Ever since the final few minutes of Game 7 against the Hawks—when a dunk turned into the Pass, a foul, a split pair of free throws, and a whimper of an end to an enervating era—it’s seemed evident that the only question left surrounding Ben Simmons’s tenure with the 76ers was when, not if, the former no. 1 pick would be traded out of Philadelphia. “Seemed” got a little closer to disappearing on Tuesday, when word came out that Simmons has made it crystal clear: He wants out, on the next thing smokin’.
“In a meeting with the 76ers last week in Los Angeles, Simmons told team co-managing partner Josh Harris, president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, general manager Elton Brand and coach Doc Rivers that he no longer wants to remain a Sixer,” reports Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Pompey’s sources also say that Simmons doesn’t plan to report to Sixers training camp when it opens on September 28; this backs up previous comments by ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins, who said during Summer League that Simmons wouldn’t hesitate to hold out if Philly brass didn’t complete a deal before the end of the offseason.
If the concept of Simmons requesting a trade leads you to arch your eyebrows at least a bit, it’s probably because you remember that the 76ers have tried to trade him before—to Houston, for James Harden, in January, reportedly with sophomore defensive menace Matisse Thybulle and a pair of future first-round picks, in a deal that reportedly got close enough to completion that Simmons and Thybulle “were even informed by their agents … of an expected trade.” Or because you remember reading that the Sixers had resumed active pursuit of a Simmons swap in mid-July—a pursuit likely impeded, at least somewhat, by the lingering rancid taste left in many mouths by Simmons’s turtling against the Hawks with a conference finals berth on the line. Add it all up, and there’s more than a little “you can’t fire me because I quit” to the latest twist in the Simmons story.
That Simmons wants to leave Philadelphia after five years isn’t new information. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported more than two months ago that Simmons’s agent, Klutch Sports power broker Rich Paul, had met with Morey and Brand “to begin evaluating the next steps in Simmons’ Sixers career,” and noted before July’s 2021 NBA draft that Simmons and Paul were “in step with a move elsewhere.” Hell, Sixers guard Danny Green spoke during a recent visit to Sports Illustrated’s The Crossover podcast as if Simmons’s departure were already written in ink, even slipping into the past tense a couple of times when referring to Simmons.
But while Simmons’s wishes aren’t exactly breaking news, formally communicating them to Philly’s brain trust does turn up the volume, threatening to make an already noisy situation even louder and more chaotic. The big question, though, is whether changing the volume will meaningfully change anything else.
Simmons can say he wants out, that he feels like there’s no repairing the situation after both Rivers and franchise centerpiece Joel Embiid offered less-than-vociferous votes of confidence in Simmons’s ability to be a championship-caliber point guard for Philadelphia. Perhaps you don’t blame them for having a jaundiced view after the way that Simmons’s specific issues, the ones that have been dissected ad nauseum and reared their ugly heads in such glaring ways against Atlanta: his unwillingness or inability to shoot from beyond arm’s reach of the rim, his struggles at the free throw line and attendant reluctance to try to finish strong in traffic or attack the basket late in games, the geometric and geographic complications that result when trying to build high-functioning offensive lineups around Simmons and Embiid, etc. Even so, though, you can understand Simmons wanting a fresh start, believing that the wounds of the past few years now run too deep in Philly to ever fully heal.
Morey and Co. can hear that, nod their heads compassionately, and tell him to sit tight while they continue to canvass the league for a return that Morey feels is commensurate with a 25-year-old three-time All-Star with an All-NBA Third Team nod and runner-up finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting under his belt. And if no such return is in the offing, they can tell him that they still expect him to show up for work as he enters the first of the four fully guaranteed seasons that remain on the maximum-salaried contract extension he signed in 2019.
For what it’s worth, the Uniform Player Contract between NBA teams and players lays out the services players are expected to provide—things like reporting to training camp, attending “practices, meetings, workouts, and skill or conditioning sessions conducted by the Team during the Season,” and showing up for scheduled games—and stipulates that players who violate team rules, breach any provision of the contract, or engage in “any conduct impairing the faithful and thorough discharge of [their] duties” are subject to escalating fines for each missed practice and game-check-docking suspensions, as laid out by the league’s collective bargaining agreement. If Simmons does hold out, then, the Sixers have the ability to play hardball.
That can be a two-way street, though. When the process drags on longer than anyone would prefer—due in part, perhaps, to Morey reportedly seeking Scrooge McDuck–ass packages like “four future first-round picks via direct trade or pick swaps, along with an All-Star-level player in most (but not all) scenarios,” as David Aldridge of The Athletic reported last month—then Simmons and Paul can turn up the heat. Case in point: Pompey’s report that “fining Simmons could strain the Sixers’ relationship with” Paul, whose impressive client list includes not only “players the Sixers might be interested in pursuing down the road in free agency,” but also one that they already employ: Tyrese Maxey, the live-wire lead guard who made steady improvement during his rookie season, who provided a massive spark off the bench in Game 6 against the Hawks to help delay the Sixers’ execution, and whose sterling turn in a two-game cameo at Las Vegas Summer League marked him for a significant role in Philly’s future plans, one way or another.
The possibility that Simmons’s situation could impact the Sixers’ relationship with Maxey—one extended Tuesday, then pulled back Wednesday—offers a rattle-the-cage reminder that Paul’s no stranger to going to great lengths to ensure that his high-profile clients get what they want. Recall, if you will, the Anthony Davis saga: a monthslong drama that included Paul “educating” Davis on the financial reasons New Orleans might not be the best environment for him long term; informing the Pelicans that Davis wouldn’t be signing a supermax extension with them and requesting a trade; making it clear that Davis would not extend his contract with the Celtics if they dealt for him; and eventually steering Davis to the Lakers—led by Klutch rainmaker and Paul’s longtime close friend LeBron James—in a league-shaking blockbuster that set the stage for both a championship and $275 million in new money for his top clients.
While Paul got Davis to his preferred destination, though, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to do the same for Simmons. One Western Conference executive that Pompey spoke to claimed that Simmons, who spends most offseasons in Los Angeles and recently bought a $17.5 million mansion in Hidden Hills, “wants to go to three California teams.” (There are, of course, four NBA teams in California; we’ll presume, for the moment, that the Sacramento Kings don’t top Simmons’s wish list.)
It’s difficult, despite the major Klutch connections, to see Simmons landing with the Lakers, who just moved heaven, Earth, and nearly every tradable contract on their books to import Russell Westbrook, and then rounded out the roster with a slew of short-money veterans. Unless Morey wants a second go-round with Westbrook, or Rob Pelinka can turn Talen Horton-Tucker, some salary filler, and second-round picks into something Philly does want, that seems like a nonstarter. The Clippers would at least have an easier time of making the salaries line up; Ivica Zubac, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Marcus Morris, and Eric Bledsoe are all on the books for between $7.5 million and $18.5 million this season. But it’s not clear why a Clips team that went all in on 3-point shooting last season, made the franchise’s first-ever conference finals appearance, might have come within one Kawhi Leonard injury of getting to the Finals, and just doubled down by extending Leonard’s contract even though he might not play this season would opt for a wholesale reboot by exchanging its depth for a player as particular as Simmons … or, for that matter, whether all of the Clippers’ depth would even get Morey to answer his phone.
Golden State presents a more compelling potential trade partner: one without any individual player Morey would likely love to have in exchange for Simmons (well, besides Stephen Curry), but one with a combination of make-weight money (the remaining two years and $65.2 million on Andrew Wiggins’s contract), intriguing young pieces (recent lottery picks James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody), and draft capital (the Warriors own all of their first-round picks save the top-four-protected 2024 first they owe Memphis from the Andre Iguodala deal). Morey’s reported predraft ask for all of those things evidently fell on deaf ears in the Bay, but perhaps a smaller package would prove more palatable to the Dubs, and still deliver Morey more raw materials to theoretically redirect to a third team in a deal that might bring a top-flight player back to Philly.
That scenario, though, would require a third team with an excellent player that for some reason would want the grab bag of youngsters and picks Philly/Golden State would have to offer—tough to see, unless Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal say loudly and publicly that they want out, and the Blazers and Wizards push down the plunger on a subsequent blow-it-up rebuild. You’d also imagine that a home-run swing for Simmons—a defensive and transition-playmaking savant who could be devastating alongside Steph and Draymond Green, but who could also severely complicate the offensive flow for a Warriors team that quietly finished last season just 21st in points scored per possession—is the kind of deal that Bob Myers and Co. would make only if they believe they have a legitimate chance to win the 2022 championship. That, in turn, would likely require getting a good, long look at how Klay Thompson has recovered from serious injuries that have kept him off the court for more than two years, and from which he might not return until Christmas. If Klay doesn’t look like Klay anymore, why would Golden State go all in on Simmons? And if finding out whether he does takes somewhere between four and six months, would all parties involved be willing to kick this can down the road for that long?
Given those complications, then—and the fact that, again, Simmons has four full years remaining on his current contract—you’d imagine that Morey would prefer to open the bidding to non–“three California teams” that might be able to make better offers. There’s an opportunity, perhaps, for the Minnesotas and Clevelands and Indianas of the world to get in the running for the kind of player they’d never land in free agency, if only they’re willing to pony up their best stuff.
There’s the rub, though: Why in the world would those teams make their best offer now, with rosters mostly set and training camp mere weeks away, if they think there’s a chance that they can pluck Simmons for a song in a couple of months if things get really dark and dire—think “Jimmy Butler dropping a pipe bomb in the middle of a Wolves scrimmage and then strutting off to an ESPN interview”—and Philly is left between a rock and a hard place? Hence early rounds of follow-up reporting suggesting that, say, the Kings are “unlikely to part with” either De’Aaron Fox or Tyrese Haliburton in a Simmons deal, or that the Warriors are “not that interested [in Simmons] as long as Draymond Green is on the roster” (an awfully interesting framing, since it doesn’t preclude a deal, but instead raises the unlikely but fascinating specter of an even grander restructuring that would move Draymond, too). And if that’s the case—if Morey doesn’t see a deal available right now that meaningfully improves Philadelphia’s chances of remaining among the East’s elite and a bona fide title contender after moving Simmons—then is the vocalization of what everybody’s been whispering for months really going to push Philly to just take whatever 65-cents-on-the-dollar offer might be on the table?
Maybe it will. Maybe the long-rumored-and-reported “rift” between Simmons and Embiid has finally grown impossible to bridge … though, for what it’s worth, Embiid called bullshit on that on Wednesday morning:
Sources “Trust me bro”!! Stop using my name to push people’s agendas. I love and hate drama. I love playing with Ben. Stats don’t lie. He’s an amazing player and we all didn’t get the job done. It’s on me personally. I hope everyone is back cuz we know we’re good enough to win https://t.co/1kq9VI9byE
— Joel “Troel” Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) September 1, 2021
At least … I think he did?
I haven’t forgotten but 2 years ago, I got booed, people in Philly wanted me to be traded. I even shushed them. Only the real ones didn’t but I just put the work in that offseason to be better cuz I knew I wasn’t playing up to my potential. Philly fans, y’all also gotta be better
— Joel “Troel” Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) September 1, 2021
For clarity, I love the criticism, I love when I’m told I can’t do something. It makes me work harder to prove everyone wrong but not everyone is built like that.
— Joel “Troel” Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) September 1, 2021
Maybe, sooner rather than later, the Sixers brain trust will decide that none of this is worth the hassle anymore—that, rather than hold out for Lillard or Beal, accepting a deal built around, say, CJ McCollum and draft picks, or D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jaden McDaniels, or Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, and picks, or whatever, is more palatable than just letting this drag on interminably. (An additional level of intrigue: Murray and Walker, like several other prospective targets, are Klutch clients.) The just-supermaxed Embiid is ready to win right friggin’ now, after all; give him a point guard who can run the offense, knock down some open shots, and help keep bench units afloat, and the Sixers might well be right back up at the top of the East, swimming with the sharks.
That doesn’t seem like Morey’s style, though. His career’s been all about pursuing star-caliber talent, not moving it in exchange for several sub-star pieces that might appear to be cozier roster fits. He’s also less than a year removed from seeing Harden do everything in his power to get out of Houston … only to see the Rockets still wind up with three unprotected first-round picks, four first-round pick swaps, and a pair of good young players in a deal conducted several weeks into the season. No, Simmons isn’t Harden. But it wouldn’t be surprising for a “longest view in the room” type like Morey to hold fast to the idea that elite talent—and especially elite young talent locked into cost-controlled long-term deals—will still command a significant return if you’re patient enough to see it through.
Barring either a Lillard/Beal-level chess piece moving, then, or Morey finding another Very Good and More Conventional Lead Guard who could dovetail with Embiid and solve Philly’s persistent second-unit problems—could Morey get Fred VanVleet out of Toronto? How about Malcolm Brogdon out of Indiana?—it seems most likely that this whole deal will get worse and louder before it gets better, quieter, and resolved. At least the cards are all on the table, now: Ben Simmons wants to go; the Sixers want him gone. Everyone’s on the same page. Now all that’s left is the hardest part of all: actually turning a new one.