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September 20, 2021

Why the Ben Simmons trade saga continues to drag on

Led by Daryl Morey, the Sixers have tried all summer to strike a balance between two extremes: the consistent winning they've done when Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are on the floor and the obvious second-round elephant in the room. Save for the 2019-20 disaster fit season, they have basically been an automatic 50 wins on the floor together and combine for a defensive fit that is as good as it gets, their obvious issues on the other end notwithstanding. The team has made no secret of their desire and attempt to trade Simmons (and more) for James Harden last season, but reject the premise they're simply willing to move him in any old deal.

That has a lot to do with what's available right now. Packages involving young players and picks have been there and were there for most of the offseason. They could likely make such a deal tomorrow if they chose. But looking at all the options on the table, the Sixers prefer Simmons being on the floor and playing for them compared to dealing him for offers that cut into their title odds, sources say. The premise of dealing Simmons for assets and developing talent rests on making another more important move down the road, which people with the team have scoffed at recently.

"There are a few deals you could say, we do this, and we'll gamble that sometime later, we'll take draft picks and turn it back into having [a title] chance," a team source told PhillyVoice. "But why do that?...there's no reason to go get draft picks right now because you could just do it all at once. Why take the risk that you do that and you can't flip back out of it? It makes no sense with Joel in his prime."

There were times this summer, particularly around draft night, where it looked more likely than not that Simmons would get moved for a readymade package prior to the season starting. The potential availability of a Grade A star to acquire on the trade market was a big factor in their motivation to actively work the phones on Simmons. There are many who believed then and continue to insist now that Damian Lillard was about ready to ask out; a source with knowledge of the situation believes Lillard is held back by both his loyalty to Portland and an unwillingness to go back on things he's already said about sticking things out. He ultimately decided to give this another go, and Lillard has been provided roster upgrades and had a big voice in the coaching search. He may still ask out down the road, but only time will tell how long this honeymoon lasts.

Still, there's the obvious retort to the rhetorical questions asked above: Ben Simmons does not want to be in Philadelphia anymore, has communicated that throughout the offseason, and is expected to make that even more obvious than it already is when camp opens next week.

"He has said he wants to go," a source said. "Ben doesn't want to be here...but there's a lot of things we want too." 

The Sixers are expecting at least some sort of absence to open the preseason, sources say, though most are convinced he will eventually show up, citing a lack of precedent for extended holdouts in the NBA. There has been some public debate over whether the Sixers would fine him for such a move in the midst of trying to work through all this, though it seems pretty black-and-white on Philly's end. The CBA lays out potential punishments for skipping team activities, and opting not to penalize in this situation is viewed as a bad precedent to set, especially with the league on the side of a team with a guy under contract for the next four seasons. 

Knowing Simmons doesn't want to be here, there will be pressure to do something to make the situation go away, if not internally certainly in the press and amongst fans. Dealing with a player who has his sights set elsewhere, the Sixers would love to make the kill shot move that brings the missing piece to Philly and grants Simmons his wish. They're also open to moves that don't necessarily move them closer to a title right away so long as their chances to win a championship* remain similar. 

(*The Sixers are well-aware of what they squandered as the No. 1 seed with homecourt in this year's Eastern Conference playoffs. Reflecting on their own second-round loss and citing a number of small moments that helped decide the season's final outcome, a la Kevin Durant stepping on the line in Brooklyn's Game 7 loss to Milwaukee, one source said, "It shows you how much we fucked it up.") 

Any opportunity to make even a lateral move, though, likely has to wait until the offseason afterglow wears off around the league. There isn't a disgruntled star with upside or a final piece type player on the block right now. Things could change quickly, but the Sixers largely believe they're playing a waiting game until a tough start or an injury elsewhere has another team feeling the pressure they're currently under. Will Lillard remain happy? Do Chicago's moves to surround Zach LaVine actually pay off? And those are just two of the most obvious examples.

Power players in the organization are hoping they can absorb the pressure and get through this. There is talk now of trying to come to at least an icy truce, and more earnest efforts are being made by some prominent figures to see if reconciliation is possible. Embiid has publicly defended Simmons recently, and in spite of the frustration shown in his Game 7 postgame interview, the franchise center believes they can mend fences and make things work as an outfit if they can simply get Simmons back in the fold. 

Getting that chance in the first place, though, is probably the hardest part. Rich Paul's biggest clients don't tend to begin forcing their way out of the door only to pivot back to working on their existing marriage.

It almost goes without saying that bridge-building would need to be done between Simmons and Doc Rivers. The head coach tried to walk back the despair he showed after Game 7 during exit interviews the very next day, and his defenses of Simmons far outnumber his one high-profile shoulder shrug. Even still, getting the two to connect during the offseason has been close to impossible, sources say. Ultimately, this is in Simmons' hands. Rivers would tell you himself that he regrets letting his guard down during Simmons' lowest moment as a professional. Some missteps are just harder to come back from than others.

The Sixers don't really have any other choice, but members of the organization have been pretty forthright about the situation. The team is happy with off-the-floor additions they've made this summer, name-checking trainer and Dame Lillard confidant Phil Beckner (hired as a "coaching consultant") as a reputable shooting coach who can help the whole team. It doesn't take a basketball genius to identify the guy on the roster who might benefit most from that hiring. But the team is aware they need Simmons' interest to take advantage of resources like these. Members of the organization who described Simmons' current level of buy-in as "low" were downright flattering compared to the average opinion, with most leaning toward calling connection between player and franchise "non-existent" at present. 

How do you make the best out of a situation in that case? It's not clear if even the Sixers know that at this point. The thornier issues in Simmons' upside case, like assistance or guidance on the mental side of the game, require not just buy-in from the player but a player-driven approach, an "I need help" admission that hasn't been made publicly or privately. Set on punching his ticket elsewhere, any sort of common ground and communal work was not happening and did not happen this offseason. Even when Philadelphia's brain trust met with Simmons or Simmons' representation, there was difficulty in figuring out exactly what Simmons wanted that Philadelphia didn't or couldn't provide here. There are legitimate reasons Simmons might want to move on, but sources say his camp has largely communicated that Simmons wants out without spotlighting issues to fix or things being done wrong.  

Complicating matters further is Philadelphia's place in the league and Eastern Conference hierarchy. All things being equal and players being healthy, the Nets are viewed as the consensus favorite nationally and even by some prominent members in the Sixers' organization, regardless of what they'd tell you on the record. The title-winning Bucks are also rightfully viewed as a team to catch up to, rather than a direct peer. But that's sold as awareness rather than cowardice — the front office is chasing contender status rather than expecting it to fall into their laps with no further work done.

One way that was reflected this offseason was their quest to get younger. Philadelphia's brain trust is cognizant of the fact that they are going to need some unexpectedly big hits in unorthodox places (late picks, undervalued trade targets, etc.) in order to become a contender in the likely event Simmons doesn't hit top-tier upside. Tobias Harris is viewed as a mostly finished product, and if Embiid is going to improve, it's going to be in smaller increments rather than MVP-sized leaps forward from here. That in mind, the back half of the roster is filled with projects and players on the upswing who they believe can either exceed the value of their contracts or ultimately be flipped to a team for the fill-in-the-blank piece(s) they're missing. Drafting a raw, teenaged prospect like Jaden Springer is one example of that philosophy at work, and the team is obviously hoping for another big step from promising guard Tyrese Maxey this year.

Do they have the coach to make such a strategy work? Rivers has a reputation as a coach who favors vets over youth development to his own detriment, though members of the organization push back on that, noting young Rajon Rondo's role on his Celtics teams and his willingness to hand Shai Gilgeous-Alexander reps and responsibility in year one with the Clippers. A former guard himself, confidants note he demands more of guys who play in the backcourt, though ultimately to their benefit.

These young talent hopes will likely be exposed as offseason wishing with little basis in regular-season reality. The Sixers would need 99th percentile level development from one of their young prospects in order to perfectly fill in the blanks between their expensive, idiosyncratic stars. It's not even clear if Simmons returning, playing well, and winning games would be enough to satisfy the public after this last spectacular meltdown. Without a pronounced change in approach, trust issues will be rampant and in many cases justified.

Even amongst people in the organization who would love to wash their hands of the situation and start fresh, there is a small, creeping doubt about what Simmons could become elsewhere. Pro sports are filled with people who think they have the magic solution to turn players and people into their best selves. Everyone from underlings to management-level employees sees stretches of play from Simmons when he is at his best and most motivated — spurts leading up to All-Star selections don't go unnoticed internally, either. It makes some wonder what would happen if/when they move Simmons and he feels compelled to prove he is the guy offseason Instagram highlights show him to be. 

That doubt in Philadelphia manifests as optimism elsewhere. There are Simmons believers out there, impossible as that might have seemed in late June. Armed with that knowledge, the Sixers are sending a clear message to the league to pay up or shut up. That's all well and good, but just like the teams they hope will fall apart elsewhere, basketball games will take precedent over talking on the phone soon enough. 

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