Training camp starts Tuesday, but Philadelphia’s starting point guard won’t be there. When the top-seeded 76ers underachieved in the second round of the playoffs last season, the blame shifted entirely to Simmons, who, despite being a franchise cornerstone, refused to take shots in the fourth quarter, including passing up a dunk late in the Game 7 loss. Since the series had taken so much out of Coach Doc Rivers, he forgot his lines as Simmons’s hype man and accidentally told the truth when asked if the three-time all-star could run point on a championship team: “I don’t know the answer to that.”
That fact, coupled with teammate Joel Embiid’s pointed comments, created a rift, and last month the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey broke the news that Simmons wants out. He still has four years and $147 million remaining on the max contract he signed a year ago. But legally binding agreements be damned when bruised egos clash with unmerited power.
So where does an overrated, fragile “superstar” averse to shooting go when he’s disgruntled? Anywhere he pleases in the NBA.
This is the era of player empowerment, when the league’s best call the shots and rearrange the rosters. This particular chapter in NBA history began in 2010, when LeBron James and his super friends teamed up in Miami. Over the next decade, their influence branched out to other superstars — as well as to the wannabes who finessed general managers into paying them as though they’re superstars — and together they have created the strongest players union in American sports, capable of shutting down the professional leagues for a day and even influencing a presidential election.
They are mighty. They are elite. Even before they hit free agency, they can alter the league’s landscape by playing GM and forming Voltron teams. They are known by their first names all over the globe. They deserve the power. But as the word “superstar” gets tossed around freely, they’ve allowed too many impostors into their exclusive fraternity.
The newcomers may have the max contracts but not the mind-set, the self-regard but not the résumés, and they’re diminishing the legitimacy of a superstar’s influence.
A true superstar can hold an organization hostage just by throwing a tantrum — as Jimmy Butler did in 2018, when he showed up to a Minnesota Timberwolves practice one day and laid waste to everything and everyone in sight in an effort to force a trade. Then last season, James Harden revealed what power looks like in the NBA when he, to get out of town, arrived at Houston Rockets training camp out of shape and put in the effort of a player in the last pickup game of the day.
At least Butler and Harden wield the credentials. They don’t have rings, but both have reached the Finals, and their status as franchise leaders makes them superstar caliber. Now, following their lead, comes a new kind of superstar. He has more sponsorships than conference final appearances. When he goes on date nights, TMZ follows. His talent is unquestioned, and his paycheck proves it, but to him, basketball ranks second to being a famous basketball player.
Through his resting face of apathy, Simmons plays with the emotional depth of a Drake song. His game looks good on paper — a 6-foot-11 guard capable of defending anyone on the court and gobbling up triple-doubles — but beyond those pretty stats, you’ll notice the vacancy of learned skills.
He lacks a jumper. And free throw shooting. And the desire to expand his game beyond the painted area. And thick enough skin to listen to the truth without dismissing it as hating. Other than that, sure, Simmons is an NBA superstar.
He can force his way out of Philadelphia because he has career earnings of more than $56 million that can tide him over as the training camp fines pile up. He also has the biggest, baddest dude on the block, agent Rich Paul, orchestrating this messy exit. If his holdout works and Simmons gets everything he wants, this power play will set an awful precedent for the next generation of overpaid, entitled players.
Just don’t show up to work, and your contract will still be honored. Or if you’re unhappy at your job because someone hurt your feelings, “Better Call Paul.”
Like the superstars before him, Simmons wants to show everyone who’s in charge. All he’s proving is that you don’t have to sit in the corner office to be a crappy boss.