Philadelphia and the 76ers must overcome Ben Simmons
I’m sick of Ben Simmons. You probably are too. We have to move forward. This kind of resentment is not healthy.
It’s not as difficult as I thought.
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Simmons’ cameo in street gear Thursday with the Nets provided an unexpectedly cathartic experience. It was like seeing your ex with someone new… and not really caring. Not happy, exactly, just indifferent. And it’s weird. Because Ben Simmons won the night.
You have to admit it. Simmons was brave, and it was brilliant.
There’s no question that, in a resentful sports town, Simmons is the most lamented traitor of all time. It makes JD Drew, Scott Rolen and Carson Wentz look fair in comparison. Most Philadelphia fans would buy Sidney Crosby a drink, hail Joe Carter a cab, and let Michael Irvin marry their eldest daughter before holding an elevator door for Ben-edict Simmons.
But credit belongs where credit is due. Simmons and his representatives, Klutch Sports, have finally done the first smart thing they’ve done since Simmons’ dunk-choke in last year’s playoffs led to a boycott that left the Sixers with a hole. $33 million All-Star on their team.
Ben introduced himself.
He took his bitter medicine in a glass of Kool-Aid. He softened the humiliation of returning to Philadelphia by returning as spectatorlike a punk kid who got his nose bleed walking back to the playground with his two big brothers.
Who kicked everyone’s ass.
Brilliant. Just awesome.
Plus, Simmons & Co. knew the talent would take the night away. They realized the Nets are now a perfectly suited team to demolish the momentum James Harden had given the Sixers since Ben and the Beard switched teams on Feb. 10. Harden won his first five games as a Sixer, but the Nets stomped him Thursday, by 29. It didn’t seem that close.
Of course, Simmons was booed, roasted and heckled. So what. He soaked up obscenities during warm-ups, snuck onto the Nets bench as the Sixers were introduced, and smiled when the inevitable “F— Ben Simmons!” the song descended.
In general, however, he enjoyed himself. Because by the end of the game, the discussion had shifted from disgust with Simmons to the city’s fear of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and Brooklyn’s justified claim as the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference — at the less, a much better team than what the Sixers are right now.
They hold the eighth seed, but will likely jump two or three spots in the remaining 15 games after Thursday. Always follow the bookies: DraftKings makes them the favorite to win the East. Now that Durant is back, no one is betting against the Nets.
Anyone associated with Simmons’ smugness since he was drafted first overall in 2016 couldn’t help but hope he would get his reward on Thursday night. Years of distancing himself from fans and his own teammates, hiding in the dysfunctional warmth of his family and those around him, offering obtuse and distant assessments of his own flawed game, have made him a star too. unpopular than the city has ever known – and the city has known many, from Dick Allen and Mike Schmidt to Eric Lindros and Mike Mamula.
This revenge did not come when Simmons returned. It could still, if Simmons plays poorly in future seasons, and this dish might be all the more delicious served cold – but, for now, Simmons won. And Philadelphia better accept that and get over it. There are more pressing issues, like the fate of this Sixers team. They had no chance on Thursday.
It’s not because Doc Rivers was passed, or because the Sixers were overexcited, or even because Harden missed 14 of 17 field goals (and, incredibly, all of his 10 two-point shots). Harden wasn’t horrible, exactly.
On the contrary, the Nets were very good. They defended him as a team that knew exactly how to defend him. It’s no surprise, given that they had employed him for the previous season and a half.
Also, the Nets rolled because Durant remains the best offensive player on the planet, as he has been for a decade. Finally, when Irving is fresh and engaged, he’s as good as any living guard. The Nets have depth, experience and maturity. They also know how to win and how the stars align.
Steve Nash, who was a Hall of Fame player, was a consultant on Durant’s teams that won titles at Golden State in 2017 and 2018 alongside Steph Curry. Irving and LeBron James beat the Warriors to the championship in 2016, just before Durant arrived.
Meanwhile, Joel Embiid never made it past the second round. Harden has only been to one league game, ten years ago, and he led Durant to that final with the Thunder as a bench player. It’s been 12 years since Rivers reached the final, and that was two teams ago.
These Nets have winning DNA, and they played like that on Thursday.
The rest of the league will take notice.
The Nets gave up perimeter jumpers to Tyrese Maxey, one-on-one chances to Tobias Harris and whatever Matisse Thybulle wanted. It worked. It had little to do with Harden’s inefficiency, or the magnitude of the moment, or the Nets’ inspiration from their ever-irrelevant teammate. Simmons, citing back issues, remains sidelined. And that’s bad news for the Sixers and everyone else.
The Nets are already very good without Simmons. They will be even better with him.
The sooner everyone accepts this, the sooner they can accept the Sixers for who they are: the best version of themselves since 1983 and the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, which is the top seed they currently hold.
The Heat sit in the top spot, with recent wins over the Sixers and Nets, but they’re a mirage. The Bucks have won six straight, propelling them to second in the East. Their offense is sizzling; they’re defending the title, and they’d take that Nets team to the East River.
Just like the Nets threw the Sixers into the Schuylkill. Without Ben Simmons. Still, Simmons won on Thursday. He will earn a lot more. And he left.
The sooner everyone accepts all of this, the healthier we will all be.