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Ben Simmons vs. the Sixers: An inside look at a messy NBA divorce

Simmons is done with the Sixers. But a closer look at his decision to sever ties reveals he did not come to the conclusion for the reasons many assume.

The Indiana Pacers are one of six teams still inquiring about the availability of Ben Simmons (right) in a trade with the Sixers.
The Indiana Pacers are one of six teams still inquiring about the availability of Ben Simmons (right) in a trade with the Sixers.Read moreDarron Cummings / AP

At what point do the 76ers give up and end the Ben Simmons saga?

Under normal circumstances, it would benefit the team to hold onto its disgruntled player until his trade value rises.

If this were the case for the Sixers, a great time to unload Simmons would be after Dec. 15, the first day this summer’s newly-signed free agents can be traded. That timeframe provides a bigger pool of potential trade partners.

A league source said the Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, and San Antonio Spurs are still inquiring about Simmons’ availability.

But for now, Simmons remains with Philly — and is being punished for missing time. The Sixers withheld $8.25 million of his salary Friday and placed the payment in an escrow account, sources confirmed. His contract is structured for him to receive 50% of this season’s $33 million salary by Oct. 1.

However, a source expects Simmons to receive all of the money owed to him. The belief is whichever team that acquires him is going to waive the fines the Sixers put in place.

» READ MORE: Joel Embiid on Ben Simmons’ absence: It’s ‘borderline kind of disrespectful’

The Sixers’ position that they’re not going to trade Simmons just to make a trade has been consistent. They’re trying to win a championship, and believe they’re in a better position to win one with him on the roster.

But it is unprecedented for a maximum-salary player who’s in the second year of a five-year extension to hold out and plan to never play for that franchise again.

Over the past couple of days, The Inquirer spoke with several sources, on the condition of anonymity, to get a better sense of why the 25-year-old Simmons would rather sit out a season instead of donning a Sixers uniform again.

From the start, the Sixers and Simmons never felt like a perfect fit. Despite being a first-overall pick, this team was never really his squad. Some sources close to Simmons thought that became more apparent after the team hired Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations in November.

Morey was hired by the Sixers in November of 2020, in a move many anticipated would lead to the team acquiring James Harden from the Houston Rockets via a trade for Simmons. From the time the former Rockets general manager took over, Simmons believed his days in a Sixers uniform were numbered.

The Inquirer also learned that the Sixers weren’t as blindsided by Simmons’ desire to be traded as one would think. His agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, informed general manager Elton Brand of Simmons’ trade wish around three days after the team was eliminated by the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. He then informed Morey shortly after that.

As a result, some in Simmons’ camp don’t believe the Sixers really expected him to return this season. One source, pointing out how the Sixers attempted to trade Simmons twice, said the team clearly wants to trade him. The source said the Sixers are just determined to do it on their terms.

Destined for a messy divorce

Publicly, the Sixers talk about wanting Simmons to return and be part of a championship team in Philly. The problem is Simmons wants no parts of the franchise. He believes the relationship with the team and All-Star teammate Joel Embiid has “run its course.”

“They know that,” a source said. “They’ve known that. It doesn’t matter whether Ben shows up here today or two weeks from now. He’s going to be in street clothes, and you are not going to get the same Ben Simmons. So you might as well move on.”

A source acknowledged that Simmons has to become a better player. Simmons can’t blame the Sixers for his history of passing up wide-open perimeter shots. Nor can he blame them for not developing his game in four NBA seasons. And he definitely can’t blame them for his 34.2% shooting from the foul line this past postseason.

“But that doesn’t negate that the relationship is done,” another source said. “This is just a life thing. Sometimes in life, relationships come to a head. That’s what this is. It just happened to be in sports. In the event that Ben does show up here, it’s not going to be in uniform. Just get rid of this guy, please.”

» READ MORE: Doc Rivers considers Ben Simmons domino effects, including changes to the Sixers’ starting lineup and defensive scheme

What could pose a problem for Simmons moving on is the Sixers’ tendency to overvalue him. They want potential trade partners to view Simmons as a three-time All-Star, two-time All-Defensive first-teamer, Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, 2020 steals champion, and 2018 rookie of the year.

Instead, other teams see a player who passed up a wide-open, potential game-tying dunk with 3 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in Game 7 of a conference semifinals. They see a guy who routinely struggles in the postseason and is perceived to be more in love with the NBA lifestyle than the game.

Even if the general view of Simmons’ skills was more favorable, it’s hard to imagine any team would give into the Sixers’ lofty demands.

Sources believe the Sixers were asking for too much while waiting to see if Portland Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard or Washington Wizards All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal would become available. One source said Paul attempted to help the Sixers get five players back via a three-team trade. However, that died because of Philly’s steep demands.

Right now, as the Sixers wait out the storm, Simmons is being portrayed as someone who isn’t honoring his $177 million extension, a guy who quit on his teammates, and an individual whose skin is too thin to play in Philadelphia.

“This entire situation is not about Ben Simmons and the fans of Philly,” a source said. “It’s not about Ben Simmons being able to overcome the loss to the Hawks. It’s not any of that, and they know that. What is this? This is the relationship running its course. …. It’s never been smooth at all.”

Simmons has four years and $146.6 million remaining on the five-year extension he signed on July 16, 2019. But recent history is on his side as multiple All-Stars have forced trades in recent years.

Harden (Houston Rockets), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Jimmy Butler (Minnesota Timberwolves), Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans), and Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics) all got their wishes to be traded granted. In each of those cases, the player’s former team got worse. That’s something the Sixers are hoping to avoid, especially with Embiid in his prime.

Multiple sources see this team as Embiid’s squad, not Simmons’. They feel it has been the way since Simmons sat out his rookie campaign in 2016-17 with a broken foot. At that point, Embiid, who averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in just 31 games played in 2016-17, established himself as the team’s go-to player.

“What No. 1 pick you know comes to an organization that has no prioritization at all?” said a source, who felt Simmons was wronged. “I’m just [speaking] facts. But because he’s Australian, because he’s a nice kid, got a nice family, he never said boo. He never complained.”

Embiid made statements to the contrary on Thursday, telling media members the Sixers’ decision to let Butler leave in a sign-and-trade to the Heat and then sign Al Horford for the 2019-20 season was a mistake. Embiid said the decision was made “just to make sure that [Simmons] needs the ball in his hands.”

Butler went on to have an All-Star campaign and led the Heat to the NBA Finals in 2019-20, his first season in Miami.

“What Ben can’t be responsible for is the Sixers’ decision to move on from Jimmy,” the source said. “No matter what anybody said.

“This is what the team chose to do. So now when Jimmy goes to the Finals, that’s eggs on your face. That’s not Ben’s fault.”

Showing his worth

To be fair, Embiid is the better player and harder for opponents to scheme against. Simmons is also tougher to build a team around because of his offensive shortcomings. For him to be successful, he has to be surrounded with an army of shooters and a secondary ballhandler.

Yet Simmons still managed to make an important impact with the Sixers.

”When Joel has not been durable, Ben’s been durable,” one source said of Embiid also missing time to injuries. “No offense to Joel, he deserves to have the team built around him. They made their bet around Joel, which is fine. He deserves that.”

But Simmons has had some of his best games on nights when Embiid has been sidelined.

A prime example was his career-high 42 points to go with 12 assists and nine rebounds while playing center in a 132-124 road loss to the Utah Jazz on Feb. 15. Simmons even made 12 of 13 free throws. Back on Jan. 20, 2020, he had 34 points, 12 assists, 12 rebounds, five steals, and two blocks to lead the Embiid-less Sixers to a 117-111 road victory over the Brooklyn Nets. He made 12 of 14 shots and went 10-of-14 from the foul line while playing multiple positions.

And a source pointed out that Simmons led the Sixers to their final eight victories of the 2017-18 season with Embiid sidelined with a concussion and a fracture to the orbital bone near his left eye.

”They won those games with Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick,” the source said of Simmons’ teammates during the winning streak. “Not James Harden. Not Kevin Durant and Kyrie, LeBron [James] and A.D. [Davis]. It was Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick only to come back to the same style of play when Embiid returned for the postseason.”

Being shopped for James Harden

The 2020-21 NBA season was the most difficult for Simmons, a source says.

Before the season, Simmons thought he would be traded for Harden.

In fact, he was so sure he would be dealt that he went house shopping in Houston. A source said the Simmons camp was even informed by someone in the organization that he more than likely would be moved.

“We realized this move was a result of putting all the eggs in Embiid’s basket,” one source said.

In Harden, the Sixers would have gotten someone to pair with Embiid such as when they had Jimmy Butler, but better. Harden finishes isolation plays by taking opponents off the dribble or burying step-back three-pointers. The Sixers needed someone to strike fear in defenders while making things easier for Embiid.

It didn’t take long for reports to leak that the Sixers were interested in acquiring Harden via a trade for Simmons.

At the time, there were reports that Harden’s close friend, Meek Mill, wanted him to play in Philly. Harden and Meek Mill both have a relationship with Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin.

Morey developed a lasting relationship with Harden as the Rockets’ general manager before joining the Sixers. The 2018 MVP, however, got his wish to be traded and was sent to the Nets.

Sources believe that Morey was never fully comfortable with Simmons at point guard. A team official refuted the notion that Morey didn’t like Simmons’ game. But other sources said Simmons noticed how Morey reacted during games when he was displeased with something the player did.

Simmons remained committed to the Sixers throughout the season. He had an ally in coach Doc Rivers, who went to great lengths to defend Simmons in the media. However, folks close to Simmons believe Rivers and Embiid threw him under the bus following the Game 7 loss to the Hawks.

Time to move on

After the series with Atlanta, Simmons informed Paul that he wanted a change of scenery. Paul later reached out to Brand and Morey. Then the agent informed the Sixers brass in person during a private meeting at the NBA draft combine in Chicago of Simmons’ intent.

In that meeting, a source said Paul told the Sixers that arming them with ample time to find a deal was Simmons’ wish. The source added Paul wasn’t demanding or threatening anything, simply informing them of Simmons’ decision. Paul told the team administrators to stop asking Simmons to be something he’s not and focus on what he’s telling them.

Paul told them, “He’s telling you that ‘I’m not coming to Philadelphia. My time as a 76er is done.’”

» READ MORE: Joel Embiid will be expected to do more on defense for the Sixers without Ben Simmons

The Sixers asked why Simmons wanted out, and Paul informed them that the point guard was mentally exhausted. The source believes they didn’t pay attention to Simmons’ state of mind or feelings about being in Philly because of the four years remaining on his contract.

“The icing on the cake came when Ben told the Sixers brass face-to-face during their August meeting in Los Angeles,” a source said. “He doesn’t have anything personal against Embiid. He also appreciated managing partner Josh Harris, co-managing partner David Blitzer and the organization and what they’ve done. But at the same time, it’s run its course.”

Now, even if he does come back to Philadelphia, Simmons still doesn’t intend to play a game.

“You are never getting the same player back in Philly,” a source said. “You definitely are not getting him back in uniform. Even if he was in uniform, you are not getting back the same player.”

A source added that when a player is motivated to come back after defeat, they come back and you just know how motivated they are. Teams don’t need to convince them to return.

“You don’t have to ask and go searching,” the source said. “And when they don’t want to be somewhere, they tell you it ain’t going to work.”

Well, Simmons is speaking loud and clear.