Inside Ben Simmons' Roller Coaster Return to Philadelphia

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IOctober 13, 2021

FILE - In this June 16, 2021 file photo, Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons wipes his face during the second half of Game 5 in a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks in Philadelphia. Simmons will not report to the 76ers when they open training camp on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Team President Daryl Morey said there’s still hope Simmons will return at some point. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

After a summer staring contest full of media intrigue and closed-door conversations, Sixers All-Star guard Ben Simmons arrived at Wells Fargo Center unannounced on Monday evening, just prior to Philadelphia's tipoff against the Brooklyn Nets, and in time to receive his first preseason COVID-19 test as per NBA healthy and safety protocols. 

It seems the surprise appearance was quite intentional, just the latest choreography Simmons and his team at Klutch Sports have orchestrated this offseason, aiming to position Philadelphia president Daryl Morey and his front office into greater trade conversations around the league. Simmons' agent, Rich Paul, spoke with both Morey and Sixers head coach Doc Rivers on numerous occasions on Monday, but did not inform the team Simmons planned to report later that evening, sources said. 

Simmons naysayers around the NBA have pointed to his arrival coming only after the cost of the 25-year-old's holdout reached roughly $1 million in fines and missed game checks, yet two sources with knowledge of his thinking maintained Simmons was always prepared to forfeit money ahead of training camp, and it consistently loomed as a possibility the All-Star would report to Philadelphia in time for the regular season if he was not yet traded, with an expectation of being able to recoup a portion of his docked payments. That concept, though, seems unlikely due to league rules reviewed by NBA and player's association figures. 

Simmons completed his physical on Tuesday, sources told B/R, and he will begin working out on the court in isolation with Sixers coaches on Wednesday. In accordance with the NBA's health and safety protocols, the All-Star has to work out alone until he has five days of negative COVID-19 tests, and the earliest he could rejoin his teammates in full would be Friday. 

That physical, and Wednesday's first practice session, are just the beginning of several phases the Sixers have planned for reintegrating Simmons into their team environment. The team has individual film and weight training sessions planned. Philadelphia has consulted with various sports psychologists in the previous weeks, and the team believes it has bolstered the resources Simmons has available to improve his game, particularly by hiring a new shooting and skills coach. It would seem likely that Philadelphia will make a concerted effort to clear the air with Simmons and his teammates, particularly Joel Embiid. 

Morey and Rivers met with Simmons on Tuesday at the team's practice facility in Camden, New Jersey. It was the first occasion Simmons himself communicated directly with Philadelphia personnel since the president and coach, along with general manager Elton Brand and managing partner Joshua Harris, met with Simmons and his agent in August at Paul's Los Angeles home, sources said. He has also now resumed responding to phone calls and text messages from Sixers personnel for the first time in well over a month.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

In this most recent sit-down, as was the case during that August gathering, Morey and Rivers once again asked Simmons for his reasoning for seeking a trade elsewhere. While the overwhelming majority of communication between Klutch and Philadelphia this summer has persisted between Paul, Morey and Brand, sources said, Simmons has only directly mentioned a general interest in a new start, sources said. And on Tuesday, Simmons didn't explain why he chose to report this week, either. 

He has only alluded to wanting to grow his game in a different situation, one that has not been clouded by longstanding questions about his relationship with and a perceived on-court fit issue alongside Embiid. It seems Rivers' and Embiid's critical comments about Simmons following the team's Game 7 defeat against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals only further fanned those flames. Some executives polled by B/R characterized Rivers' statement in particular as reprehensible for a coach.

From the initial conversations in Chicago, when Paul found Morey and Brand on separate occasions to first levy Simmons' trade request during the week of the NBA Draft Combine, Klutch figures maintained the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up planned to skip training camp. The Sixers have stood firm that they don't necessarily want to move Simmons and are only open to trading him for one of the few players in a tier above Simmons, such as Damian Lillard, or James Harden before him. The Sixers still believe the dominant defensive pairing between him and Embiid can be the backbone of a 2022 title team. 

For that, dating back to those Combine dialogues, Philadelphia was adamant in its plans to withhold Simmons' pay for not complying with the terms of the five-year, $170-plus million agreement he signed in July 2019. Later, at Paul's home, Rivers even shouted, “It's in your f--king contract” to report and play for Philadelphia, sources told B/R. 

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Mending the dynamic between Rivers and Simmons would appear as crucial a step as any in phasing the All-Star back into Philadelphia. For now, Rivers seems entrenched as the Sixers' bench leader and played an active role in recruiting Georges Niang and Andre Drummond to Philadelphia this summer. But by all accounts, the head coach, a former point guard, has never managed to build a strong rapport with Simmons. Perhaps that's due to the additional demands coaches typically place on their nominal floor generals, or it may simply be a case of two differing personalities in a competitive industry failing to mesh. 

While Philadelphia ownership pursued Rivers for his purported ability to hold star players accountable, he does so in a style far different from that of the nurturing Brett Brown. And team officials throughout Simmons' tenure with the Sixers were already expressing consistent disappointment with the 25-year-old's unwillingness to accept feedback on areas of development. Philadelphia, at one measure, instead hired Simmons' brother as a shooting coach, who proceeded to lead Simmons through pregame, on-floor workouts. But then the All-Star started posting frequent videos on Instagram of them seemingly training at the practice facility late in the evenings, without other Sixers personnel present, which irked several members of the coaching staff, sources told B/R. 

The organization's recent prioritization of Embiid, who finished second in MVP voting last season, has apparently perturbed Simmons' camp as well. It's true Morey has developed a closer connection with Embiid, just as he did with Harden back in their shared Houston days. Morey and the superstar center iMessage frequently and played doubles tennis on numerous occasions this offseason. By all accounts, Simmons has little of a relationship with Morey. Perhaps Sixers management failed in attending to Simmons in a similar manner as Embiid, yet few rival team executives disagree that Philadelphia benefited from shifting focus to building its team around the two-way force last season, with Simmons as the lead member of his supporting cast. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The next question in Simmons' return to Philadelphia this week is whether he will actually return to game action, which remains undetermined as of Wednesday, sources said. Philadelphia officials are merely focused on clearing Simmons through the initial protocols for him to rejoin the team, but his physical showed no signs that Simmons isn't healthy after he had been working out and relaxing in Los Angeles while his teammates began training camp on the opposite coast, according to one source familiar with the matter. 

There's a notion that Simmons returning to live games would help facilitate the trade he and Klutch desire. The NBA's trade market is fluid, and a sour taste from that Game 7 defeat to Atlanta is certainly lingering around the league. But aside from Simmons debuting a newfound three-point shooting prowess, it's hard to see any interested suitor discussing a greater offer based on a small, early-season sample size. 

Opposing teams clearly view Philadelphia as operating from a position of weakness, similar to when the Sixers themselves were part of the eager group hoping to land a disgruntled Kawhi Leonad from the San Antonio Spurs during the 2018 offseason. Why should another front office sacrifice premier draft capital and young talent if they believe the Sixers may ultimately drop their asking price, perhaps in the event Philly struggles to start the year? “We think we can get him without that,” said a rival team strategist.

But Leonard was in the final year of his contract, with widespread rumors of his interest in fleeing for Los Angeles in free agency. Simmons, of course, still has four years remaining on his contract, and Morey's group has messaged they will remain strong in their asking price, which has always been an All-Star-caliber player who can either equal Simmons' contribution to a championship team or surpass it. It seems both the Sixers and Klutch figures are hoping for another team to stumble out the regular-season gate, readjust its evaluation of Simmons and in turn start a new bidding war.

Philadelphia's loftier sights remain set on Lillard and Bradley Beal possibly growing dissatisfied in Portland and Washington, respectively, sources said. A far larger pool of players also become trade-eligible on December 15, then incorporating most of the newly-signed players from this past offseason. It seems the chances of any Simmons trade, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, will grow significantly larger in late December than anytime soon, barring any change in a rival team's circumstances.  

Sixers brass have kept ownership appraised on active trade interest in Simmons dating back to the predraft process, when all sides involved in this saga, sources told B/R, believed a deal had its highest likelihood of completion. But it was only Russell Westbrook who sought out of town, not Lillard or Beal, prior to draft night. And as the Raptors and Warriors found as well, there were limited options for any team to find clear upgrades in talent. Simmons appeared then—and still does now—to be the best player truly on the trade market.

Once Philadelphia could not land a draft-week swap to acquire Kyle Lowry, for example, it became highly unlikely the veteran point guard would choose the Sixers in free agency, being that he could have only joined Philadelphia by way of a sign-and-trade for Simmons, and Lowry had an interest in being the ball-handling connective tissue between Simmons and Embiid, sources said. 

Philadelphia's most recent list of interested front offices, to varying degrees, still stands at nine known teams, sources said. In alphabetical order: Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Indiana, Minnesota, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Toronto have all remained engaged with Philadelphia. 

There is a 10th “mystery” franchise that has held substantial trade conversations with Philadelphia of late, sources told B/R, yet it remains unclear, even to members of Klutch Sports, who this purported additional suitor is. No team, however, has come near Morey and the Sixers' firm asking price for Simmons, with simultaneous goals to further their championship contention around Embiid and remain in play to some day acquire a potentially available superstar—either from Portland or Washington, or some other unexpected franchise that will eventually arise.

If it takes five steps for two teams to complete a trade, it's been described to B/R that no conversation with Philadelphia has truly advanced past step one. Few talks actually generated formal offers, and Philadelphia has informed most teams their best path to acquiring Simmons is in a three-team structure, sources said. The Cavaliers and Timberwolves, for example, have largely made pick-heavy overtures that Philadelphia has urged Cleveland and Minnesota to bring to teams with specific All-Star-caliber players the Sixers actually covet. 

Minnesota's active interest in Simmons has not waned since former president Gersson Rosas was terminated, sources said, but new lead executive Sachin Gupta has not been categorized as aggressively as his predecessor was in the Wolves' ongoing Simmons efforts. It's believed the Pistons would entertain moving Jerami Grant to acquire Simmons, yet it's hard to see the former Sam Hinkie draft pick definitively improving Philadelphia's title odds. The Sixers front office doesn't appear to be moved by the prospect of landing Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV from San Antonio, either, and the Kings won't yet discuss any framework that includes either De'Aaron Fox or Tyrese Haliburton, sources said. 

Unless a better option emerges, the Sixers have not wavered in their stance. Philadelphia wants Ben Simmons in its starting lineup. Now that he's reported to the team's facilities, we're left to wait for the next dizzying spin of this wheel. 


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.