How Ben Simmons is the new Wilt Chamberlain
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How Ben Simmons is the new Wilt Chamberlain

As of right now, one of the strangest NBA storylines of the past 15 years is taking place. So, of course I can’t help myself to dork it down by comparing it to that of another all-time great who was traded twice in his prime, although the rest of the similarities are a little too weird. Ben Simmons is a two-time NBA All-Defensive player, an All-NBA player, and a 25-year-old who just secured the first seed in the East while his fellow star center missed a fat chunk of the season.

Now that he reportedly wants out, Simmons’ apparent trade value is worth squat as only the two worst run teams in the league have interest. That being the Timberwolves and Cavaliers, according to Hoops Wire. How does this even make sense? And why does Chuck Klosterman’s quote of him summing up Wilt Chamberlain’s career, “I can’t think of any athlete whose reputation is so vastly inferior to his actual achievements,” seem so relevant today?

Well, for starters, both athletes came into the league as sure stars. Simmons was the only rookie in NBA history to score at least 1,200 points and have at least 600 assists and 600 rebounds apart from Oscar Robertson. Obviously, Wilt’s statistics were staggering; his first nine seasons were unlike anything that’s happened before or since. He even won the All-Star MVP and the regular MVP his rookie year. But it’s likely this early success coddled their expected improvement. Either that or they severely misjudged the fans’ narrative of exactly what they had to achieve to be great.

Let me explain: Wilt’s kryptonite was his fascination with statistics and records, which he prioritized over actually winning. For example, his obsession to keep a meaningless streak of never being fouled out of a game ever since his high school days. Here’s how John Havlicek described in “Hondo.”

“When he got his fourth foul, his game would change. I don’t know how many potential victories he may have cheated his team out of by not really playing after got into foul trouble.”

John Havlicek, Hondo

For Simmons, it’s posting meaningless training videos of him swishing threes against YMCA players every offseason, thinking that it would somehow satisfy the fans. When instead, it was just a temporary pause on the criticism at best. At worst, it was a magnifying glass into his most significant weakness that would just add to the pressure for him to shoot threes against actual NBA Players.  

It’s these lapses of common sense that baffle the minds of fans that support them, leading us only to believe that they must just not want it bad enough. Another theory is that they were spoiled by their coaches. I say ‘in theory’ because Simmons’ career has not fully played out, but in Wilt’s case – every stone really is turned. 

In The Rivalry, John Taylor writes Warrior’s owner Eddie Gottlieb, “spoilt Wilt something fierce… and as long as he was uncoachable, any team he played on would never become a real winner”. Wilt played for 9 coaches in 14 years and threatened to retire multiple times because of money… Well, for Simmons, a head coach by the name of Brett Brown just watched an entire NBA season from his couch for the first time since Simmons was a junior in high school. Why? Because they needed a scapegoat for their lack of playoff success. That and he obviously wasn’t convincing enough for Simmons to attempt threes. Two things that were directly aligned. 

But can you really blame the team’s lack of success on one player? You betcha. Wilt played with six Hall of Fame members (West, Baylor, Greer, Cunningham, Arizin, and Thurmond). But Chamberlain had a habit of causing unnecessary drama at the worst of times. Never mind the documented clashes he had with West and, more frequently Baylor during the ‘69 season – Wilt had destroyed the morale of a team even before that. Right before game 5 of the ‘65 Conference Finals, Sports Illustrated released a Chamberlain feature of him ripping then head-coach Dolph Schayes. They lost that series; shocker…

However, it is the Simmons and ex-76ers Jimmy Butler’s beef that is more memorable in the minds of NBA fans today. Specifically, the reports that came from the Athletic’s Zach Harper in that Butler “didn’t view [Simmons] on par with someone like himself or Embiid when it came to mental makeup.” That and Simmons’ voiced frustration about being relegated to off-ball duties during the Butler stint. Now numerous sources are claiming big Ben has cut off all communication with everyone in the 76ers organization, including Embiid. 

That might have something to do with him putting on the worst display of free-throw shooting in NBA playoff history for a player with at least 70 attempts. Missing 30-45 free throws in one series, which is more than Steve Nash missed in his entire career. This alongside a 26-point lead that was blown in Game 5, an awful play where Simmons looked scared to shoot the ball in the closing minutes of game 7, and head coach Doc Rivers saying he is unsure whether Simmons can be a championship point guard. Or maybe even just the 56 fourth-quarter minutes across seven games against the Hawks, where he took a total of three shots. Should I continue?

Because Simmons might be embarrassed, but he’s not the first 76er to retreat in his shell come big games. In Rick Barry’s autobiography, Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy, Barry brought up the harsh reality of Chamberlain.

“When it comes down to closing minutes of a tough game, an important game, he doesn’t want the ball, he doesn’t want any part of the pressure. It is at these times that greatness is determined, and Wilt doesn’t have it”. 

Rick Barry, Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy

Let’s analyze that for a second. In Game 7 of ‘68, Wilt took two shots after halftime. In Game 7 ‘69, he asked to be put out of the game with five minutes left because he ‘banged’ his knee. In Game 7 of ‘70, against a one-legged Willis Reed, Wilt never went at him, this time only taking three shots after halftime leading to a Knicks 16-point comeback. It was only made worse that he did this after a 45-26 clinic in game six. 

But nothing mirrors the two more than the eventual outcome of Wilt’s lunacy and vanishing tendencies. After the San Francisco Warriors self-destructed in ‘65 and lost 17 games in a row, the Lakers were intrigued enough for owner Bob Short to ask his players to vote whether or not he should purchase Wilt’s contract. The results were nine to two… against. Nine to two against! 

A team that had come short year after year against Russell’s Celtics voted against getting Wilt in his prime for nothing. Can you imagine James Harden’s Rockets voting whether to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo for nothing and voting against! Wilt ended up in Philadelphia for 30 cents to the dollar and it looks like Simmons will follow a similar fate. 

Unfortunately for Simmons however, I don’t think he has quite as much god-given talent as Chamberlain. Because even Chamberlain himself admitted in Wilt, “my teams could have won an NBA championship every year if I was totally committed to victory as he [Russell] was… I wish I had won those championships”.

For Simmons that choice is still there. It didn’t feel that long ago when he was being called the evolutionary Magic or the next LeBron. But if he can get past this playoff trauma, hopefully, his name will not be used as an example of what a talented NBA player should not do 50 years later.