Bradley’s Buzz: Where are the Hawks if, in 2021, Ben Simmons dunks?

062021 Philadelphia: --CRUNCH TIME -- Atlanta Hawks forwards John Collins and Danilo Gallinari crunch Philadelphia 76ers Matisse Thybulle on his way to the basket after a pass from Ben Simmons in the final minutes of game 7 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series on Sunday, Jun 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. Reluctant shooter Ben Simmons drove for what should have been a tieing dunk and passed to Thybulle who was fouled by Collins and missed one of two free throws as the Hawks pulled away for a 103-96 victory.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

062021 Philadelphia: --CRUNCH TIME -- Atlanta Hawks forwards John Collins and Danilo Gallinari crunch Philadelphia 76ers Matisse Thybulle on his way to the basket after a pass from Ben Simmons in the final minutes of game 7 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series on Sunday, Jun 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. Reluctant shooter Ben Simmons drove for what should have been a tieing dunk and passed to Thybulle who was fouled by Collins and missed one of two free throws as the Hawks pulled away for a 103-96 victory. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

June 20, 2021: The Hawks led Game 7 by two points with 3:31 remaining. Ben Simmons, cornerstone of the 76ers’ famous “Process,” spun past Danilo Gallinari and stood alone in the lane. Simmons, who’s 6-foot-10, had only to dunk the ball. He did not. Game 7 remained forever untied. Much has happened since.

Simmons chose to pass to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled by John Collins. Thybulle missed the first free throw, making the second. Clint Capela dunked off Trae Young’s lob. The Hawks won 103-96 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, where they’d be tied with Milwaukee at 2-all, pushing this franchise closer to the NBA finals than at any time since moving here in 1968.

An honorable exit didn’t dim the advances of a season that saw them start 14-20 and fire coach Lloyd Pierce. Bumped-up assistant Nate McMillan got more from the Hawks in a month than Pierce had in 2-1/2 years. They won the Southeast Division. They upset the Knicks in Round 1. The team Travis Schlenk had been building since 2017 went from befuddled failure to finished product. Or so it seemed.

The 2021-22 season began with the expectation that the Hawks had joined the East elite. All the principals from the giddy summer returned – McMillan and Collins on new contracts, Capela on an extended one. By January, they were 17-25 and Schlenk said: “Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to bring everybody back.”

That season ended with the Hawks going 2-0 in the new play-in tournament before being bounced in Round 1 by Miami. The summer of ‘22 saw a go-big-or-go-home trade for Dejounte Murray, seen as Young’s long-sought backcourt complement. That worked for about a week.

Schlenk was nudged aside in December. McMillan was fired in February, replaced by Quin Snyder. The Hawks again landed in the play-in. Again they advanced to Round 1. Again they stopped there.

Today the Hawks are 18-25. Collins can’t be blamed: He was traded to Utah in July. Consensus holds that the next two weeks will see the deadline-dumping of a big name – Murray is the name most mentioned – because whatever they’re doing isn’t working. And here the thought occurs: What happens if, in June 2021, Ben Simmons dunks the ball?

What if the Hawks lose Game 7 in Philly and the Eastern finals don’t involve the A-T-L? What if Schlenk isn’t obliged to keep that bunch intact? What if the lack of a follow-through doesn’t lead the front office to view Murray as the Missing Piece and sacrifice three Round 1 picks for him? What if the Hawks beating the Sixers had more to do with the Sixers than the Hawks?

That last bit is closer to a fact than a what-if. Since June 20, 2021, the Hawks – counting play-ins and playoffs – are 111-117. There was a time when they seemed a coming power. They’ve been caught and passed by Cleveland, Indiana and Orlando.

The Ben Simmons Moment didn’t just leave us with a skewed view of the Hawks. It shook the Eastern Conference. In a post-Game 7 interview, Philly’s Joel Embiid said: “The turning point was when we – I don’t know how to say it – had an open shot and we made one free throw.”

Why didn’t Simmons dunk? Surely because, having missed 30 of 45 free throws in the series, he feared being fouled. Doc Rivers, then the Sixers’ coach, was asked if Simmons would remain his point guard. His response: “I don’t know the answer to that.”

Simmons never played another game for Philly. He landed in Brooklyn, which was assembling an Avengers-like cast – Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden – to little avail. For various reasons, those three played only 16 games together. All are elsewhere today. Simmons remains a Net, though not so you’d notice. He has worked six games this season.

The Hawks haven’t won a playoff series since the night of the non-dunk. Neither have the Nets. The Sixers still haven’t gotten past the Eastern semis. As for Rivers: Fired by Philadelphia in May, he’s in talks to take the Milwaukee job, which came open Tuesday when the Bucks fired Adrian Griffin, who’d replaced the fired Mike Budenholzer, despite the team being 30-13.

This city’s sports history is pockmarked with near-misses. The Hawks’ run to the Eastern finals isn’t so much a miss as a did-it-even-happen. For one brief shining moment, this team ceased being an afterthought. Our only thought today is to ask how long the next rebuild will take.

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