The 76ers got rid of Ben Simmons for a few reasons but largely because he refused to shoot the basketball in the second half of the biggest game of last year, a home elimination game in the conference semifinal round.
Simmons was mysteriously and inexplicably scared to shoot in Game 6 of last year’s Hawks series.
In the second half of the Hawks’ 103-96 win at the Wells Fargo Center last June, Simmons played 17 minutes, 35 seconds, took two shots, made one and managed three points as the Hawks eliminated the 76ers.
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We had never seen anything like it.
Remember, Simmons played well last year. He averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game and made his third straight all-star team and the NBA’s all-defense first team.
And it’s easy to forget now, but Simmons actually played very well early in the postseason. He averaged 14.8 points, 9.2 assists and 10.2 rebounds in the first-round series win over the Wizards while shooting 64 percent. Nobody in NBA history had ever done that in any postseason series. And in the first four games of the Hawks series Simmons averaged a respectable 12.5 points, 8.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 68 percent from the field.
So the 76ers were counting heavily on him in the Hawks series, never more than in Game 7.
That’s why his performance was so mind-bogglingly awful. Because it was so out of the blue. This wasn’t Spencer Hawes or Reggie Evans or Matt Harpring refusing to shoot a basketball in one of the biggest games of their life.
This was an all-star, a borderline superstar in the prime of his career.
We figured we’d never see anything like it again.
Then James Harden happened.
Conference semifinals. Home elimination game. Team counting on him.
And he refused to shoot.
Harden averaged 20.0 points per game after joining the 76ers in February and 10.1 points per second half. He’s certainly never been afraid to shoot. In his Hall of Fame career, he had never played 23 minutes in a second half and taken two or fewer shots.
And then, in the biggest game of the year, in an elimination game, in the conference semis, on the 76ers’ home court … he refused to shoot.
Harden was traded for Simmons and at the worst possible time he turned into Simmons.
Before last year, in 76ers history, only one player who averaged 14 points per game during the regular season played 17 or more second-half minutes of a playoff game and took two or fewer shots.
That was Keith Van Horn in a 2003 win over the Pistons in which Allen Iverson scored 36 points and the 76ers won by 13 and there was honestly no reason for Van Horn to take any shots.
Nobody ever counted on Keith Van Horn for anything. He’s a footnote in 76ers history, an NBA nomad who spent one forgettable season here.
Simmons and Harden were both centerpieces of postseason teams, one the first pick in the draft, the other a future Hall of Famer.
Only 10 players in NBA history have averaged 14 points, 7.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds in their career.
Guys like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and LeBron James.
And Ben Simmons and James Harden.
They are two of the most uniquely talented players who’ve ever come through Philadelphia. That's undeniable.
And two of the most disappointing.
Because under the exact same circumstances, one year apart, with their coaches and teammates depending on them, they refused to shoot.
With a city full of desperate 76ers fans pleading with them, begging with them, they refused to shoot.
With the season slipping away and time running out, they refused to shoot.
We all assumed we’d never see anything like we saw with Simmons in Game 7 against the Hawks last year, but it happened again just a year later.
Two would-be superstars who couldn’t handle the moment. Who wanted no part of the pressure. Who made sure they didn’t miss the biggest shot of the biggest game of the year because they refused to take it.
Game 7 of that Hawks series was the last game Simmons played as a 76er.
We should be so lucky with Harden.