Ben Simmons has arrived, and the NBA postseason is his stage
Back in September, Ben Simmons offered a rare glimpse into his psyche. At Sixers media day, the relentlessly stoic Simmons was asked to explain his thoughts on being overlooked, discredited even, for the first time in his professional life.
The context: before the season, NBA rookies were polled on a number of categories, such as “Who will be the rookie of the year?” and “Which rookie will have the best career?” In the main, they didn’t value the Australian. Simmons rated lowly in each poll, collecting 5.7% and 5.3% of votes in the respective categories. It was taken as a sign of disrespect to many, as was Simmons’ illuminating response.
“I don’t really worry about the guys coming in,” Simmons said. “I worry about the guys at the top."
The reporter pressed. Simmons doubled down.
“They’ll remember,” he added. “They’ll remember.”
Such blunt and unwavering confidence set the tone for Simmons’ debut. His message, one that undoubtedly conveys a level of supreme, yet healthy arrogance, has been reinforced religiously throughout his rookie campaign.
Comparisons with Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr., and Donovan Mitchell would be the norm for most other rookies. See, rookies aren’t supposed to contribute towards winning basketball. Life in the NBA is hard. It takes time to adjust, so we – yes everyone from players, coaches, media types and fans – are accustomed to putting rookies in their little sandbox, and supervising as they play over in the corner and learn to walk, metaphorically speaking.
But not Simmons. His precocious talent has the potential to push the limits of what we deem possible. Earlier this month, when asked what other rookies have caught his attention this year, Simmons infamously said nobody. Not a soul! He instead listed the players who have combined to win the last six MVP awards. “I want to be where the greats are,” he added.
This kid from Victoria was collectively praised as the modern-day lovechild of LeBron James and Magic Johnson, before his 21st birthday. In that context, and that of his ground-breaking basketball journey, you get the sense that Simmons was almost insulted, when asked to justify his thoughts on 2017’s rookie class.
Flash forward seven months, and Simmons' words sound prophetic. He has clinched his first ever playoff series victory. The Philadelphia 76ers just eliminated the Miami Heat with a 104 - 91 victory in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference playoff series. Simmons, who led his team in rebounds, assists, steals and minutes over the five games (he was also second in scoring), put forth a level of basketball mastery from the top shelf; not just by rookie standards, but by Hall of Fame standards.
His per game averages – 18.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 2.4 steals in 37.5 minutes per game – look like something out of Bill Simmons’ basketball pantheon. Only four players have ever recorded 90 points, 50 rebounds and 45 assists in the first five games of a postseason, according to Basketball Reference. Simmons accomplished the feat in the exact moment his playoff career began.
With his arm raised in victory over Miami, Simmons now has a global reputation that transcends national allegiances. One that is closer to matching his internal goals, but still a significant distance removed from expectations kept within. In just five playoff games, Simmons has left a memory that no Australian basketball fan will soon forget. A national sporting community, just like the entire NBA universe, is now on notice. Simmons stepped up to the stage for his postseason debut and laid out greatness for all to see.
This was a moment many would remember.
You get the sense, however, that it will be just one of many.
“He’s a force on the basketball floor. He is very very talented.”
This was how Dwyane Wade described Simmons, when the All-Star guard visited Philadelphia on Valentine's Day. The three-time NBA champion knew what to expect. Through a mutual friendship with LeBron James, Wade was one of the few athletes to get a glimpse of Simmons’ burgeoning powers before his NBA debut. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t surprised with what transpired that February evening.
In the moments before All-Star Weekend, Wade and his teammates got a first hand account of the dominance that lives within Simmons. The Australian powered his team back from a 23-point half time deficit, enroute to, what was at the time, their most impressive victory. Not only for this season, but the nearly five years Brett Brown has been governing The Process.
Moments after witnessing Simmons collect his sixth rookie triple-double, and join Magic Johnson in the history books - a feat he would replicate in the coming months, in Miami of all places – Eric Spoelstra could only muster up praise. “He’s not going to just take what you are giving him,” Spoelstra said. “He’s going to take what he wants to get offensively.”
Given everything that played out over the past two weeks, Spoelstra now sounds like a man who unintentionally foresaw his team's demise. His words came to life during the Sixers-Heat series. Try as they might, Miami couldn’t slow down the Philadelphia offence with Simmons at the controls. The Heat mustered up all of their intellect and veteran knowhow. It just wasn’t enough. Through all the hard fouls, schematic adjustments and teething issues that came with integrating Joel Embiid, the Sixers had an answer. They had Simmons. Those on both sides of this battle knew it.
"I give a lot of credit to their point guard and leader, Ben Simmons,” Wade commented after Game 4. “He does a great job of getting them settled."
In the decisive event of this series, Simmons accumulated 17 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. That stat line made him the third youngest player in modern NBA history to register a playoff triple double, behind only James and Johnson. He also became the first rookie since Johnson to record a triple-double in the playoffs. And here is the truly scary thing: Simmons is capable of much more than he did that game.
In Game 4, Simmons might have matched the only two ball handlers in NBA history that ever played with his combination of size and skill, but went on to commit seven turnovers, and presided over an offence that lost its way for large chucks of the first three quarters. He was very good, but he wasn’t great. Not by his lofty standards.
Theoretically, this is the worst Simmons will ever look in the NBA. A remarkable feat, given he is already a walking triple-double machine, with All-NBA defence potential. Over the past week of basketball, he displayed an ability to chaperone a young Philadelphia team through the playoffs. As their best player. As their leader.
"He's very tough physically, but he's even tougher I think mentally,” J.J. Redick shared of Simmons after Game 4. “The last four games have been as vocal and demonstrative as I've seen him all season. He's been fantastic, he's coming out of his shell in regards to leadership, and that's huge for us."
Huge is a literal interpretation of Simmons’ standing on the court - a near seven-foot point guard who habitually dwarfs the greatest collection of basketball athletes on planet earth. It’s breathtaking to see in action; an unyielding reality evidenced during the closing moments of the series’ stay in South Beach.
With 60 seconds remaining in Game 4, Miami had crawled back to within a solitary point. There was hope of a tied series. Just one more stop and Wade, their illustrious legend, would have an opportunity to lord it over the upstart Sixers one more time.
Wade County never got the chance. It wasn’t his time.
Miami’s defensive coverage waned for a split second. Simmons pounced. And just like that, he – along with the playoff series - was gone. The Sixers delivered a knockout punch in Game 5, but their opponent was fatally wounded three days earlier.
This felt like a moment. An infant step down the Yellow Brick Road, but a moment nonetheless; one that will have greater context as the years roll on.
Admire the vicious dunk. Enjoy the mean mug. Ogle at the swag oozing out of this phenom, flexing his proverbial basketball muscles for the first time within the playoff crucible. "He was a monster," Embiid said of Simmons after Game 4. Maybe, it takes one to know one.
With each passing accomplishment, media debates dissecting “whose team” the Sixers are, will rage. It’s inevitable. Who is Magic and who is Kareem? Who is Michael and who is Scottie? Who is Kobe and who is Shaq? This is page one out of the media playbook. Although for the time being, it remains outside noise for Simmons, Embiid and the Sixers. Simmons said as much in January. Brown reinforced solidarity during the Heat series.
“[Embiid and Simmons] are fantastic teammates, they co-exist well,” he said. “The whole territorial side of NBA basketball, how you deal with fame and notoriety, that is an evolution and part of what I really pay attention to. How do you really grow those two guys together? They need each other, and they understand that.”
Embiid is the Sixers' Joker, while Simmons is their ace in the hole. Depending on the situation, and knowhow of the opponent, one will invariably have more value, game to game, than the other. But that doesn’t diminish their individual greatness. Each is a mystic force in their own right. Together, their potential is limitless. And make no mistake, they are a combined power.
With a Game 5 victory, the Sixers have advanced to the second round and now await the winner of the Celtics and Bucks series. Against Boston, Philadelphia will cease to have home court, while in a series against Milwaukee, Simmons will be matched up against fellow international mould-breaker in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Either way, the Sixers will be deserved favourites. They are a likely conference finalist regardless of opponent, and that is amazing, considering the team's history.
Prior to Simmons’ debut, the Sixers averaged less than 19 wins per season dating back to 2013. In the blink of an eye, they rocketed into the championship conversation quicker than any team in recent NBA history. The 2011 Oklahoma City Thunder rose into the conference finals on the back of two future MVPs – three if we assume James Harden will capture the award this year – but that wasn’t their first go around. They yielded to Kobe Bryant and his playoff seasoned Los Angeles Lakers outfit 12 months earlier. The Thunder ultimately needed one final lecture from Dirk Nowitzki and the evergreen Dallas Mavericks, before ascending into the Finals.
History says the same is required for Simmons and the Sixers. Any grounded NBA enthusiast can point to the lessons of seasons past and proclaim, with old-fashioned assurance, that an Eastern Conference foe will deny the NBA of their most unlikely finalist in decades. Although, let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. What if... yes, what if Simmons is as good as advertised, and Embiid is every bit the reincarnate of Hakeem Olajuwon? Why can’t the Sixers win the Eastern Conference this season? Heck, why can’t they win the NBA championship? Why can’t they have a moment as stupendous as their prodigious talents make them out to be?
The greatest luxury for those championing Simmons, is that the coming weeks don’t actually matter. They truly don’t.
Sure, the thought of witnessing him climb Mount Everest and capture an NBA championship on the first attempt is tantalising. It truly is, but such an accomplishment would be the cherry on top of the sweetest treat imaginable. We have already seen enough.
Simmons’ first season on the NBA hardwood has rightfully allowed imaginations run wild. He is playing at an All-Star level, while leading his franchise on a playoff run. This now the baseline for his career. It’s the worst case scenario for the next decade of basketball.
Let that sink in for a moment: it still feels crazy that an Australian dominated a NBA playoff series. It’s downright flabbergasting that this will become the norm. Hope has now been replaced with reality. And with reality, moments will follow. Instances that would have been too crazy to imagine, just a few short years ago.
Simmons has the chance to be generationally transcendent. As in the greatest non-American basketballer of all time special. As in the foremost Australian athlete to ever live. As in somebody that everyone, from NBA superstars to casual basketball fans to sporting atheists, will remember. His head coach certainly sees it.
In the aftermath of Game 4, Brown appeared agasp when describing Simmons. He reinforced the potential of his prized rookie, before noting that Simmons “is ours.” As in, Simmons is a Sixer. While true, this is merely a technicality.
Sorry Brett, we call dibs. Simmons is, and always will be, ours.
An Australian just commanded the Philadelphia 76ers to a playoff series victory, leading his team in virtually every statistical category you can think of. His name is Ben Simmons, and this is only the beginning.