second overall pick last season, and could get younger as well as more experience when Klay Thompson returns from a two-year injury absence.
“Depends on what else we can do with the roster,” general manager Bob Myers said when asked if the team needed to draft a rookie who can contribute immediately. “Depends on kind of how we view it, how much depth, where is Klay at, how much do we think James can do. We have some guys coming back. I mean, it’s hard to tell. You put your roster forward and then you don’t — there’s some things that please you more and there’s things that disappoint you. There’s injuries. Like I said, last year, we thought we had it figured out. We thought we were going to have Klay. That was kind of unusual to happen the day of the draft.
“There’s rookies that can help. There’s rookies that help teams that are very good. It’s just a question of how much do they help, and do they make sense and like I said, as it gets closer, we’ll have a better idea.”
Myers is in the interesting position of drafting for the present and the future. Thompson is 31, Stephen Curry is 33 and Draymond Green is 31. The Warriors will be expected to make a deep playoff run next season with Wiseman and others who helped this season. And there will be more mature rookies available at both selections that could help immediately. But does that mean passing on prospects who may take a year or two to develop but could turn into stars?
“Having two swings at it in what we think is a really, really good draft is important for many reasons,” Myers said. “Probably at least hopefully you get one guy that can help you, maybe both that can help you, at least by the time the playoffs come around you hope that’s possible in some capacity. Helping you doesn’t necessarily mean they are starting. That might mean maybe they give you 15, 20 minutes, maybe more, maybe less. But we’ll also know what we could have done with those picks, and again, it’s too hard to say right now, about a month out from the draft.”
The Warriors have spent the past two seasons trying to find capable complements to Curry, Thompson and Green. The first year, following the NBA Finals loss to the Toronto Raptors, the Warriors dealt with significant injuries to Curry and Thompson as well as the departure of Kevin Durant. Last season, Thompson again was felled with a season-ending injury, leaving Curry to play with an aging Green and bunch of youngsters.
In those two seasons, the Warriors found Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Juan Toscano-Anderson to be keepers for their supporting cast.
“About ’19, ’20, I don’t think we went into that year thinking it was going to be what it was. But clearly it went sideways pretty fast,” Myers said. “Then last year, as far as going into the year, we thought we would have Klay; we didn’t. We felt when we lost Klay, it would change our season, and it did.
“We still tried to win. We still wanted to win. I think it was hard. Put [coach] Steve [Kerr] in a hard position to try to develop James, develop Jordan, even integrate Juan, figure out the bench on the fly, and not just because those are all new guys in our rotation, but also because, again, shortened training camp, not a lot of practices.”
Add two prospects to an already young core that is supporting the Warriors veteran Big Three and you have an intriguing team. Myers is attempting to upgrade for the present and prepare for the long term, and trades like the one with Minnesota serve both purposes.
“The good news is for a guy like Jordan, seems like he’s figured it out a little bit. James still has to figure it out more,” Myers said. “He got a little bit of a taste of it. He’s got to learn more. And then these two guys that we draft are going to have to pick it up, as well. So as far as developing, yeah, the easiest way to get better and the way we did get — I guess helped us win in ’14, ’15 was developing Klay and Steph and Draymond and Harrison [Barnes], and Andre [Iguodala] became pretty developed. You’re always doing it, but we’re also trying to win. And I think that there won’t be — I don’t think it will be a situation where we are trying to develop players at the risk of losing. We’re not going to develop and have it cost us games. That’s not the plan.”
The Indiana Pacers had been monitoring the situation in Dallas with Rick Carlisle, who resigned last week. Carlisle quickly accepted the Pacers’ coaching offer to return for a second stint. Yet, this move is not without controversy. The Pacers were expected to talk to longtime NBA assistant coach and former Denver head coach Brian Shaw, who is looking for a second opportunity. But that never happened. The Pacers essentially hired Carlisle without an interview process, but the wrinkle is Carlisle is the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, an organization that has criticized teams in the past for not having a diverse and extensive coaching search. The Timberwolves fired Ryan Saunders midseason and immediately replaced him with Chris Finch without an interview process. The NBA lacks a “Rooney Rule” as its NFL brethren have, and this situation may force the league to consider a standard process for coaching interviews. There are several jobs open and a diverse pool of candidates. The question is whether teams such as Minnesota and Indiana can blow off the interview process if they have a candidate? Carlisle benefited from this situation in Indiana and it’s difficult to believe he had no idea the Pacers would come running before he decided to resign from the Mavericks … One player who has made himself a lot of money this postseason is former BC standout Reggie Jackson, who returned to the Clippers this season on a minimum deal but has been one of the team’s best players during its playoff run. Jackson has averaged 17.6 points (seven above his season average) along with 42 percent 3-point shooting and 50.5 percent shooting overall. Jackson had some difficult years with the Detroit Pistons after signing a five-year, $90 million extension and was expected to emerge as one of the league’s top point guards but never reached that level. He was acquired as a backup last season for the Clippers but has pushed his way into the starting lineup, teaming up with Lowell native Terance Mann to give LA a strong backcourt. Jackson’s production has reduced the role of former Celtic Rajon Rondo, who was supposed to start at point guard once he arrived from Atlanta. Rondo is the team’s backup guard and has not played in three games this postseason.