It’s the most famous shot not taken. It happened – or, put another way, didn’t happen – with 3:30 remaining in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The date was June 20, 2021. The NBA East is still feeling aftershocks.
Ben Simmons, one of the ballyhooed draftees amassed in Sam Hinkie’s “Process,” had the ball down low. The top-seeded 76ers trailed 88-86. The Hawks, who fired coach Lloyd Pierce on March 2 after starting 14-20, had upset the Knicks in Round 1 and led the Sixers 3-2 before losing Game 6 at State Farm Arena.
Danilo Gallinari swiped at the ball and missed. This left Simmons, who’s 6-foot-10, alone under the basket. Trae Young was in the vicinity, but Young is 6-1. Simmons had only to dunk the ball to tie the game, but by that point he was terrified of getting fouled and having to shoot a free throw.
Simmons passed to Matisse Thybulle, who was as surprised as anyone. Gallinari and John Collins challenged Thybulle’s shot, which missed. A foul was called on Collins.
A TNT camera caught Joel Embiid walking by Simmons as they arrayed themselves for Thybulle’s free throws. Embiid raised his hands, as if to say, “Why didn’t you dunk it?” Thybulle missed the first free throw. The game remained untied. The Hawks won 103-96.
Simmons never played for Philadelphia again. He skipped the next season dealing with back pain and mental health issues. He was traded to Brooklyn in February 2022 for James Harden, the Nets’ latest experiment – teaming Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with Harden – having failed.
Irving was just shipped to Dallas. Durant is again injured. Simmons has played in 38 of 54 games this season, to no great effect. Durant is said to have met with Nets execs to discuss the team’s future ahead of the trade deadline, which arrives at 3 p.m. Thursday. Per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Simmons has no trade value.
The Nets haven’t reached the Eastern finals since 2003. The Sixers haven’t since 2001. To their credit, the Hawks made the 2021 Eastern final and were tied 2-2 with Milwaukee, whereupon the Bucks, without an injured Giannis Antetokounmpo, won Games 5 and 6 over the Hawks, who were mostly without a limping Young.
Back to Simmons and the non-dunk. That night, Embiid said: “I’ll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we – I don’t know how to say it – had an open shot and made one free throw.”
The Nets, with Simmons on their roster but not playing, were swept in Round 1 last year by Boston. The 76ers, without Simmons but with Harden, lost to Miami in Round 2. The Hawks, with essentially the same team as in 2021, survived the play-in but were beaten by the Heat in Round 1. The Sixers and Nets felt the ramifications of the non-dunk in transactional ways. The Hawks also have a post-Simmons tale to tell.
Long story short: They mightn’t have been as good as they looked in the summer of ‘21. They’d gone 27-11 under interim coach Nate McMillan. They’d reached the Eastern finals for the second time ever. They were seen, albeit briefly, as a rebuilding team that had gotten it right. They went 43-39 last season. They’re 27-28 now.
Cam Reddish was dealt to the Knicks in January 2022. Gallinari was shipped to San Antonio in the Dejounte Murray deal. Kevin Huerter was sent to Sacramento for Justin Holliday. Team president Travis Schlenk was pushed aside. General manager Landry Fields became the new Schlenk. Kyle Korver was hired as assistant GM. McMillan is believed to stepping down after this season, assuming he lasts that long.
If we go by win shares/VORP, Young is having his worst season since he was a rookie. (Though he’s still among the NBA’s top 10 in usage rate.) The Young-Murray pairing looked great for 10 games, of which the Hawks won seven. They’re 20-25 since. It’s unclear why so many good players haven’t yielded better results, especially since many of these Hawks appeared to mesh not long ago.
Back, yet again, to Game 7 in Philly. Say Simmons dunks the ball. Say the Sixers tie it and win it. Do we see the Hawks through the same rose-colored lenses? Are we as optimistic about Schlenk’s rebuild and the team’s immediate future? We’ll never know for sure. Which doesn’t keep us from speculating, does it?
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