From the moment Ben Simmons passed up an open dunk in Game 7 of the Sixers’ Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Hawks, he all but solidified himself as the player of the offseason—for better or for worse. Trade rumors would revolve around him; Trade Machine screenshots would feature him; TV pundits would discuss him as much as fans of other teams would talk themselves into him.
Sure, the August trade of Russell Westbrook to the Lakers and Damian Lillard’s cryptic comments about his future in Portland have garnered plenty of attention this offseason, but what makes Simmons’s situation different is the long-term baggage it carries. Simmons’s own star teammate and coach basically subtweeted him after the Hawks loss. Reports have described the current relationship between player and team as more than tenuous—and one even said it was “beyond repair.” That same report said Simmons has “cut off” communication between himself and the Sixers. And while team sources have reportedly denied that’s the case, when you consider all that conjecture, a meeting between Simmons’s agent and the team to discuss potential moves, and last week’s announcement of a max extension for Joel Embiid, it seems like the relationship is at its expiration date. So far this summer, Simmons has been linked to the Warriors, Wolves, Blazers, and Spurs in trade talks. And one scout I spoke to said they wouldn’t be surprised if Simmons considers not showing up to training camp if he hasn’t been traded.
Whatever Simmons’s position is on starting over with a new team, and whatever the relationship between the two parties really looks like on the inside, the guard has only grown more indecipherable as a player as his career has progressed. Simmons came into the NBA in 2017 and immediately lived up to his billing as an All-Defensive-level player, even making the All-Star team in just his second season. But as expectations for him and the team shot higher, he plateaued and then regressed offensively.
The entire situation puts Philly (and Simmons) in an awkward position. The Sixers believe that they’re a title contender, and they’re reportedly seeking four future first-round picks and an All-Star-level player for Simmons. The rest of the league, meanwhile, falls somewhere on a spectrum between thinking Simmons can still be a top-25 player and thinking he’s not worth trading for at all.
Simmons’s value, though, is almost secondary to the fact that his unique style (a defense-first player who isn’t a threat to shoot and has a non-traditional impact on both ends) makes finding a fit difficult. Not to mention that the lasting image teams have of him from last season is his passing up the easiest shot on the court. That’s why, even though a trade seems more likely than not, it may be a while before it happens.
“To be honest, there’s really no ideal place for him,” one Eastern Conference scout said.
Star players rarely escape criticism. And whether the criticism is connected to legacies (LeBron’s loss to the Mavs in the 2011 Finals) or numbers (Simmons’s shooting reduction), the length of honeymoons in the NBA closely correlates to the expectations that teams and fans have for players when they’re entering the league.
Simmons was a no. 1 pick, and through his first four seasons he’s battled the typical demands that come with being a top pick, as well as a mysterious inability or refusal to do arguably the most important thing in basketball. He’s become an easy target for criticism—and the alchemy of his situation in Philly certainly hasn’t helped matters.
The Sixers have been on a tumultuous ride for the past near decade—from tanking their way into both Embiid and Simmons, to firing the general manager who pioneered that rebuild, to seeing that GM’s replacement resign after being connected to burner Twitter accounts, to trading away another top pick after he lost his ability to shoot. So it’s somewhat of a marvel that they’ve become a contender at all. But their success has also trained a spotlight on every flaw that’s stopped them from becoming champions. Simmons is not the problem, but it’s hard to argue he’s the solution. An Eastern Conference scout pointed out that while Simmons “hasn’t evolved,” he’s also been moved around the court more than most other Sixers players and until recently has been surrounded by poor roster construction.
To wit: Before the 2019 draft, another Eastern Conference scout thought that a player like Mikal Bridges would be a perfect fit next to Embiid and Simmons. Selfishly, the scout hoped the Sixers wouldn’t draft Bridges, but they did—and then dealt him to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith. Bridges just helped Phoenix get to the Finals; Smith is no longer on the Sixers.
What can be said about Simmons, though, is that his shot has almost always been a topic of conversation. Simmons has attempted 34 3s in his career and has made just five. Nearly 88 percent of his shots through four seasons have come within 10 feet of the basket. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (Giannis Antetokounmpo takes over 65 percent of his shots from that range, too), but for the Sixers, having a non-threat on offense who stands in the corner and doesn’t attack the rim has been crippling in the postseason.
“If he was on a 41-win team, all these things would be OK,” one scout said. “You’re probably not having the same intense conversation if he’s on the Sacramento Kings. But when you make it to the conference semis, the conference finals, those things matter.”
If a team wanted to trade for Simmons and make a case for why he could turn it around in a different ZIP code, it could do so easily. He’s still only 25 years old, and not many players share his defensive instincts. Even on the side of the ball where he struggles the most, he has shown a feel and vision that’s found in only some of the league’s best floor generals. The skill is there; the application and development haven’t been.
Every offseason, though, we restart a familiar cycle. Clips of Simmons working out in L.A. with other All-Stars, playing with confidence and shooting 3s like it’s something he barely thinks about, emerge. A few die-hard fans (fewer each offseason) think, “Maybe this will be the year.” Then the season comes and the same talking points are brought up: Simmons needs to shoot more. He needs to shoot less. He needs to shoot with a different hand. He doesn’t need to shoot to have an impact. And on and on.
Simmons himself doesn’t post these offseason workout videos, but as I wrote in 2018, these clips don’t typically make it onto the internet without player approval or consent. It’s why you’ll rarely, if ever, see a video of a player missing 10 straight shots—the main purpose of these videos is to advertise for the trainer who’s posting them. Think of them as LinkedIn endorsements. Player X is working with Trainer Y on Skill Z. At the end of the day, the most effective ad is a player having a successful offseason or adding a skill. But this is now coming at Simmons’s expense—Sunday’s mini mixtape prompted a slew of new reactions mocking the fact that Simmons was doing this in an empty gym with no defenders. He’s still showing the work, yet fewer and fewer people believe it will translate to improvement during the season. He’s the boy who cried wolf, if crying wolf were shooting a 3.
In the past, the obsession with Simmons’s shooting obscured problems with the Sixers’ roster; in the present, it’s clearly affected Simmons’s confidence. Now the situation in Philly seems almost unsalvageable. Simmons needs a change of scenery more than any player in the league, if only so that he doesn’t keep running on the same hamster wheel that’s brought his career to an unfortunate impasse.
But where can he go? One scout threw out the Spurs as a culture-reset option, and San Antonio shooting coach Chip Engelland could be a potential saving grace. But beyond the fact that San Antonio doesn’t have a win-now player to send back, there’s no point in having Simmons work with a shooting coach if he isn’t willing to shoot. “Can you get him to shoot?” the scout asked. “I actually don’t know.” It seems more and more like no one but Simmons knows the answer to that question.
There are other semi-intriguing fits, like Portland, Golden State, or Sacramento; the latter has the shooting Simmons needs around him and could dangle De’Aaron Fox as a trade piece. But a league source said Fox is content in Sacramento. And having a player who wants to stay may be too valuable for a small-market team like the Kings.
Ultimately, the Simmons question comes down to a team’s belief in its culture and development—two things the Sixers are working to rehabilitate. If he stays in Philly, Daryl Morey and Co. must surely believe they can either fix the situation or boost Simmons’s trade value. If he goes somewhere else, well, we’ll soon either be lauding the front office for the way they revived Simmons’s career, or talking about yet another team that Morey fleeced.