Ben Simmons does not play or work for the 76ers first and foremost. Not really. This is the mistake that people are making, the false presumption they are leaping to, when reacting to the recent revelations that Simmons told the Sixers that he wants to be traded, that he has no more time for Daryl Morey or Doc Rivers, and that he’s willing to hold out of training camp to force the franchise’s hand.
No, Simmons is a member of the starting five for Klutch Sports, and his true coach/general manager is Rich Paul, the most powerful agent in the sport, LeBron James’ best friend. And once you acknowledge this truth, you begin to understand not only why Simmons would make what seems so craven a demand, but how he can put his head on the pillow at night afterward.
Ben’s boss is Paul. Ben’s boss is Klutch. That’s the reality. That dynamic is the inverse of what the relationships between pro athletes and agents and between pro athletes and franchises are thought to be. The player works for the franchise, and the agent works for the player, right? Not anymore. That Simmons, by signing a five-year, $177 million contract in June 2019, was committed to staying with the Sixers for the duration of that deal is an antiquated notion in Adam Silver’s NBA, in a league that more and more mirrors the framework outlined in Ned Beatty’s famous speech in Network: There are no Sixers. There are no Celtics. There are no Lakers. There is only one vast, holistic system of agents and players and the dominion of their dollars.
In June, The New Yorker published a revealing profile of Paul, by Isaac Chotiner, that delved into his influence around the NBA. Nearly three months later, the piece provides an insight into why Simmons, even after his humiliating postseason performance, would think he could pull off this power play. “As Paul knows,” Chotiner wrote, “nothing quite trumps money. Players have short careers, and very few will remain sentimental about the charms of a small-market existence, particularly if their team is a loser.”
In Simmons’ case, it doesn’t matter that Philadelphia isn’t a small market or that, by going full ’fraidy-cat against the Atlanta Hawks, he, as much as anyone, contributed to the Sixers’ seven-game, second-round loss. Once Rivers and Joel Embiid copped publicly to their doubts about him, Simmons was as good as gone — and without a second thought. Loyalty is one of the qualities that a fan base as parochial and provincial as this one prizes most, but Simmons has never betrayed any sense of it to Philadelphia or the Sixers. He was never aspiring to become the next Julius Erving or Allen Iverson, to spend a decade building bonds with one franchise, one community.
Chotiner asked Paul during their interview what he would tell a fan who believes that an athlete who signs a contract has an obligation to his team to play out that contract. “That would normally be a casual fan,” Paul told him, “and the casual fan doesn’t understand the layers that come with it.”
One of those layers is that Simmons is 25, grew up abroad, and is a member of a generation whose members don’t mind changing jobs or job locations every couple of years. He lived in Philly for a little while, and he’ll probably be happy to check out Brooklyn or L.A. or Miami as he bops along in his career. Those second-guesses from Rivers and Embiid were the functional equivalent of a snippy comment from a coworker on a Slack channel, and Simmons felt no obligation to stay and take the criticism.
Now, he won’t have to anymore. Simmons can make good on his threat to be a no-show at training camp, secure in the knowledge that he’ll get his way soon enough. “Player empowerment is a catch-all for the fact that the league has done a terrible job of empowering teams,” one NBA general manager told Chotiner. “The players have all the leverage in every situation.” The same principle applies to Simmons’ attempt to leave and the Sixers’ attempts to trade him.
No, Simmons isn’t a championship-caliber point guard, isn’t on par with those superstars who have changed teams frequently or manipulated their way out of and on to particular places: Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, James Harden. But for his and Paul’s purposes, that’s an arbitrary and irrelevant standard here. Simmons has plenty of leverage; Morey can be only so patient in waiting for the best offer. The Sixers can’t just subtract Simmons from their lineup and expect to improve. They are worse without him or whatever collection of players and draft picks they would get for him, and it won’t take long for fans — and maybe ownership — to grow antsy if a team that is supposed to be a contender limps along just a few games above .500, or worse.
Paul is counting on that tide turning in his and Simmons’ favor. “He is absolutely unrelenting in getting his players what they want,” an NBA GM told Chotiner, “and he will use every means available to him to do that.”
For Simmons, there’s no shame in appearing to be selfish or clueless about his shortcomings. Forget his fears of having the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter, of stepping to the foul line with every eye in the arena on him. The true cowardice to Klutch Sports and Simmons would be in shirking the chance to use their clout to their advantage. In the modern NBA, it would be a bigger sign of Ben Simmons’ weakness if he didn’t try to dictate terms to the Sixers. Welcome to the world of Rich Paul. Welcome to the world that the NBA allowed him to make.