October 13, 2021
Getting Ben Simmons back to Philadelphia was a win for the Sixers' organization, but the work is not over yet. There is still a bit of distance between No. 25 and the team thanks to COVID-related protocols — for the time being, Simmons can only go through individual workouts as he checks off the prerequisites to rejoin his teammates.
After his surprise appearance and COVID test on Monday evening, Simmons went through a series of important steps Tuesday, meeting with team officials and going through physicals on an off day for the team. Doc Rivers, whose relationship with Simmons has been distant during the offseason, said Wednesday that he was encouraged by what had transpired so far this week.
"We met yesterday several times," Rivers said."He did all of the stuff, the physicals, and testing and everything else he needed to do. He'll come back this evening and work out with the guys, individual workouts until he clears protocol and we'll go from there."
The question on everyone's minds, naturally, is whether all of this amounts to a return to the floor for Simmons. At several points during the offseason, reports have suggested Simmons will never play another game for the franchise, though claims out of his camp have looked more toothless over time, as financial penalties have rolled in and the reality of a holdout has set in. In any case, being here doesn't necessarily mean playing here.
Rivers said several times over that he won't pretend to be a mind-reader, and that he wouldn't share details of the private meetings between Simmons and team brass. What he's going off of is Simmons' choice to be here at all, which Rivers says is the biggest indicator they could get.
"I'm assuming he's going to play, but who knows, right? I can't get in anyone's head," Rivers said. "[Our conversation] was great, it was good, but we'll see. I'm not going to get into 'he said' or whatever, we'll all find that out. It's just like when you ask me about lineups. You'll figure it out, you really will."
"You only know what he did. And so the fact that he was here, and he showed up, and he conversated, all I know is his action was that he showed up and he was here. I'm going to let you guys get into what he was thinking and what he was doing. I don't do that."
The "you just wait and see" approach is understandable for an organization that is in the process of trying to mend this relationship and push this circus into the background before they start the season on October 20th. It might be naive to think they can make this a non-story, given the noise created between late June and now, but it doesn't benefit Rivers or other members of the organization to plant flags or overcommit in public with so much uncertainty in this situation.
It's fair to question, however, how all of this impacts Philadelphia's ability to prepare as a basketball team. Preseason or not, the Sixers have been able to commit to a clear Embiid-and-shooters approach without Simmons in the lineup, spreading it out around the big guy and bombing away if he gets doubled. There is a stylistic tug-of-war balancing Embiid and Simmons' strengths on offense when they share the floor together that they've not had to think about over the last few weeks. And with so much unknown a week away from their season opener, you'd imagine there's a bit of strain on players and coaches.
But they don't appear to see it that way. The message has been consistent from all players and staffers — the system stays the same regardless of who is or isn't available, and their focus is on the guys who are here, no more and no less. As Embiid noted after Monday's win over Brooklyn, the only requirement for any player, Simmons included, is buy-in. And they're not expecting Simmons to come back and grovel.
"We just want everybody to come here, show up and do their part, do their jobs," Danny Green said Wednesday. "I'm not asking him to do anything different than he normally does, just show up to work and do what you normally do. Because [when he does] what he normally does, we're very effective, we're very good at it, we're [the] No. 1 team in the East."
"We're not asking him to shoot jump shots. Just come in, be a pro and do your job, and that's what we expect of him. If he apologizes, cool, but you guys work with people every day, you don't expect an apology from people not showing up because of family issues or sickness or whatever it may be. Come in and do your job."
The earliest opportunity for Simmons to do his job will come Friday, when (assuming all testing is clean) he'll be able to rejoin his teammates in earnest rather than working out in semi-isolation. Philadelphia has their preseason finale in Detroit that night, so in theory, Simmons could go almost directly from exodus back into the lineup, dependent on what they see this week.
Rivers could not confirm whether Simmons would even make the trip to Detroit, much less play in the game after showing up this late to the preseason. But in spite of all the speculation about his motives, his well-being, and his interest in being here at all, his teammates view most of that as out of their hands. In their view, the game will speak to them.
"I know his reasoning and what he wants to happen, and I'll be able to see when he steps on the floor where his head's at," Seth Curry said Wednesday. "I don't feel like he needs to explain anything to me. He's a grown man and he can do whatever he wants. Just when you step on that floor, the goal should be to win. So we'll see what happens."
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