Have you ever found yourself feeling embarrassed by the things you are saying even while you are still in the process of saying them? Like, you are cringing at your words before they are even finished coming out of your mouth? It happens to me on a weekly basis. It happened to 76ers coach Doc Rivers on Wednesday during an appearance on ESPN’s First Take, when he realized in the middle of a national television interview that he was insisting that every single person in the world had independently arrived at the wrong interpretation of his words after the Sixers’ Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
It was an unserious attempt to correct a record that had been right the entire time. But that is where we the Sixers are with Ben Simmons right now, trapped in an unserious situation with an unserious player surrounded by unserious people who have spent the last few years tripping over themselves to avoid telling him the truth.
As absurd as Rivers’ explanation was for his Game 7 comments that betrayed some doubt about Simmons’ ability to play point guard on a championship-caliber team, he was right about one thing. This is the media’s fault. The media is the only party telling Simmons the truth. And this truth hurts.
The truth is that Simmons is acting exactly like the player he swears he isn’t. Immature. Passive. Scared to take a power step into the paint and take on a challenge. Content to stand off to the side and let his castmates handle his business.
But let’s not turn this thing into a referendum on Doc Rivers. That’s clearly what Simmons and his camp want. If it isn’t that, then there’s only one thing they should do. Send Simmons to camp. Tell him to put on his big boy pants and face the tough questions and make an earnest attempt at rehabilitating his image. Rise up to the challenge. Look your coach in the eye and tell him whatever it was that you told him in your exit interview, the thing that had him swearing that day that all could be well. Don’t force him to spend five minutes on national television in some cockamamie backpedal that even he didn’t believe.
As I watched Rivers’ interview with Stephen A. Smith on Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. He knows exactly what he said in the wake of the Sixers’ Game 7 loss to the Hawks, when a media member (full disclosure: it was me) asked him if he still thought Simmons could be the point guard on a championship team.
Question: “Do you think Ben Simmons can still be a point guard for a championship team like the one you guys want to become?”
Rivers: “I don’t know that question or the answer to that right now. You know, so I don’t know the answer to that.”
That’s it. That was the exchange. Everyone interpreted Rivers’ response the way they did because what he said was the truth. Except, the truth is now inconvenient, because it’s one that Simmons can’t accept. Which left Rivers scrambling to rewrite history on Wednesday afternoon.
“I never said what was reported,” the coach said. “The question was asked about Ben, it was the first question after we just lost Game 7, my answer was, ‘I’m not answering any of that stuff right now guys, I don’t even know how to answer that. That had nothing to do what’s about Ben, I was basically just saying I’m not answering that crap, those questions.’”
Look, I get Rivers’ frustration. The immediate aftermath of a do-or-die loss is a difficult place to take stock of the future. The setup is not ideal. If he’d answered with a smirk, it would have been completely understandable. But Rivers also knows that it was a perfectly legitimate question, which is probably why he literally — but falsely — claimed it was the first question he was asked that day. It wasn’t anywhere close to the first. It just felt like it was. Because it was the only question that mattered that day.
That’s the irony of the controversy that erupted on Wednesday. All the key players know in their hearts what is true. Simmons’ coach knows it. His teammates know it. The most damning comments of that day weren’t the ones from Rivers, but the ones from Joel Embiid, who pointed to Simmons’ passing out of a wide-open dunk as the moment the series was lost. And the shame in all of it is that Simmons knows it, too. It’s why he’s currently trying to slink out of town rather than stick his chin in the air and his heart on his sleeve and do the difficult, but honorable work of showing everybody what still could be. The Sixers lost Games 5 and 7 because Simmons, who handled the ball like he was watching himself in a mirror, was their point guard.
Problem is, Simmons has always been a player who would rather see himself through a camera lens than that mirror on the wall. Rather than challenging himself to play real college hoops, he opted to take a gap year filming a documentary at LSU. Rather than using his offseasons to become the player that he needed to be, he commissioned a series of hype videos that showed what such a player would look like if the NBA playoffs were played at three-quarters speed in a high school gym. Simmons had a choice. He could’ve been a real All-Star.
The Sixers? They are left with a mess that won’t easily clean itself up. At this point, they might as well just take one for the entire NBA and show their ostensible All-Star that life won’t always be conducted on his terms. Simmons’ value isn’t falling any further. Their best way out of this situation just might be to insist to 29 other general managers that this organization is willing to wait.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Simmons and his agent have plenty of leverage knowing that the Sixers do not want to throw the 2021-22 season away. They are well aware that the Sixers know that Joel Embiid’s best years in the paint have a shelf life. They know that the Sixers can ill-afford to waste a year of the big man’s career with a roster that has neither Simmons nor any other current best available option. They know that the worst version of this team is one that has Simmons under contract, but refusing to play.
Question is, have Simmons and agent Rich Paul really considered the extent of what the Sixers know? The Sixers know that they aren’t winning a title this season if they trade Simmons for a James Harden-type package of mediocre players and late first-round picks. They didn’t win a championship with Simmons. They certainly aren’t winning one if they trade him for less than he’s worth. If that’s the team’s current equilibrium, then why should Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey fold? The Sixers might as well recoup however much money they can in fines and salary before making any deal. Welcome to the crappiest game of poker ESPN has ever televised. In the end, everyone will lose.
At the moment, though, the biggest loser is Rivers. He spent an entire season defending a player who seemed destined to show no thanks. On Wednesday, he spent an entire five-minute segment pretending Internet archives do not exist. For now, Rivers and the Sixers are acting in their own self-interest in attempting to win back Simmons. Pretty soon, though, they’d be wise to excuse themselves from the ranks of the enablers who created him.