PHILADELPHIA — The thing that Ben Simmons does not seem to understand is that the Sixers do not need him on the court in order to get where they’ve gone in their four seasons with him. In short, he is attempting to draw on leverage that everybody else knows he does not have.
The Sixers did not beat the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs with him on the court. They did not beat the Bucks in the regular season with him on the court. What does it matter if they do not beat these teams without him? They can just as easily not win a championship without him.
On Tuesday morning, we witnessed the only possible conclusion of Simmons’ failure to grasp this crucial piece of logic when Doc Rivers kicked him out of practice for refusing to participate in a drill. You saw it developing for several days, two oppositely-charged fronts converging on each other, a rational actor and an irrational one, both of them convinced that they held the right of way.
At the heart of the collision was a dramatic miscalculation on the part of a man who has been brainwashed into believing that he isn’t what he is. The executive summary reads like this: A basketball player thought he could hold his team for ransom. Now, it turns out, the only hostage is himself.
The Sixers’ only choice is to stick with the hard-line approach they’ve taken thus far. Welcome him back with open arms and then ask him to leave when he becomes a distraction. You’d hope that, at some point, Simmons will begin to understand why he has not yet been traded. He’d see that the Sixers have no incentive to accept a deal that leaves them further from contention. More importantly, he’d see how far they are as it is.
In that sense, the events of Tuesday morning might be the best thing to happen to the Sixers here in the early stages of the latest season of television’s longest-running dark comedy. As a source told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, Simmons’ refusal to participate in a defensive drill during Tuesday morning’s practice prompted Rivers to ask his one-time point guard to leave. Shortly thereafter, the Sixers announced a one-game suspension. In doing so, the organization laid down a line that had been begging to be drawn ever since Simmons ended his holdout and returned to the team. It’s a line that they now have even less incentive to move.
The Sixers are a good enough team to make it through three months of Eastern Conference basketball without a player who refuses to do the things a championship team would need. Now, at least, they can do it without having to pretend that everything is as it should be: that it was completely normal for a player to practice in jogging pants at three-quarters speed, to linger disinterestedly in the background as the head coach speaks. Before, players like Joel Embiid and Danny Green needed to answer questions about their ostensible teammate in that awkward athlete-speak code, to pretend Simmons really was representing the name on the front of the jersey and not the one on the back.
Now? Reality has been exposed. All it took for Simmons to self-destruct was a couple days of humoring him. After practice concluded on Tuesday morning, you sensed that a weight had been lifted from the team. Embiid, to his credit, had spent much of the previous month summoning every ounce of his energy to bite down on his prolific tongue. Simmons’ trade demand and holdout has always been more personal for the big man than he has let on, and now he finally had some freedom to speak.
He revealed that he had not spoken to Simmons since he returned. Embiid concurred with the Sixers’ official description of his longtime running mate’s behavior as “conduct detrimental to the team.” He skillfully peppered his politically correct take on the events of the morning with references to “babysitting.”
“We don’t get paid to come out here and try and babysit somebody,” Embiid said. “That’s not our job, and I’m sure my teammates feel that way.”
There’s a reason why the saga we’re witnessing is unprecedented even in the mad, wild, agent-driven world of the NBA. Agents understand agency, and a player has very little of it when he has four years left on his contract. That’s true even if a player is a superstar. It’s even more true when the player is the only one who views himself as such.
“Our players will welcome anyone back that wants to be in,” Rivers said. “And I also know that players won’t welcome back in someone who doesn’t want to be here.”
As Rivers spoke, Simmons was nowhere to be seen, having departed the practice facility shortly after his coach asked him to leave the court. We can only assume that he spent the rest of the morning driving around the Philadelphia region in a six-figure luxury import blasting Dashboard Confessional or whatever passes for emo music in the Land Down Under. If you haven’t heard, his feelings are hurt, and he is reacting the way most adolescents do. By lashing out.
Simmons’ current method of lashing out seems to be one part tantrum, one part hijacking, zero parts thought out. It’s hard to imagine that Rich Paul is driving this bus, or that anybody besides Simmons and his coterie of enablers is on board. We’re witnessing an experiment in what happens when an immature, overinflated ego encounters adversity for the first time while lacking the conflict resolution skills to lead itself anywhere other than self-destruction.
“At this point, I don’t care about that man, honestly,” Embiid said. “He does whatever he wants. That’s not my job.”
The Sixers would be wise to continue doing as they’ve done. Step back and let it happen. At this point, Simmons can only hurt himself. Morey is the rational actor in this situation. If and when he gets an offer that leaves the Sixers with as good of a chance to contend as they have with Simmons, you can bet that he’ll pull the trigger.
Until then, he has little to gain by agreeing to a trade before the trade deadline pressure begins to build. In February, Simmons will still have three and a half years left on his contract. The offers aren’t going to get any worse. The only factors that can improve them are Simmons and time. And, right now, Simmons is doing the opposite of playing his part.
The Sixers have all the incentives. Rather than spending the foreseeable future playing along with Simmons’ passive aggressive attempts to both express his displeasure and collect a paycheck, Morey and Rivers can now operate from the comfort of the cover that Simmons granted them by refusing to fulfill his contractual obligations.
They can save money. They can give their team some existential meaning in the form of Simmons shunning them. Most importantly, they can send a message: on behalf of both themselves and the other 29 teams in the league. There’s a reason players shouldn’t do what Simmons is doing: it does not work.