Ben Simmons didn’t play for the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. The rest of his teammates did, but Simmons remains a man without a team and the Sixers remain a team without the player around whom they had built so much hope, so much hype, so much hoopla.
Simmons remains in self-assigned purgatory while the Sixers, a perennial conference favorite the past few years because of Simmons’ presence and despite his shortcomings, like the Knicks, entered the game 2-1. The Sixers, like the Knicks, lost a home game this weekend and were booed for their troubles — although in Philly’s case it was to title-aspirant Brooklyn, and in New York’s to talent-challenged Orlando.
The Sixers, unlike the Knicks, are in the kind of turmoil that can derail a season more easily than a 15-game losing streak. That’s thanks to Simmons, who may not be everything the Sixers hoped he’d be when they drafted him out of LSU, but is still a warm body. With an awful lot of skill. Who has helped them win an awful lot of games.
“You know, up and down throughout, I kept saying to you guys, things do change,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said the other day, illuminating one of the many talks he’s had to have with his team about this subject. “That still doesn’t mean that it’s going to work out perfect, or it could. But I’ve always believed that. I’ve never wavered from that. I’ve said that one hundred times, and I still stick with it.”
The Knicks, as the Magic proved, have their own problems. But they do not have this kind of problem … although Knicks fans of a certain vintage can easily recall when they had an even worse kind of problem.
That was the spring of 1991, and the uncomfortable month-long stretch connecting the Knicks’ ouster from the playoffs via a humiliating three-game sweep by the Bulls and the announcement on June 1 that Pat Riley was the new coach, replacing John MacLeod, who’d fled for Notre Dame as quickly as he could.
Patrick Ewing had grown tired of the Knicks, and of their inability in his first six seasons to sustain any kind of momentum. There had been two terrific seasons under Rick Pitino when it felt like the roller coaster was aimed straight up. But then Pitino sought asylum at the University of Kentucky, Stu Jackson came in for two underwhelming playoff runs …
And Ewing held all the cards. He wanted out. He said he wanted out. He hinted nothing the Knicks could do would make him change his mind.
Then Riley was hired.
And Ewing changed his mind.
But not before Riley was forced to make his first genuine recruiting pitch not long after signing the papers. Famously, he sold Ewing a vision of ticker-tape and a wild procession filling the Canyon of Heroes with unforgettable joy. Of course, that vision would wind up crashing time and again the next few years in various stages of the playoffs, under Riley and under Jeff Van Gundy.
But think about what Knicks history would look like if the Knicks hadn’t hired Riley, and if Riley hadn’t pulled off the kind of recruiting pitch he would become famous for in later years, notably with LeBron James. Imagine the gap that would’ve replaced the fun and the noise of 1992-2000.
Whenever Knicks fans gather to compare laments, at least they have that patch of the ’90s to look back on fondly. If not for that, we could honestly be talking about a run from 1975 or so to present day that really would be the sporting version of torture for Knicks fans.
“There was a time when I made my mind up I wanted out,” Ewing told me a few years ago. “Pat talked me to my senses.”
Maybe it’s Doc. Maybe it’s the entire 76ers operation. But the Simmons saga can’t shadow this year forever. Somehow something has to be fixed. It won’t be easy. Nobody ever said it would be. But the Sixers have a window and it feels like every few days it gets a few millimeters narrower. This has to get done. Sooner, not later.