It took less than one minute for Ben Simmons’ unexcused absence from the 76ers to become the focus of the team’s media day. More specifically, it took less than one minute for coach Doc Rivers’ public management of the saga to become the focus.
Rivers’ tone was mostly open but sometimes testy while getting peppered with questions Monday at the team’s practice facility about the soured relationship between the three-time All-Star point guard and the organization. Yet the veteran coach understands this is now the reality facing his team, as long as Simmons remains a Sixer and still holds himself out of practice and other official activities as part of his trade demand.
“Unfortunately, for us, this is the journey we have to go on,” Rivers said. " … This is going to be a topic of discussion [in] probably every new city we go into. Someone’s going to want to bring up some version of Ben. I think our guys are ready for it.”
The Sixers needed to be ready Monday. Nearly every player who took the podium to discuss a 2021-22 season filled with intrigue was asked about Simmons. But Rivers — with president of basketball operations Daryl Morey seated next to him — was up first to address reporters.
When asked again about his comments following Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals regarding Simmons’ ability to be the point guard of a championship team, Rivers reiterated his intent was to squash answering any questions about his player after an emotional season-ending loss.
When the reporter interrupted to ask a follow-up question, Rivers challenged with, “I’m going to finish. I’m in charge here. I’m going to finish.” When Rivers continued by asking (perhaps rhetorically), “All year, who defended Ben more?” and the reporter replied with, “To a fault,” Rivers countered with, “Well, in your opinion, not mine.”
“I still think the world of him as a player,” Rivers said of Simmons. “Just because he doesn’t do certain things that you want him to do doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. He made the All-Star team. He almost won the Defensive Player of the Year award.
“To me, sometimes I wish, instead of just going with what you want, listen to my intent [with regard to quotes].”
The initial pushback on the interpretation of those postgame comments occurred during an interview on ESPN last week. At the time, Rivers was on a national media tour to promote a podcast series he is narrating. But Rivers expected the interviewers would swiftly turn the conversation to Simmons.
“I started laughing [when I learned about the interviews],” Rivers said, “and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? They’re going to ask one question, and then they’re going to get to Ben.’ That’s just how it has to be, but we have to embrace that and deal with that. We have to be willing to go through that.”
How the Sixers internally handle the Simmons drama will be more important to their success.
Rivers said the subject was addressed in a pre-training camp team meeting, which was the Sixers’ first formal gathering since they broke for the offseason. But the coach acknowledges it is difficult to guide players who might hear their name in trade rumors connected to the Simmons situation.
“I played in the era where, hell, we didn’t know it until literally when the GM called you in the office,” Rivers said. “You think you’re getting a raise, and they trade you. You didn’t know any information. … Players hearing their names, that’s not easy for them. But our job is to try to reassure them the best we can. But that’s part of the league now. That’s the tough part.”
Naturally, Rivers’ nearly 30-minute joint session with Morey also ended with a Simmons query.
A reporter asked the coach about Simmons’ perceived unwillingness to shoot, wondering aloud if that was evidence that Simmons is “soft.” Rivers acknowledged Simmons needs to improve his free-throw percentage, but praised his ability to create three-point opportunities for teammates and push the offensive pace. Rivers also cited Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman as defensive dynamos who became Hall of Famers without being high-volume or particularly efficient outside shooters.
“I never heard of the word ‘soft’ [used to describe] the guy that was second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year, personally,” Rivers said. “... There’s guys out there who are winners that don’t necessarily shoot the ball.”
And then, Rivers left the podium. The Simmons questions subsided. That is, until Tuesday.