Not much was clear about the Sixers’ future in the immediate aftermath of the team’s Game 7, Round 2 playoff loss in June to the Hawks.
It at least looked likely to be messy. Over two months later, that’s absolutely the case.
The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey reported Tuesday that Ben Simmons told Sixers brass he doesn’t want to remain on the team, and that the 25-year-old “does not intend to report to training camp.” A Sixers spokesperson declined to comment on the report.
Head coach Doc Rivers had few answers on the night of his team's elimination. He wasn’t bleak on Simmons, but he sure didn’t glow about the three-time All-Star or insist reporters, fans and other casual observers all failed to grasp the qualities besides scoring that made the Australian great.
At various stages before the Sixers’ final loss, Rivers turned prickly whenever he sensed an implication that anything was fundamentally wrong with Simmons’ game. That evening, to the specific question of whether Simmons could become a championship-level point guard, Rivers said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Simmons is best positioned to know whether the latest layer of drama was inevitable. Many signs have pointed toward an uncomfortable resolution, however, including the vast circulation of Rivers’ non-committal comment back in June.
Multiple reports last season indicated the Sixers were willing to part with Simmons in a James Harden deal before the superstar guard headed to the Nets. This offseason, Simmons has been among the most popular, intriguing or tiresome topics in the NBA, depending on one’s perspective. There’s zero doubt the Sixers don't regard him in the same class as Joel Embiid, the undisputed franchise cornerstone who’s under contract into his mid-30s.
Indeed, a player who made a third of his foul shots against Atlanta and was (not coincidentally) reluctant to consider scoring late in games is several tiers below an MVP runner-up. It was always sensible for the Sixers to explore upgrades.
Meanwhile, Simmons always had a say, as distasteful as that might be to Sixers fans frustrated by the former No. 1 pick's postseason foul shooting woes and lack of offensive expansion. The reported threat of a holdout is a major development, even if it’s difficult to imagine an in-his-prime star opting against playing forever.
If Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is steadfast in refusing to “lose” a Simmons trade and the team begins camp one prominent player short, what then?
On paper, Morey could justify continuing his own version of a holdout and allow young players to take on heavier minutes. Even without Simmons, the Sixers would likely be a good team. The ultimate goal of a Simmons deal would be improving the Sixers’ chances of playoff success. Keeping Simmons past the start of training camp would not inherently jeopardize that aim, as long as a helpful trade didn't evaporate in the false hopes of a tremendous one materializing. The team’s leverage wouldn’t seem strong in such a situation, although that’s a fickle concept and often tough to assess for those not directly involved in negotiations.
What’s left unsaid in that hypothetical is the realities of day-to-day life for Rivers and all the players and staff trying to do their jobs well. The Sixers could become a circus, with reporters demanding details on Simmons and spending little time inquiring about Matisse Thybulle’s three-point shooting or Georges Niang’s role. The locker room could be an odd place.
None of that sounds great, and yet it’s impossible to fully evaluate the Simmons saga until it’s over. For now, the report of Simmons’ plan to hold out if necessary places the Sixers in a trickier position on the surface.
This has never been easy or clean, though. And it wouldn’t be stunning if Morey, who's historically tended to prioritize star talent and extracting maximum value, lets things turn even messier.