So the 76ers have made it clear now: Their primary mission with respect to Ben Simmons is not to trade him or rehabilitate him or coax him back on the court. Their mission is to break him.
They have begun fining him again, per an ESPN report, docking him $360,000 for missing Thursday night’s victory over the Pistons in Detroit, and they will continue to stash his salary in an escrow account until he lets their doctors in on some of the details of his apparent quest back toward a clean bill of mental health. This is the latest haymaker in a bout that promises to go 15 rounds at least, and this conflict has reached the stage where it’s time to ask a rather pertinent question:
What is the point of all this?
I ask that with total sincerity and seriousness. Ostensibly, the Sixers want to trade Simmons for as valuable a haul as possible. They’ve wanted to trade him for close to a year, even before his succession of Chernobyl moments throughout the team’s two postseason series last spring. Daryl Morey, the team’s president of basketball operations, has said publicly that he expects a “difference-maker” in return for Simmons and is willing to wait as long as four years for such a deal to materialize. Ostensibly, Simmons wants the Sixers to trade him, and soon, so he can resume his career in what he regards as a more comfortable setting. Do the Sixers seem closer to their goal now than they did a week ago? A month ago? Does Simmons?
It’s easy to predict a possible retort from agent Rich Paul and the Simmons camp to this Sixers gambit: Of course Ben hasn’t cooperated with the team doctors – because team doctors always have the team’s best interests in mind, not an individual player’s. Look at Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio and Kevin Durant in Golden State. Then it will be the Sixers’ turn to fire back.
So what is the endgame here? What is each party in this ugly divorce trying to accomplish? Divorce is the appropriate word, the appropriate metaphor, for this situation, because it appears as if each side, rather than finding freedom or achieving closure, would prefer having the other suffer. It’s the NBA version of Marriage Story.
Have you seen that movie? You should. It’s perfectly applicable here. For instance, in the film’s climax, a bitter screaming match so raw and full of fury that it is unsettling to watch, Adam Driver tells Scarlett Johansson, “You want to present yourself as a victim because it’s a good legal strategy. Fine, but you and I both know you chose this life. You wanted it until you didn’t.”
Driver’s Charlie Barber might as well have been Josh Harris, Morey, or Doc Rivers pointing the finger at Simmons. Two weeks ago, Simmons told the Sixers that he was not mentally equipped to play for them, relying on a provision in the NBA collective bargaining agreement that would protect his salary if his inability to perform “has been caused by the player’s mental disability,” relying on that provision just when it was most convenient.
Maybe he really is suffering from a diagnosable affliction, but there’s no getting around the fact that Simmons presented himself as a victim just when it was a good and necessary strategy for him to do so. He decided, in July 2019, to sign a five-year contract with the Sixers for $177.2 million. He chose to be here. He chose this life and wanted it until he didn’t.
All of that is true, and the Sixers and their fans, surely and understandably, have derived plenty of satisfaction from having the spoiled and selfish Simmons sit while the team has won seven of its first nine games this season without him – and, at times, without Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. And yet, by the end of that scene, Driver’s character still ends up crumpled on the floor, a quivering, crying mess. He’s not better off for having won the argument, if he even won it at all, and there’s no small possibility here that the Sixers will find themselves in the same position.
Already, Embiid has sat out one game to rest, and he’s always one awkward landing away from suffering an injury that either leaves him a shell of himself or consigns him to crutches. Already, Harris has been infected with COVID-19. His condition, according to Rivers, is “not great, honestly. … It hit him, for sure,” and there’s no telling how long he’ll be out, what the effects of the illness will be, or how long those effects might linger.
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Already, the Sixers have demonstrated how far they will go to prove that Simmons is the villain in this story, but that strategy doesn’t paint him as a particularly enticing bit of trade bait, does it? Already, the narrative is spreading – and the goalposts moving – that the Sixers don’t need Simmons, as if they haven’t previously had terrific regular-season starts and stretches only to falter in the playoffs, where the true measure of their success will lie.
The upcoming week – with home games against the New York Knicks, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, and the Toronto Raptors – will provide a good early-season test for what kind of team the Sixers can be this season. But the operative word in that sentence is the hyphenated one. It’s still early. The only certainty in this entire fiasco is that Ben Simmons does not want to be a Sixer anymore, and he and his enablers will do anything they have to do to keep him from playing for the team again. This battle is still just beginning. Stop waiting to find out who will win. No one will.