Six weeks ago, a Sixers contingent including Doc Rivers, executives Daryl Morey and Elton Brand, and owner Josh Harris flew to Los Angeles hoping to convince Ben Simmons to return to Philadelphia for training camp, or at least gain clarity on why he wants out. But sources with knowledge of the meeting say Simmons, who was accompanied by his agent, Rich Paul, gave no clear reason for why he demanded to be traded earlier in the offseason. Simmons does indeed feel slighted by comments made by Rivers and Joel Embiid following Philadelphia’s playoff series loss to the Hawks, sources said. But his decision wasn’t based on that, or the backlash from Philly fans, or the fact that the Sixers tried to trade him for James Harden. The Sixers brass left the meeting feeling Simmons had essentially said, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
League sources say the primary motivation for Klutch Sports’ aggressive holdout is to steer him to a team built around him on offense. No matter the roster makeup in Philly, he will only ever be no. 2 as long as Embiid is healthy.
But Simmons didn’t make that clear during the meeting. At one point, Rivers asked if the problem was his offensive role. Simmons simply responded “no.”
Rivers shared how he planned to use Simmons this upcoming season anyway: Embiid and Simmons would stagger minutes more often, and when Embiid came off the floor, Simmons would play the 5, sharing the frontcourt with Tobias Harris and new addition Georges Niang. Rivers said he wanted to put Simmons in more situations that resemble Giannis Antetokounmpo’s role in Milwaukee, with four shooters surrounding him, empowering him to be a primary scoring option with the second unit. Rivers and Morey, according to sources, said that Simmons and Embiid are the best defensive duo in basketball, and with some slight tweaks, they could be even more productive on the offensive end. Simmons wasn’t enthused.
Last season, Simmons played only 11 percent of his minutes without a traditional center on the court. But he played one-third of his total minutes without Embiid. Under Philly’s proposed plan, he could use all that time when Embiid sits to play a Giannis-like role in lineups that feature versatility in the frontcourt and guards like Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey. There have been flashes of what Simmons can do in that role, like last season’s 42-point, 12-assist game against the Jazz when Embiid was absent. But sharing the court with Embiid for the majority of his minutes, including at the end of games, would lead to more moments when Simmons is standing around doing nothing.
This weekend, Simmons liked an Instagram post quoting Gilbert Arenas, who said on his podcast that the 76ers should’ve been “Greek-the-Freaking this dude.” On Tuesday, The Athletic reported Simmons doesn’t believe his style is conducive to playing with Embiid. The Sixers and Simmons want some of the same things, but Simmons wants to be the man.
The question is whether a team built around Simmons would be any good. Though Simmons is tall, fast, and powerful like Giannis, he doesn’t score like him. Giannis is one of the most dominant interior scorers in league history. Last season, Antetokounmpo shot 63.5 percent on drives to the rim, according to Second Spectrum. Simmons shot only 53.4 percent on drives, and in lineups without a center, he shot only 46.4 percent.
Believers in Simmons see it differently. Sure, Simmons can’t finish like Giannis, but he’s a better passer who can already pick apart defenses in the open floor. If Simmons were paired with a pick-and-roll playmaker at the guard position—like Giannis has with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, or Draymond Green has with Steph Curry—it could unlock dimensions of his game as a screener while he handles the ball with four shooters. In a new situation, Klutch would hope plays are designed for him to attack the basket in creative ways. And who knows, maybe he could develop a competent shot.
Not much has changed on offense for Simmons since he was a rookie, but people in his circle remember the highs. In April 2018, the morning after Simmons had a 27/15/13 performance in a win sans Embiid over LeBron James and the Cavs, I texted about the game with someone from Klutch. They responded that he’s “going to be the face of the league in 4-5 years.” Three years later, Simmons hasn’t met those expectations. But their belief in his potential has not wavered. The question is where he could reach that potential. And when.
Things can change fast, but league sources don’t sense that a deal is anywhere close right now. The Sixers still hope Simmons will return to the team so they can experiment with his role, or increase his value and help create more trade possibilities. On media day, Morey compared the Simmons situation to that of Aaron Rodgers, who threatened to leave the Green Bay Packers but ended up returning for one more season. The Sixers hope Simmons will choose to do the same.
Offers for Simmons have thus far included draft picks or young players, not anything a contender like Philadelphia would want. And since nearly half the league is ineligible to be dealt until December 15, teams that might be willing to offer a veteran can’t do that yet. One league source framed it like this: Reasonable offers have been made, but acceptable offers likely won’t come until December or January because players acquired this offseason will become available for trades and more teams will know how they stack up.
It has been widely reported that the Kings, Raptors, Timberwolves, and Warriors have interest in Simmons. Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer also reported that the Spurs have made inquiries. More teams will inevitably make serious efforts to acquire Simmons if they underwhelm to begin the season. Of the known teams with interest, Sacramento could theoretically provide Simmons with the offensive environment he seeks, with a group of dynamic guards and a fast-paced system. Minnesota could flank Simmons with an All-Star big man, though unlike Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns feasts from the perimeter as an elite shooter. But to make a significant offer for Simmons, any team will need to have the right trade pieces and believe in his ability to thrive in a more featured role, all potentially without seeing him play another game.
For now, Philadelphia’s best bet is to wait. The Sixers can bide their time, to see whether Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal demands a trade. Waiting may ultimately get Simmons what he wants, too: The Trail Blazers or Wizards could rebuild their rosters around Simmons. League sources say the Rockets planned on building their system around Simmons before eventually taking Brooklyn’s offer for Harden. Perhaps another team in a retooling phase will look to feature Simmons to find out whether he indeed does have the untapped potential he and those around him think he does.