Breaking Down The Ben Simmons Drama

With training camp a few weeks away, the only persistent newsworthy story is Ben Simmons’ demand to be traded and his threat to holdout if he isn’t traded.  While this story has been well-covered, I thought we could break it down FAQ style and see if we can break any new ground or, at the very least, come to our own conclusions.  Let’s start with the facts as we know them:

-Simmons is turning 25 years old and has four years and $160 million left on his deal.

-There was no evidence, before the playoffs, that Simmons was unhappy in any way, though some past data has suggested that Simmons didn’t mesh perfectly on offense with Joel Embiid because they both are mostly low post guys and Simmons never has shot jumpers well enough to create requisite offensive spacing with Embiid. While this had been a concern, as recently as May 17, 2021, Fansided wrote a nice deep dive indicating that Philly had solved the spacing issue and that the team was +16 points with Ben and Joel playing together.

-Simmons proceeded to have one of the worst case of the yips from the foul line we’ve ever seen in the playoffs.  He started out 0-9 combined in the first three games of the playoffs versus the Wiz before “improving” to 5-11 (for a total of 5-20).  The problem seemed solved when he went 5-8 from the line in the clincher against Washington (.625% isn’t great but it was basically in line with his career numbers). 

-Alas, the yips came back with a 3-10 showing from the line in game 1 against Atlanta.  He ended up going an execrable 15-45 from the line for the series and, even worse, was so freaked out about shooting that he stopped touching the ball.  While he never shot too much from the field he was passing up nearly all shots and took only 14 shot the final three games of the series.  Simmons was basically a huge liability in the fourth quarter because he couldn’t touch the ball on offense. 

-After the upset loss to Atlanta, Philly coach Doc Rivers was asked if Simmons could be a point guard on a title team and Rivers honestly answered: “I don’t know the answer to that right now.”  Here’s where things get hazy.  According to Justin Grasso of Sports Illustrated, Simmons has now demanded a trade because he “feels slighted over Rivers’ postgame comments.”  Philly Inquirer reporter Keith Pompey told 97.5 The Fanatic that Simmons and his team “feel like when Doc Rivers said what he said, nobody apologized, and Doc was never reprimanded.”

-On the trade front, Philly GM Darryl Morey has supposedly asked for a huge amount of value for Simmons but has been rebuffed by teams who sense they can acquire a distressed asset at a discount.  Morey has responded by stating that, if a trade does not happen, he expects Simmons to report to training camp.  This is either a big bluff with teams who are trying to lowball Philly or a huge dare to Simmons to put his money where his mouth is and risk fines and/or forfeiting pay checks.

Now that the facts are pretty clear, let’s answer the big questions raised by this standoff…

Who is acting more reasonably/unreasonably between Simmons and Philly?

This is the easy question.  Simmons has some right to expect his coach to fully support him publicly but his reaction seems a bit ridiculous.  Ideally, Rivers would’ve answered that question about Simmons with 100% positivity but….who the hell are we kidding?  Simmons looked like damaged goods in the playoffs.  If Simmons’ ego is so fragile that we all have to pretend he wasn’t a huge liability during the Atlanta series, then we have to question his ability to work through the adversity.  Better players have acknowledged when they sucked.   Just look at Paul George, who immediately  admitted when he didn’t get the job done against Denver in Game 7 in 2020.  I fully realize that Simmons is still quite young and, perhaps more sensitive than older vets but he should be honest about his performance and just consider 2021 a learning experience and try to do better.

Can Philly salvage this situation?

That’s really a two-part question.  Philly is in a tight spot.  The window to win a title with a healthy Embiid is narrow and there is a risk that bringing back an unhappy Simmons could hurt the team in the regular season and/or sabotage their playoff seeding.

On the other hand, the market for Simmons is screwy.  He is no doubt a star player but he makes max dollars and has indeterminate value as a player because of the uncertainty of how last season ended.  Philly wants to win now and the most likely return is either another damaged star or a group of less talented players who, in theory, might fit better (i.e. Buddy Hield and Marvin Begley in Sacramento).  This return sounds super underwhelming and you can see why Morey might rather just see what happens in trying to bring Simmons back.

Is there a risk that Simmons might not be the same player again after an embarrassing playoffs?

We can’t know for sure but he should probably be okay.  He’s had other bad runs and bounced back.  Here are a few examples:

-2017-18: He shot 15-34 (.441%) from March 26, 2018 to April 10, 2018 but then went 41-58 (.707% ) in the playoffs.

-2018-19: He shot 33-69 (.478%) from December 25, 2018 to January 13, 2019.  He shot .644% the rest of the regular season.  He was a quasi-acceptable .575% from the line in the playoffs.

-2019-20: Shot a career best .621% from the line and had no really terrible streaks.  He missed the playoffs with injury.

-2020-21:  For the regular season, Simmons was right around his usual free throw shooting (.613%) and was relatively steady until the playoffs.

While the playoffs are clearly a different environment, Simmons has always bounced back from prior crappy free throw slumps.  In fact, if there is any real concern it’s that Simmons’ has reached his ceiling as a player.  All of his advanced stats data  from 2020-21 was slightly below his established norms:

2017-20: 20.1 PER, .157 WS48, 3.9 BPM

2020-21: 18.3 PER, .153 WS48, 2.7 BPM

He was pretty good last season too but and it doesn’t appear Simmons will add a jumper or some other tool to his offensive game that will allow him to break out in value.  He’s a great defender and rebounder with some serious offensive holes (lack of long range game, free throw issues) that limit his value.  Given all this, Simmons seems to have more value to Philly as a player than a trade chip (unless Minnesota gives them Karl Anthony Towns or something like that). 

Where does that leave us?

If Morey isn’t seeing close to equal value, he may as well try to rehab Simmons.  Have a group sit down and tell Simmons he won’t be traded because the market for him stinks at the moment and demanding a trade probably made it even worse.  Maybe they can discuss when Rivers, who was a career 78% free throw shooter, got the yips during the 1987 playoff when he shot 26-52 from the line (and was thoroughly outplayed by Isiah Thomas).  The silver lining Doc and Simmons can discuss is the fact that Doc shot 39-43 from the line in the 1988 playoffs and had a great season.  Things can be fixed if everyone just moves on from the fact that Simmons felt humiliated on Twitter for a few days.

After such a theoretical meeting, Simmons can get with the program again or sit out, in which case he would be giving back $160 million.  That would not be great for the Sixers but it would be an acceptable outcome.  In reality, there is no way Simmons will sit out for even a single regular season game (each of his game checks is about $500,000).  There is risk that Simmons will sulk and/or misbehave so badly he’ll have to be traded but it’s worth at least trying this road if the offers have been as weak as Morey’s behavior indicates.  Middling offers like the Kings’ Hield/Begley offer will be there in a few months even if Simmons gives Philly problems.  May as well swing bigger than that.