Over an answer Thursday that stretched to more than four minutes and close to 600 words, Joel Embiid tickled the tender spot of every 76ers fan who wanted someone on the team, anyone on the team, to blast Ben Simmons. The Sixers had built their team around Simmons since his arrival, Embiid told reporters at the team’s practice facility in Camden, and it was “borderline disrespectful to all the guys out here fighting for their lives” and their careers that Simmons, after shriveling up in the postseason, would demand a trade and follow through on his threat to hold out until the organization accommodated him. What Embiid said was open. It was honest. And most of it was meaningless.
Embiid’s remarks were spoken-word cotton candy, a beautiful and delicious swirl that provides only short-lived satisfaction. Once it dissolves, what else do you have? Once you get past the sugar rush and empty calories of Embiid’s monologue, the true substance of the speech had less to do with Simmons and his petulance than it did with the Sixers’ future.
“Obviously, we’re a better team with him,” Embiid said. “We’re not a better team without him — that’s for sure. We’re a better team with him.”
Those were among the most accurate sentences that Embiid uttered, maybe the most accurate. They were certainly the most important for a franchise that, since starting Sam Hinkie’s process in 2013, still hasn’t pushed past even the second round of the playoffs, and they should have been a wakeup call for a fan base that passed its threshold for patience long ago.
Feel free to get bogged down in the Gossip Girl-style drama of whether Embiid and Simmons genuinely like each other, regard each other more as professional rivals, or have reached so toxic a level in their relationship that they might unfollow each other on Instagram. Go ahead and mock Simmons for his shifting reasons and excuses for why he wants out of Philadelphia: It’s the fans. It’s Doc Rivers and his comments after that Game 7 loss to Atlanta. It’s Simmons’ belief that he won’t be at his best playing alongside Embiid. Those matters are immaterial to the problem that the Sixers will be hard-pressed to solve.
Nothing that Embiid said changes Daryl Morey’s mission here. The Sixers still have to trade Simmons — already a difficult task, given his pouting and his fear of the free-throw line — and in retrospect, Morey committed maybe the biggest mistake in this entire mess by failing to follow through on the Simmons-for-James Harden deal he sought back in January. For Simmons, Morey’s overtures to the Rockets were the functional equivalent of the Eagles’ decision to use a second-round draft pick on Jalen Hurts. Simmons was Carson Wentz, offended that the franchise, after allocating so much money and so many resources toward his happiness, had hedged in its commitment to him.
It’s easy to say that Simmons should have accepted a reality of pro sports — that players, even the highest-paid among them, can get traded — but there’s another side to that argument: Morey should have understood another reality of this business, that certain athletes will react badly to anything other than total fealty to them. Now, by calling Simmons out publicly, Embiid has made Morey’s job harder than Morey already made it himself.
“We still hope he changes his mind,” Embiid said, paying lip service to a plot twist in this soap opera that no one, not even Embiid himself, believes will happen. “But I kind of owe it to these guys to worry about what we have here. That’s the fun of the job. To kind of figure out what’s going to happen – that’s not my job. I’m not the GM. I’m not an owner. So that’s none of my business, honestly.”
Tyrese Maxey is a promising guard whose skills and attitude suggest that he can be a fine player and a fan favorite here. But he’s 20 years old, a spindly 6-foot-2, entering just his second NBA season, and he can’t deliver the All-NBA defense that Simmons — 6-10, capable of playing on the wing or in the post — does. Unless Maxey pulls off the unlikely feat of becoming an All-Star this season and remaining one for years to come, the Sixers won’t have the financial flexibility to improve without trading Simmons, which means they can play chicken with him and Klutch Sports for only so long. As it was, they weren’t meeting people’s expectations with him, so what makes anyone think the results will be different without him?
In a perfect world, the Sixers would stand up to Simmons and let him sit, and they will for a while, sure. He was owed $8.2 million Friday, and the team has instead withheld that sum, putting it an escrow account to fine him for his absence. But the support that they’re enjoying now for such a stance is fleeting, dependent on the date on the calendar. This is early October. The games have not begun yet. The Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets haven’t started pulling away from the Eastern Conference pack. The smoke from Embiid’s fiery words will clear, their effect will fade, and everything will change. Fans don’t spend their time and money on teams that stand on principle and suffer in the standings for it.