The biggest problem for Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers isn’t that he wants out and seems willing to ruin what’s left of his character to do so. The complication lies in the inescapable, bothersome reality that Simmons isn’t just demanding a trade; he’s running from a situation in which he has been exposed as unworthy of coddling.
What’s the proper trade value for a gifted athlete who technically plays point guard while standing 6-foot-11 but who shrinks from even the basic responsibilities of stardom? Simmons epitomizes the kind of mesmerizing talent who’s only good enough to get the people who believe in him fired. He’s a unicorn for underachievers. It’s hard to find ’em that big, mobile and disappointing.
In recent years, plenty of notable players have acted up and forced messy exits. It’s unfortunate, and there is no denying NBA teams have an embarrassing trend to curb in dealing with mercurial spoiled stars. But movement is inevitable in professional sports, and there’s a bit of fairness with the power structure shifting in a manner that makes the transience a two-way street. There’s always a good, justifiable trade that can be made because talent is scarce. However, Simmons differs greatly from the other marquee names who pushed their way out of town.
Simmons is a poor facsimile of those stars. He’s nothing more than a copycat, a karaoke singer sort of franchise player. He’s too busy playing pretend to show the type of baller he really is. He’s not like Jimmy Butler, who burned to win and be around winners when he pushed Minnesota to trade him. The Timberwolves dealt Butler to Philadelphia, where he learned all about the immaturity of Simmons and the 76ers before he fled to Miami in free agency. Simmons is not like Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis or James Harden, either. The drama of their departures damaged their reputations temporarily, but they left with a vision and a passion to advance their careers by showing how their games could translate. None of them pouted the way Simmons has since the 76ers and the entire basketball world found out he’s so frightened by his free throw shooting limitations that he passed up a dunk attempt in a playoff game.
No doubt, egos spawn trade demands, but for most players, competitiveness fuels the desire to go elsewhere, challenge themselves anew and enhance their chances to win. If Simmons thrived on pressure, if the game meant more to him than status, he would have returned to Philadelphia this season prepared to show off new skills and do his part to lift the 76ers from a great regular season team to a true title contender. Instead, it seems he would rather escape to a rebuilding or stuck-in-place situation than continue the grind with a team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season.
He would rather be free of all-NBA center Joel Embiid than embrace the challenge of altering his game to fit better alongside him. He would rather find a coach with naive giddiness about having him than learn from Doc Rivers, who covered for Simmons all last season until it became absurd to cover for him.
The 76ers tried during the offseason to lower the temperature with Simmons. He has remained steadfast that he’s done in Philadelphia. He agreed to report to the team recently, but his motivation is to make things more uncomfortable. He went through one practice with his cellphone in his pocket. Then, in the next workout, Rivers kicked Simmons out for his unwillingness to participate. The team suspended him for its season opener against New Orleans, a game that it won easily. And now the staring contest continues.
The burden is on Philadelphia, led by Rivers and top executive Daryl Morey, to get out of this predicament as quickly as possible. The 76ers can’t be a great team without Simmons. Then again, they didn’t qualify as great with him. Still, they are competitive and interesting as long as Embiid stays healthy.
Because they consider themselves contenders, they don’t want to trade Simmons for younger, developmental pieces, and they aren’t much interested in a collection of role players. The problem is, Simmons is more of a luxury role player than a franchise star. His résumé suggests he is more than that: three all-star appearances, two all-defensive team nods, one third team all-NBA selection. The big moments tell another story.
He makes almost no impact in the fourth quarter. He’s a non-shooter better suited to operate as a versatile power forward, but he’s obsessed with being labeled a point guard. And in the playoffs, he operates at only about 75 percent of the frustrating star he normally is. While Morey can’t panic and give Simmons away, he also should realize there are smart, underrated packages to pursue that still make the team better and don’t require winning any battles of perception.
Last season, when Morey and Rivers were new, the 76ers made the mistake of patience with Simmons. They should have traded him high. They should have put more into making a Simmons-for-Harden trade package work. But they were fooled by his height and special skills.
It’s understandable. For the past six years, since Simmons graduated high school and went to LSU for one season, many have wanted to be a part of the Ben Simmons experience. We have yet to see someone come out better for it.
Still, he’s 25 and different, hard to duplicate. And teams gets bored and feel the need to sell something new. So a market for Simmons exists, even though his warning label is easy to read.
When presented with a solid offer, Morey would be wise to do what Simmons has long refused to do: shoot. Let it go. Let him go. Get rid of him before that trade partner has a chance to really think about what it’s about to do.