Early Thursday afternoon came one of those ominous dispatches that often serves as a prelude to months worth of drama. Obliquely worded, lacking in all but the most general of context, the tweet from NBA reporting godfather Adrian Wojnarowski noted that the Sixers were in the process of huddling with Ben Simmons’ agent at the NBA’s pre-draft workouts in Chicago. The report was notable less for what it said than for the fact that it was said at all. It wasn’t the news that mattered. It was the framing.
“No trade request was made,” Wojnarowski reported, “but talks will continue.”
For the previous 72 hours, the fallout from Simmons’ lackluster performance in a playoff loss to the Hawks had credited the Sixers with a considerable degree of agency in determining the future of their relationship with their All-Star point guard. Did Doc Rivers still believe in his player? Was Daryl Morey as committed to Simmons now as he suggested he was in January, when he used the most definitive of terms to shoot down the idea of a trade, labeling the soon-to-be 25-year-old “an important part” of the Sixers future? Were the Sixers confident that Simmons could rehabilitate his confidence and turn himself into a legitimate half-court scorer?
The Sixers did their best to tie a bow on the story and shift the public focus toward a more holistic place. Each concrete tidbit of information that they released served to build a narrative of a player who has another offseason of growth in front of him, and a team who is determined to help him realize his potential. Rivers said he was encouraged by his end-of-season meeting with Simmons. He said that he still believed in his player, that the current adversity is nothing that hard work cannot overcome. Morey tried his best to avoid talking about specifics, instead positioning himself as an executive who believes his current roster is a lot closer to complete than many pundits have suggested in the wake of the loss to the Hawks. The current offseason would not be much different from any other. The Sixers would evaluate themselves and look for opportunities to improve, but they would not operate as if the circumstances demanded significant change.
Missing from all of this was any acknowledgment of the state of play in the NBA’s great offseason game. Aside from a couple of postgame questioners who asked Simmons whether he wanted to remain in Philadelphia, the conversation has paid very little heed to the player’s perception of his fit in the Sixers’ long-term plans. There is a good reason for this, the traditionalists will argue. Simmons’ opinion does not matter. In fact, it is patently absurd to think that Morey’s decision-making process will incorporate any input from a player who should be tickled that his employer cannot revoke the $140 million it is contractually obligated to pay him over the next four years. If the Sixers do not trade him this offseason, Simmons should enter training camp on his hands and knees singing songs of grace and thanksgiving. He should be gone. He does not get to want to be gone.
What the traditionalists ignore is that NBA power politics are what they are in the NBA and not what they are in the spaces where us work-a-day stooges earn our daily bread. At the very least, the report of a pow wow between the Sixers and superagent Rich Paul serves to refocus the debate about Simmons’ future as a two-sided affair. And maybe that’s the only end game -- to exercise some leverage and restore a sense of self-determination to a player whose performance has eroded his once prodigious political capital. If so, it is a move as risky as it is shrewd. If Simmons means what he says when he says he enjoys playing in Philadelphia, if he envisions a world in which that partnership continues, he should know that now is not the time to assert himself. The mere suggestion that he is in a position where he might request a trade is the kind of thing that will alienate whatever supporters he has left. Just ask the last quarterback.
But the game is the game, and the landscape is what it is. Paul surely understands that there are plenty of cities that would gladly accommodate his client’s flaws. Simmons surely knows that there are rosters that would better accommodate his strengths than one that features a ball-dominant back-to-the-basket center and a high usage power forward. Morey, Rivers, Paul, Simmons -- they all know that the city of Philadelphia is in the midst of an overcorrection. That Simmons still has value. That his value gives him leverage.
More than anything, Paul surely knows that the worst possible outcome for the Sixers is for Simmons to demand a trade. Morey surely knows this, too. It was only six months ago that he was one of the opportunists circling around Houston as the Rockets tried to negotiate a winning deal with teams that knew a deal needed to be made. It’s bad enough that the Sixers are in a position where it might make sense to trade Simmons. It could be disastrous if they are in a position where they have no other choice. Keeping him around regardless is the kind of thing that can capsize a season. Kawhi Leonard. Anthony Davis. There’s a reason these deals get made.
The Sixers can’t allow Simmons to dictate how they proceed. But the rest of us can’t ignore the fact that players always have their say. The Sixers can assume a public posture of a team with resources and options. But Simmons is the straw that will stir the offseason drink. You just have to hope the cocktail is not as combustible as it seems.