June 20, 2021. It’s a date that 76ers fans won’t soon forget.
Late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals, Sixers star Ben Simmons had the ball in the post against Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari. Simmons backed Gallinari down toward the block, spun away from him toward the baseline and found himself standing right in front of the rim. With only Trae Young (6-1, 164 pounds) in Simmons’ (6-11, 240 pounds) general vicinity, it appeared that Simmons had an easy two points — and perhaps an and-one opportunity if Young swiped at the ball.
Yikes. Simmons threw a surprising pass to Matisse Thybulle, who got fouled and ended up making one of two free throws. Instead of tying the game with less than four minutes to go in regulation, Philadelphia trotted back on defense down by one. Atlanta never lost the lead after that possession, ultimately winning by a final score of 103-96 and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
“I mean, I’ll be honest,” Embiid said after the loss. “I thought the turning point was when we — I don’t know how to say it — but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot, and we made one free throw. And we missed the other, and then they came down and scored.”
Simmons’ pass served as not only a turning point in Game 7, but also a turning point in his relationship with the 76ers organization. The postgame comments from Embiid and Doc Rivers, who declared that he didn’t know whether Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team, couldn’t be dismissed as outside noise from fans and analysts. This was the team’s best player and head coach speaking on the record.
The constant trade rumors and speculation followed Simmons all summer long. And yet, as of early December, he remains a member of the Sixers — sort of. He isn’t playing now despite being on the roster, which has just made the situation even messier.
But what if Simmons had simply dunked the ball and avoided that infamous moment? What would that alternate timeline look like? Let’s open three magical doors and find out.
Door No. 1: Ben Simmons dunks, but the 76ers still lose
Apologies to the Philly faithful, but your squad still goes down in this scenario.
On the possession before the crucial Simmons play, Hawks guard Kevin Huerter hit a jump shot to give Atlanta an 88-86 lead. The Hawks held a 59.7 percent win probability at that point, according to ESPN, and it only rose down the stretch as they outscored the 76ers 15-10 in the final three-plus minutes. Game 7 wasn’t just about a dunk that didn’t happen.
There is one major difference here, though. By eliminating the pass to Thybulle, the 76ers also eliminate the comments from Embiid and Rivers. They offer more generic statements about the tough loss, and they even compliment Simmons for his aggression on that play.
Simmons wouldn’t have suddenly been ecstatic about returning. Let’s not go that far. But would he have been on better terms with the organization? Would the channels of communication have been more open?
Hey, the actual offseason couldn’t have gone much worse, so, uh, maybe! (Also, Adele turns down Rich Paul. Bummer, dude.)
Door No. 2: Ben Simmons dunks, and the 76ers advance
In this timeline, Simmons explodes for a dunk and galvanizes his team into action. The Sixers proceed to rattle off their own 15-10 run after tying the game, and they move on to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Bucks.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the journey stops there. Giannis Antetokounmpo is too much for Embiid, and Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday slightly outplay Simmons. While the ending is disappointing, it’s far more acceptable to lose to the eventual champs than fall apart against the Hawks.
Everyone in the 76ers organization still feels good about the season overall, and Rivers and his players enter the 2021-22 campaign motivated to prove they can knock the Bucks off the throne. (Adele and Paul are dating, and it’s going well!)
Door No. 3: Ben Simmons dunks, and the 76ers win it all
Keep in mind this is a thought exercise, and this is the best-case scenario for Simmons and the 76ers. It may sound completely unrealistic, but just allow your imagination to take over.
Simmons hammers the ball down on Young, finishing through a weak foul attempt. He then drains the free throw, electrifying the Wells Fargo Center crowd. This is a new turning point. It is Simmons’ version of LeBron James’ Game 6 explosion against the Celtics in 2012. He is finally ready to throw the narrative about his late-game struggles in the dumpster and light it on fire.
A new and improved Simmons and MVP-caliber Embiid dispatch the Bucks in five games, and they enter the 2021 NBA Finals against the Suns as the favorites to win the title. Embiid dominates Deandre Ayton in the paint, and Simmons suffocates Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the perimeter. Tobias Harris and Seth Curry drain a few timely shots, and the 76ers are your NBA champions. (Caught up in the excitement, Adele and Paul get married in Las Vegas!)
OK, that probably had no chance of ever happening, but it’s nice to dream, right? If nothing else, it’s a break from the reality in which the Sixers are currently living.