After all that—months of dire-straits drama, arrows slung in one breaking news missive or another—Ben Simmons is back with the 76ers. Well, kind of. Maybe. We think.
He’s definitely in Philadelphia, at least. Simmons arrived less than 12 hours after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that weekend talks between Sixers brass and Simmons’s agent, Rich Paul, had made headway “on a resolution” to a summertime standoff that had spilled over into fall. On Monday morning, it sounded like Simmons might be moving toward renouncing his refusal to report to training camp out of frustration that the team hadn’t yet honored his request for a trade. And then, shortly before Philly’s preseason tilt against a Nets team going through its own high-profile “will he/won’t he” turmoil, there Simmons was, outside the Sixers’ facility, prompting surprise texts to general manager Elton Brand that the three-time All-Star “needs to get in [the building] to come take his COVID test” so that he could start the process of returning to the team.
Where Simmons is in that process, though, remains to be seen: According to Woj, “it’s currently unclear whether Simmons’s intentions are to merely report to the team or truly rejoin it.”
Maybe he is simply going the Marshawn Lynch route, trying to protect the rest of his paper after losing more than $1 million in salary and fines during his holdout, and that what comes next will be something more akin to the exit strategy that James Harden authored last season, in which a call for a trade is followed by lackluster effort and spotty engagement that helps spur a reticent front office into action. Maybe he’s about to show a side of himself we’ve never really seen by mimicking the way old pal Jimmy Butler forced an exit from Minnesota: showing up to practice, setting the facility on fire, and forcing Daryl Morey to show just how uncomfortable he’s willing to get before lowering his reportedly astronomical asking price.
Or maybe Simmons and Paul saw the Sixers’ ongoing unwillingness to deal him for a package that wouldn’t get Philly closer to a title than they’d be with him, and decided that perhaps the best path to a trade would be for Simmons to get back on the court and remind people that he’s an All-NBA-caliber player. At this point, his play will have to be awfully loud to communicate that over what figure to be deafening boos and rafters-rattling vulgarities whenever Simmons actually takes the floor at Wells Fargo Center. It’s possible, though. Even if the stains of the postseason loom largest in the league’s collective memory, all those stats about how the Simmons-and–Joel Embiid–era Sixers have been excellent virtually whenever they share the court are real. Philly’s decision-makers and the stars themselves haven’t figured out how to maximize both players’ talents when it matters most. But they might be able to do the old song and dance long enough for something to go wrong somewhere else, and for Morey to find the home-run swing he’s been looking for before February’s trade deadline.
Whatever the impetus for Simmons’s reversal, and for all the noise around Philly’s training camp, the sans-Simmons Sixers have mostly gone about business as usual: a 2-1 preseason record, a top-five offense, Embiid looking excellent in limited minutes, young guards (Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton, Isaiah Joe) all taking turns trying to earn their share of the minutes, touches, and workload that Simmons left behind. They’d be better with Simmons, sure—something Embiid, even when he’s spoken his piece, has made a point of mentioning every time he’s asked. (“I think there’s going to be some adjustments, but it doesn’t need to be awkward,” Embiid told reporters Monday night. “We’re all professionals. We want to win. I want to win. He gives me the best chance to win, so that’s what I’m gonna go with.”) But they haven’t looked half bad without him, either. Maybe that helped influence Monday’s arrival, too.
We’ll learn more about Simmons’s plan of attack and whether it has any impact on the Sixers’ preferred course of action—which, for the past several months, appears to have been to sit tight unless they can trade Simmons for a superstar guard who shoots and makes plays—in the days to come. For now, though, with Simmons waiting to clear COVID protocols and all Sixers parties—from Doc Rivers to Embiid to the rest of the locker room—waiting to welcome him back, it seems reasonable to wonder just what the point of all of this was.
Wojnarowski writes that Simmons “is described”—a passive-voice casting that invites follow-ups about who’s doing the describing here—“as wanting to prove a point” by “delivering an unmistakable message that he wanted a trade out of Philadelphia.” But that’s been crystal clear for months now, most notably since August, when Simmons delivered that unmistakable message directly to the faces of Sixers ownership and management in Los Angeles. To the extent that not showing up underscored how seriously Simmons meant what he said, it doesn’t seem to have actually done anything to push the Sixers closer to giving him the exit he wanted.
Those doing the describing can present Simmons’s two-week delay in reporting as “something that almost never happens in the NBA,” as they do in Woj’s rendering, because it’s true. Take it a half-step further, though, and you see that holdouts almost never happen in the NBA because, y’know, holding out means you don’t get paid.
The timeline of events here makes it seem like Simmons is returning just as soon as it became clear that he “would be unable to recoup the money being deducted from the $8.25 million [of his 2021-22 salary that the Sixers had placed] in escrow.” To the extent that Simmons’s holdout has made a point, then, it seems less like one about an individual player under contract bending an organization to his will, and more like one about the system working as its designers intended.
There’s not much revolution here: just time and money spent, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. A staring contest held for the sake of expressing frustration, ending with a phenomenal player—one with four years and $147 million left on his contract, without much leverage to use, and with some sizable dragons to slay—blinking, and boarding a plane.
Sometimes people make big commitments, and then things happen, and their feelings change, and suddenly they’re not committed anymore. But while personal relationships that reach those points might end in breakups or divorces, professional ones bound by nine-figure, multiyear contracts signed within the context of a collective bargaining agreement can be even trickier to untangle. Simmons has experienced that, now, and it’s brought him back—for how long, who knows, but for now, at least—to the Sixers. Maybe you can go home again. When home is Philly, though, you’re probably going to be in for one hell of a welcome.