After finishing with the No.1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers again find themselves watching the Conference Finals from home after a disappointing exit to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of their second-round series.
Much of the criticism of the team has been aimed at point guard Ben Simmons, who struggled to impact the offence with his scoring, averaging just 9.9 points, through the series, to go with 8.6 assists, and 6.3 rebounds, finishing Game 7 with just five points on 2-of-4 shooting.
With the 76ers at a crossroads and limited flexibility with the salary cap for next season, where they go from here is unclear, but for Simmons, he now faces an off-season of scrutiny as he looks to bounce back from a disappointing playoff series.
With that said, we examine five burning questions that lie ahead for Simmons and the 76ers.
Can Simmons and Embiid be a title-winning duo?
Simmons and Joel Embiid became the faces of 'The Process' - Philly's well-publicised rebuild which saw them net two All-Stars after years of finishing with more ping pong balls than most.
With the foundation for their future set, the star duo on paper are exactly what you need to win a championship. Two players who excel on both ends on the floor, young enough to give you a title-contending window, but on the court, their fit hasn't been ideal.
Embiid is one of the best post-up players in the league and this season he was nothing short of dominant in the paint, which doesn't exactly suit Simmons' preference to attack the rim. When Embiid's been out of the lineup, Simmons has taken the reigns of the offence, surrounded by shooters, and terrorises defences in transition with the lane wide open.
They rarely operate in the pick-and-roll together, given defences sag off Simmons, however as two of the most talented players in the league, Simmons and Embiid are going to win you lots of games, but it's still to be seen whether they can get over the hump when it matters most.
Which leads to the next question.....
Should the 76ers explore a trade?
Despite his play in the postseason, there will very much be a market for Ben Simmons if the 76ers decide to break up their All-Star pairing.
At just 24 years old, a two-time All-Star and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate... those kinds of players don't grow on trees.
A change of scenery and a team built around his strengths could see Simmons unlock the best version of himself, doing the same for Embiid, with a point guard who can punish teams as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, but it will take an enticing All-Star level player for the 76ers to budge.
Doc Rivers and the front office have shown they're committed to making things work with the roster and a willingness to tinker with the lineup and bring in players who can complement Simmons and Embiid, but if a Damian Lillard all of a sudden became available, the 76ers would no doubt look to capitalise on their championship window.
Is Simmons best suited as a starting point guard?
"I don't know the answer to that question right now." - That was Doc Rivers' answer to whether Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team.
From a defensive standpoint, there is no point guard better at shutting down opposing PGs, with his length and athleticism, while as a playmaker, only Trae Young (125) has dished out more assists in the postseason than Simmons (106).
Simmons' versatility is one of his biggest strengths, but could a positional change be the key to the Aussie unlocking his game?
Brett Brown experimented with Simmons at power forward for stretches in the bubble with mixed success, but there is enough evidence to suggest Simmons could thrive as a turbo-charged Draymond Green or if he were used in a similar manner to Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo, punishing teams as a screener while operating as the team's de facto point guard from the elbow.
Too easy.@BenSimmons25 ➡️ @JoelEmbiid 💰@sixers | #PhilaUnite pic.twitter.com/Lml2Qx3gtg- NBA Australia (@NBA_AU) June 12, 2021
We've seen Simmons thrive as a point-center and at the four, albeit sporadically, but that can't really happen consistently while he's playing alongside Embiid.
Will he develop the jump shot he needs to be more of a threat?
"I ain't shoot well from the line this series," Simmons said following Game 7. "Offensively, I wasn't there. I didn't do enough for my teammates. ... There's a lot of things that I need to work on."
Simmons has never pretended to be a shooter in the NBA, leaning into his playmaking, attacking the rim and facilitating the team's offence, but after a fourth-straight early exit from the playoffs, his lack of shooting became all the more glaring, both from the field and the free-throw line.
"I believe, without going into detail with what we're doing, I believe we know what the right work is, and the right type of work, and the right way to do it," head coach Doc Rivers said when asked about working on Simmons' shooting in the off-season.
Nobody is expecting Simmons to turn into Steph Curry overnight, but even without a reliable mid-range shot or 3-point shot, becoming an 80+ percent free-throw shooter would allow him to attack the basket with even more intention.
Would playing for the Boomers help his development?
ESPN's Brian Windhorst today reported that Simmons is 'doubtful' to join the Australian National Team this off-season, in order to focus on 'skill development' instead of competing at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ben Simmons is doubtful to play for Australia in Tokyo Olympics, sources said. Will spend offseason working on skill development. Aussies scheduled to begin training this week in L.A.- Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) June 21, 2021
Simmons has yet to pull on the green and gold since making his debut for the national team in 2013 and was named in the Boomers' 19-man training camp roster that was announced last week, alongside fellow NBA players Matisse Thybulle, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavadova, Dante Exum, Josh Green and Patty Mills.
With exhibition games against the USA, Nigeria and Argentina in Las Vegas schedule before the tournament, playing alongside his countrymen in the quest for a gold medal at a major international tournament could serve as a reset for Simmons and give him an opportunity to compete at a high level through the summer in a more relaxed environment away from the NBA spotlight.
However, after a gruelling NBA season, which followed a short turnaround from the bubble, using the off-season to rest and get reps on the practice court makes sense, but I believe he could have the best of both worlds doing so as part of the Boomers squad.
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