How will Ben Simmons’ Sixers teammates welcome him back?
Doc Rivers has faith Simmons and the Sixers can create an environment that is neither toxic nor awkward.
When Doc Rivers reported to the Los Angeles Clippers in October of 1991, he delivered an unexpected message to his new teammates on the importance of punctuality and professionalism. About five of them had been late for that day’s practice. Never mind that Rivers, then a nine-year veteran with one All-Star appearance, had also missed time while holding out due to a contract dispute.
“[Coach] Mike Schuler introduced me to the team, and I went off on the guys about being on time,” Rivers recalled Monday. “I hadn’t even been with the team, but I was like, ‘This is so unprofessional.’ I remember saying that to guys and Schuler thanked me for it, so I guess I fit in with the coach. I don’t know about the players right away.”
Rivers recognizes today that it was a different era back then, without constant at-your-fingertips news and social media coverage. But he believes his own example of being a player holdout provides a window into how team dynamics can work behind the scenes, that perhaps the perceived difficulty in reintegrating a disgruntled teammate who has been away can be overblown.
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The Sixers likely will need that to be true, with Ben Simmons returning to Philadelphia Monday night. The All-Star point guard could rejoin the team as soon as this week, after previously demanding a trade and vowing to never play for the organization again. If he in fact does play, it will be up to Simmons and his teammates to create an environment that is neither toxic nor awkward. Rivers has faith it can be done.
“Players don’t get involved with people’s business,” Rivers said. “… I’ve been a player and this has happened before, and I was a player that has done it before. Other than those first 10 minutes of welcoming back and taking the crap from your teammates about missing camp and stuff, guys want to win. They do.
“I’m telling you, especially if you’re on that type of team where you have a chance to win … they look at Ben as a guy that can help them do that.”
Simmons’ absence has been the undercurrent of this entire Sixers preseason. It’s why the team is staging a sometimes-uneasy starting point guard competition between Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton. It’s why it’s reasonable to ask how one of the NBA’s best defenses last season will need to play differently in 2021-22. It’s why Rivers has pumped the brakes whenever he is asked about small-ball lineups. It’s why questions hover about the Sixers’ legitimacy as a championship contender, despite their finish atop the Eastern Conference last season.
Yet there’s also a human and team chemistry element to this saga, an intangible that is more difficult to measure than the on-court basketball impact.
Sixers wing Furkan Korkmaz said they talked about Simmons’ situation when the team first gathered for the start of training camp, but that it “wasn’t our main topic, because our main topic was how we can get the championship.”
Since then, superstar center Joel Embiid said he has been “trying to keep everybody focused. I’m focused on basketball, and I’m focused on whatever we have here, whatever we’ve been building.”
Multiple players have said the primary time they think or talk about Simmons and how his absence is affecting the Sixers is when it comes up in media sessions.
Those questions become more direct whenever a new layer of news pops — including Monday, when the possibility of his return broke in the morning, ahead of word that he had shown up at the Wells Fargo Center to take a COVID-19 test as dictated by league protocol.
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“I’m happy that things have resolved and we can move on and try to be a better team,” Embiid said late Monday night.
Nearly every player who rolled through on media day in late September was asked about Simmons, and echoed their coach in saying they want him back. When The Athletic reported that Simmons’ camp believed his on-court partnership with Embiid had “run its course,” Embiid responded with a four-plus-minute soliloquy during which he listed the ways he believed the Sixers built their roster around Simmons’ skill set. He called it “borderline kind of disrespectful” that Simmons was not at practice and expressed that the team is ultimately better with him than without him.
Danny Green was asked about the strange scenario before the Sixers’ first preseason game at Toronto last week, and alluded to navigating a similar situation when Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs were at an insurmountable impasse before the 2018 trade to the Raptors.
“It’s actually not that bad, considering the circumstances,” Green said of the Sixers’ environment. “… Nobody’s really been focusing on them or even thinking about it as much as [others have]. In the past, the organization’s done a great job. Our media side, you guys, have done a great job of respecting the space, respecting what’s going on, not trying to be too much of a distraction. [We are] just answering your questions respectfully.”
Potentially benefiting the Sixers during this time is that the bulk of the roster from last season has returned, meaning there is continuity among the rest of the team and that most players know Simmons at least fairly well. And the players’ personalities, from veterans Green and Tobias Harris, to youngsters Maxey and Matisse Thybulle, to newcomers Andre Drummond and Georges Niang, are widely regarded as polished, easygoing and professional.
“When your franchise guys like Tobias and Joel have good spirits, have great energy, are willing to work with younger guys,” Maxey said, “... they’re talking to us and they’re helping us every single day, that’s really good. That’s your top guys, and then when your top guys do it, it just trickles all the way down.”
Maxey is also close friends with Simmons, because they are both represented by agent Rich Paul and train together in Los Angeles during the offseason. Korkmaz, who has played with Simmons for four years, said after Monday’s shootaround that Simmons “is not a bad person. He’s been through a lot of things” and added after the game that he “cannot wait to play with him on the court.”
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Second-year guard Isaiah Joe said, “I don’t have any bad blood with anybody,” and that Simmons is “still a friend of mine, so whenever we do see him, I’m gonna greet him like anybody else would.”
But no teammate’s public and private reaction to Simmons is more important than Embiid’s, due to his stature as a super-max player and that the Sixers are openly relying on him to be more of a leader this season. That’s why his words from a couple of weeks ago carried so much weight. He again spoke calmly, yet candidly when asked multiple questions about Simmons after Monday’s game.
Embiid acknowledged he has not spoken to Simmons since the end of last season, though he and other teammates have tried unsuccessfully (a group attempted to fly to Los Angeles to speak with Simmons before camp). Embiid knows “I can’t win alone. I need help,” and reiterated that the Sixers will be better if Simmons does play.
But if Simmons rejoins the team, Embiid expects him to be fully committed.
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“There’s going to be some adjustments, but it doesn’t need to be awkward,” Embiid said. “We are professionals. We want to win. I want to win. It gives me the best chance to win, so that’s what I’m going to go with. But as far as coming back and all that, we’ve made a few adjustments, and he’s just got to come in and buy in and we’re going to be fine.”
Embiid believes the Sixers’ on-court style — everybody touching, moving and pushing the ball — also reveals their off-court synergy. And whether Simmons’ arrival in Philly is the beginning of a long-term resolution or a short-term solution before he is traded, the likely next step for teammates is welcoming him back inside the locker room.
“The most important thing is just for us to just stay close to each other,” Joe said. “This whole process has made our camaraderie a lot better between each other. We do a lot of things as a team, so this just shows that we can’t be spread out on islands.
“We have to be together, be one unit. I think it shows, even on the court, that we’ve learned to adapt.”