- Philadelphia 76ers point guard Ben Simmons unexpectedly returned to the team after missing the entirety of training camp due to his offseason demand to be traded.
- Making the Simmons situation even more volatile are rumors that he lied about a potential COVID-19 exposure so he wouldn’t have to play in Game 7 of the 2020-2021 playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks.
- Sixers’ head coach Doc Rivers admitted to the media that he’s unsure if Simmons will play for the team this year.
The NBA regular season begins next week with the league in the midst of one of the most virulent outbreaks of ‘head cases’ in several years. While most of the attention has been focused on anti-vaxxer Kyrie Irving who will not be part of the Brooklyn Nets’ plans until further notice there’s plenty of other self absorbed and entitled players around the league. If Irving is the ‘head case’ MVP of the league at the moment the runner up could very well be Philadelphia point guard Ben Simmons. No one really knows what is going on with Simmons after he unexpectedly reported to the Sixers after missing training camp due to an offseason trade demand that alienate teammates and fans.
The grease fire began in late August at a meeting with Simmons, his agent, Rich Paul, team president Daryl Morey and head coach Doc Rivers. The goal of the meeting was to get everyone on the same page following Simmons’ playoff meltdown and overall demonstration of discontent. Philadelphia has been building the team around Simmons and center Joel Embiid and the meeting began with Morey presenting a detailed statistical analysis about how effectively the two men play together. Doc Rivers went next–he gently reminded Simmons that he signed a five-year, $170 million contract extension just two years ago and that the Sixers expected that he’d have the professionalism to honor it. In other words, the Sixers made clear they wanted Simmons back and that his playoff tank job was water under the bridge. To put a little icing on the cake, they also informed Simmons that there were no trades available that made sense for the team.
When it was Simmons turn to retort, he went full head case. He wants to be in a situation where he isn’t forced to be the ‘focal point’ of a team and thus subject to as much criticism. Also implicit in this narrative is the high pressure Philadelphia sports ecosystem, suggesting he’d be happier in a smaller market. Privately, there are reports that suggest Simmons has told his handlers and team executives that he doesn’t think he can win with Embiid. There haven’t been any confirmations of this but given team president Morey’s power point presentation about his star duo’s statistical effectiveness it makes sense. Ultimately, Simmons’ conclusion was completely inscrutable:
“I appreciate you guys coming out here. I understand how you feel. But I feel how I feel. And it’s just time for a change.”
Embiid isn’t without his flaws, but for the most part he’s held up his end of the arrangement. After sounding conciliatory for most of Simmons’ holdout it now sounds like he’s done with his nonsense:
“The situation is disappointing, borderline kind of disrespectful to all the guys that are out here fighting for their lives.”
“I feel like our teams have been built, whether it’s the shooting need or stretch 5 and all that stuff, I feel like [Simmons] always had it here. And we still have it”… Our teams have always been built around his needs.”
“It was kind of surprising to see. We’ll say that, even going back to the reason we signed Al [Al Horford]. We got rid of Jimmy [Butler], which I still think it was a mistake, just to make sure [Simmons] needed the ball in his hands. That’s the decision they made. Like I said, it is surprising.”
The way Embiid describes the roster evolution is pretty accurate–the Sixers built the team in such a way to make Simmons happy. This isn’t necessarily a wise decision since as Embiid notes it didn’t really make the team better but the point is that the Sixers have done everything possible to create a situation that is tailor made to Simmons’ liking.
The impetus for Simmons’ return to the Sixers camp was likely the team’s decision to withhold the $8.25 million owed to him on October 1 and put it into an escrow account. The plan is to deduct any fines that Simmons’ incurred from that amount and then give him the remainder if and when he showed up. While the team played ‘contractual hardball’ with Simmons they also kept holding his hand via an ongoing series of meetings and discussions about a return. Doc Rivers told anyone in the media that would listen that the team would love to get him back. Even legitimate legend Allen Iverson gave Simmons a hug via social media–albeit one tagged to the wrong Ben Simmons:
Alas, the Ben Simmons that AI tagged is a nondescript white guy from the UK who appears to have a penchant for fine wine and bicycle racing. No word on his ability to handle the pressure of the Philadelphia media and his outside shooting range.
Simmons has four years and $147 million left on his max contract, including $33 million for 2021-22. He may have figured out that his team wasn’t going to keep scratching out checks if he didn’t play. Simmons surprised everyone by showing up earlier this week. He passed his physical and took a meeting with team brass but he wasn’t able to rejoin team activities until Friday due to NBA Covid policies. The word from the Simmons’ camp is that he’s ‘got a point to prove’. If that’s the case, he’s off to a flying start since despite being cleared to rejoin the team for Friday’s preseason finale he instead sat out with the team describing it as ‘reconditioning’. In all fairness, most of the team’s core talent didn’t play in the game including Embiid, Tobias Harris, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton.
Doc Rivers spoke to the media again earlier this week and much like Embiid sounded done with Simmons’ nonsense. After indicating that the meeting with Simmons went well he made clear that he didn’t have a clue about the point guard’s mindset and/or how the situation would play out:
“I’m assuming he’s going to play, but who knows? I can’t get in anyone’s head.”
“Whether we play him or not, that’s going to depend on what we see this week. He’s coming from behind, because he hasn’t been in camp, obviously. Having said that, do you rush him and put him on the floor? That’s a whole other subject. What we see this week is how we determine everything going forward.”
He also doesn’t have a clue about the status of Simmons’ trade demands:
“I don’t know. He’s voiced that, but we’ll see how that works out.”
Rivers has seen it all during his lifetime as a NBA player and coach–his attitude is no doubt the right way to handle the situation. Teammate Embiid didn’t sound overly thrilled about Simmons’ return:
“That is good for the organization. That’s something that everybody wanted. I’ve always said that I believe that he gives us the best chance to win. We are a better team, with him than without, that’s for sure. I’m happy that things have resolved and we can move on and try to try to be a better team.”
Spoiler alert–if you go away and everyone thinks you’re gone but you come back and they respond “that is good for the organization” it means that they they aren’t buying it. The latest twist in the soap opera might explain *why* Embiid isn’t buying it–there’s a number of players and staffers that think Simmons was lying about his COVID-19 exposure so he wouldn’t have to play in Game 7 of the Atlanta playoff series. The story was that Simmons had an appointment with a masseuse that later tested positive for COVID-19. There’s now the opinion among a not insignificant number of players, coaches and staff within the Sixers organization that he never went to his massage appoint but saw the opportunity to get out of playing in the biggest game of the season. Said one ‘unnamed source’ close to the situation:
“‘I don’t know if he can face the team or the fans after everything that happened last year.”
Whether the ‘Simmons was trying to get out of Game 7′ theory is true or not isn’t really the important thing. That some of his teammates and coaches *think* that Simmons conspiring to skip the biggest game of the season–if not his career–is a viable concept tells you everything you need to know about the faith and trust they have in him. Simmons doesn’t seem to have the self awareness necessary to get his teammates back on board. At this point, despite Simmons’ physical presence in Philadelphia there’s no real indication if he’s still a factor in the team’s future plans.