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Rich Paul and Ben Simmons keep showing there’s no bottom. It’s time to listen to them | Mike Sielski

Paul and Klutch Sports keep making it clear that they have no shame when it comes to getting Simmons what he wants. Lament it if you want, but it's a reality the Sixers have to confront.

Ben Simmons dribbles in a Sixers game against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday, June 18, 2021 in Atlanta.
Ben Simmons dribbles in a Sixers game against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday, June 18, 2021 in Atlanta.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It was late June, with the sting of the 76ers’ Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks still fresh, when Doc Rivers opened his mouth and maybe, just maybe, gave Rich Paul the opening he needed to recast Ben Simmons’ failures into a bid for freedom.

Minutes after the Sixers’ defeat, after the stomach-turning sight of Simmons’ passing up an open dunk and passing the ball to Matisse Thybulle, after Simmons left no doubt that the simple act of shooting a basketball gave him the willies, Rivers had declined to offer a definitive, let alone affirmative, answer to a direct and basic question. Could Simmons be the point guard on a championship-caliber team? Rivers didn’t know. Rivers couldn’t say.

» READ MORE: Ben Simmons appears at the Sixers’ film session, as his agent says team worsened his mental state

Then came the reckoning. Two days later, Rivers’ doubts about Simmons were gone ... or at least not as strong as they once had been. Doc believed in Ben. Doc was bullish on Ben. Doc recognized that Ben had been living through a family scandal: His sister had accused her half-brother of molesting her, and the accusations’ revelation had coincided with Ben’s absence from the Sixers’ lineup for several games. Doc, in his initial postgame comments, had created damage, and now he was trying to control it.

“Listen, it’s another example of — and I’m trying to say this right — where players are real people,” Rivers told reporters on June 22. “They have real lives. They have real stuff going on. I have never had to deal with the public stuff that Ben had to deal with with my family. But I would say if I had to, it would have affected me in some way or another. I can’t tell you if it affected him on the floor or not, I don’t know that. I just know it would have affected me, in some way. I don’t know how.”

Rivers’ answer was sensitive and empathetic. But in retrospect, it might have been the worst thing for anyone affiliated with the Sixers to say, because it provided a patina of legitimacy to Paul’s relentless campaign to keep Simmons off the court until the Sixers trade him.

Paul, Simmons’ agent and the CEO of Klutch Sports, pulled his latest stunt Thursday night, just before the Sixers’ 115-109 loss to the Raptors, when he told transcriber Shams Charania of The Athletic that the organization’s measures to get Simmons to show up — “fines, the targeting, the negative publicity” — were “very unnecessary” and have “furthered the mental health issues for Ben. Either you help Ben, or come out and say he’s lying. Which one is it?”

You can roll your eyes at Paul’s and Simmons’ shamelessness all you want. And you can bemoan Paul’s willingness to use a grave issue — mental health in elite sports — as a club to wield against the Sixers. And you can point out that, if Simmons’ issues are even partially contrived, he and Paul have only made it more difficult for other athletes, those experiencing genuine mental-health trauma, to receive the assistance and understanding they need and deserve. All of that righteous anger and exhaustion is natural and understandable. Paul’s tactics are indeed unseemly.

But what they aren’t and have not been is surprising. It’s useless to judge Paul and Simmons by a standard that they have no interest in meeting, to count on them to abide by rules that they don’t care to follow. The rules can be official, laid out in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. They can be unofficial and unspoken, enforced only by any sense of good faith and decorum. Paul and Klutch don’t care. The client counts. Nothing else does. The outcome is all that matters, not the process, and even Rivers’ tacit public acknowledgment that Simmons might be dealing with stress and strain is enough warm taffy for Paul to stretch into a diagnosis of mental illness that the Sixers haven’t done enough to treat.

Again, this is what the player-empower movement, taken to its logical extreme, has wrought in the NBA. Once players such as James Harden and Anthony Davis began saying, Trade me, or I won’t play for you and teams began acquiescing to them, a ploy such as Simmons’ — the refusal to honor four-fifths of a max deal — was inevitable.

Yes, Harden and Davis and others who have pulled off this gambit are better players than Simmons. Yes, they had just a year or two left on their contracts. Yes, Rivers was trying to show compassion to an athlete who might have been hurting. No, those truths don’t matter, because once the precedent was set, once franchises relinquished so much power, sooner or later a player and his agents would see how far they could go to get what they want.

» READ MORE: Tobias Harris returns, Tyrese Maxey sizzles but shorthanded Sixers run out of gas in loss to Raptors

And make no mistake: Simmons will eventually get what he wants. He’ll end up somewhere else. Daryl Morey and the Sixers are approaching this standoff as if they know that, once they trade Simmons, his dark cloud will lift, his brain and his heart will be back to normal, and he’ll resume delivering the All-NBA defense and versatile, team-oriented style of play that once promised to make him a marvelous player here for a long time.

They’re banking, too, that their potential trade partners view this situation the same way: that Simmons will be just like those previous Klutch clients who played hardball with their old teams before playing great basketball for their new ones, that the length and excuses for his absence are irrelevant to any club that might acquire him, that he can lower his trade value only so much. They might be wrong, but that’s the game. Yes. That’s what all of this is: a game.

So Morey and the Sixers will wait, and they’ll hope like hell that a superstar in another city grows disgruntled and is happy to relocate to Philadelphia. In the meantime, get used to holding your nose. You ask if there’s a bottom. Rich Paul and Ben Simmons keep telling you no. It’s time to listen to them.