No matter how much the 76ers tried to downplay Ben Simmons’ return, Tobias Harris’ facetious response might have said it all.
The team said Simmons was a full participant in Sunday’s practice. It marked his first team activity since the Sixers lost to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on June 20.
Due to COVID-19 protocol and the Sixers’ schedule, Sunday marked his first practice. Simmons didn’t address the media. He’s scheduled to do so either Monday or Tuesday. So that left it up to coach Doc Rivers and his teammates to talk about Simmons’ first day of being integrated back with the team.
Harris was asked if the vibe at practice was awkward.
The power forward smiled and flippantly said, “No .... It was perfectly fine. Come on.”
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But it was a question Harris had to know was coming. Simmons had, at best, very little communication with his teammates since last season. He also demanded to be traded, refused to show up at training camp, and declined to meet with teammates last month in Los Angeles. Sources close to Simmons had also said his tenure with the Sixers and pairing with Joel Embiid had “run its course.”
Harris knew that.
“We got an opening to our season coming up,” Harris said. “Truth be told, that’s honestly where our focus is. We’re grown men here. This is not middle school, seventh-grade, eighth-grade, ‘Oh, you did this to me. You did this! Nah!’”
Harris wanted to stress it’s just about basketball when the Sixers step on the court. To him, they practice to be the best team they can be and to improve as a group.
“So all the energy and this and that, the vibe was what it was,” he said. “Was it perfect? No. But we’re here to do a job and that’s win basketball games, so put our big-boy pants on the floor. We get on the floor and do what we do.”
Simmons ended his holdout on Oct. 11 by showing up at the Wells Fargo Center to take a mandatory COVID-19 test. He cleared COVID-19 protocol on Friday, but did not attend that night’s game in Detroit against the Pistons.
Harris said Simmons looked great and in good shape in addition to doing well in the drills he participated in. Rivers, however, said he doesn’t know if Simmons will be ready to play in Wednesday’s season-opener on the road vs. the New Orleans Pelicans.
“I’m going to wait and see,” the coach said. “Conditioning, I would say, just watching him, I thought he was in decent shape. Still not obviously game shape ...”
Rivers said he hasn’t thought about whether Simmons’ first game will be on the road or at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers will host the Brooklyn Nets on Friday and then have a two-game road trip against the Oklahoma City Thunder (Oct. 24) and in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks (Oct. 26). A four-game homestand will follow before playing eight of their next 11 games on the road.
Simmons has fallen out of favor with Sixers fans and is expected to be heckled by the home crowd, assuming he plays.
“Right now, I’m just trying to get him back comfortable and integrated,” Rivers said. “I’m not even thinking about [where his first game will be played]. That’ll come at some point. But there’s no game plan there. I can tell you that when he’s ready, he’ll play.”
Sources have said in the past, even if he returned to the team, he wouldn’t play in a game. It’s sounds like the Sixers don’t intend to rush Simmons, if he plays at all.
The Sixers tried to downplay his return on Sunday.
“He just showed up and then we just talked, you know?” Furkan Korkmaz said. “’Hey, how are you? What’s up? Welcome back.’ It was not like something special, which we were expecting from him or which he expects us to saying something. It was just, ‘Hey, how are you? What’s up?’ All professionals, you know?”
Harris spoke to Simmons one-on-one, but declined to disclose what was discussed. The power forward said he didn’t ask Simmons why he came back.
“That’s not the starter, ‘Hey bro. Hey Ben, why did you come back?’ " Harris said. “No, I didn’t ask him that in our conversation. As being a teammate, I’m not telling you the answer, all right? That’s that.”
Kurkmaz was elated to have his teammate back, whom he missed. Matisse Thybulle sort of evaded a question about practice being awkward due to Simmons’ arrival.
“Honestly, not really,” said Thybulle, who had been sidelined with right shoulder soreness. “This is the first day I’ve been able to fully participate in practice, so today was exciting for me.”
He hadn’t had a chance to play live basketball in over a week. Thybulle was a partial participant during Thursday’s practice and missed the final three preseason games.
“I live in my world of my reality, of it was my first practice back,” Thybulle said, “so that’s all I was really worried about.”
Harris (right knee soreness) missed the last couple of days of practice and three of the four preseason games. Shake Milton (sprained right ankle) remains sidelined. Rivers said he’ll be out for a while.
The Sixers were cautious with Harris at practice. They kept him off the floor for much of the half-court pickup. Rivers said Harris is fine. The Sixers just want to keep him healthy for Wednesday’s season-opener.
According to Rivers, Simmons didn’t address the team about his absence.
“No, we just introduced like we always do when a new guy comes back or an old guy comes back,” Rivers said. “We jokingly did it with Ben. We did it with Tobias, as well, because he’s been on vacation and Matisse, as well.
“But I told you before, the players pretty much welcome guys back. That’s how it is.”