By Dave Early
The Ben Simmons stalemate continues, having morphed from what was once referred to as a holdout to the former first overall pick not being mentally ready to play.
The shift provides us the chance to talk more about mental health struggles and embrace how common it is even in our sports heroes and villains. It also gives us fodder for discussions about employer-employee rights; what type of information about someone’s treatment plan can an organization reasonably expect? When is it appropriate to withhold salary or fine? Then there’s the lines where bigger questions impact basketball questions. For example would Ben Simmons be mentally ready to play if he were traded or is his current team unrelated to his mental health?
I won’t bother to read Simmons’ mind. But I’ll put this out there. Hypothetically, if Simmons were at some point during the next couple of weeks mentally ready to hoop, if he did still really want to be traded, if he would like to maximize his career-earnings, if he does value not losing a full season of his prime (yes this is very possible) then he might consider suiting up for the Sixers in December.
Let’s say Simmons did not want to return for his first game at home and deal with the likely chorus of boos. He could play in one of the upcoming road games at Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte (twice), Utah, or Memphis between December 1st and December 13th.
What’s the incentive for that? Because on December 15th, a handful of players who are not currently eligible for trade will become eligible. Marc Stein via Substack suggested that key date was the earliest possible point the team might engage serious talks.
Simmons might want to put at least something on film (locking up LaMelo Ball in Charlotte after the team struggled mightily to defend D’Angelo Russell, or perhaps blowing by Rudy Gobert in Utah on the second night of a back-to-back when Joel Embiid might be resting) to remind other teams what he’s capable of, and suggest there is indeed a path for his return to play on the horizon.
Some of those teams once rumored to be interested in the LSU product may have real and fair concerns about trading for Simmons, given his current unreadiness to play.
The Minnesota Timberwolves for example, were consistently regarded as the team most interested in landing the Aussie star. But now at 10-10, winners of 7 games in 10 outings, has their calculus changed at all? On the one hand, the Wolves, who just defeated the Simmons-less Sixers 121-120 in double OT, might like what they have going and have cooled on the idea. Do we risk disrupting Anthony Edwards’ growth by introducing a non-shooter to the lineup? On the other, perhaps acquiring Simmons (without parting with Edwards or Karl-Anthony Towns, dudes who were never on the table anyway) is even more appealing now that they can see a true path towards contention. What types of assurances would Minnesota need to risk disrupting some of the best basketball they’ve played since Jimmy Butler was around? Could they be convinced Simmons would play for them before the New Year? Before the trade deadline?
No end in sight to the stalemate
At this point, both Simmons and the Sixers should probably understand neither side is bluffing here.
The Sixers have more than enough reason to believe Simmons is dug in on wanting out and is willing to lose money. Simmons’ camp has more than enough reason to trust Daryl Morey when he says he’s willing to drag this out through the trade deadline and beyond to ensure he isn’t selling too low.
Philadelphia would likely enjoy the support of the league office and some vocal small-market franchises who understand the sticky precedent it would set if players could sign four-year max extensions then quickly force their way out.
Simmons would be risking injury if he played. Imagine if he suited up, hoping to showcase his talents for an acquiring team, but rolled an ankle or worse. But he could at least demonstrate that if a team takes the risk to onboard him, they’d be getting someone who will play for them this season. That may not be enough to get the trade he’s looking for. It will all come down to the offer. If the Sixers can’t get an All-Star on a on a long-term deal this season (Damian Lillard and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may not be available right now) as crazy as it sounds, they might be better off waiting for more possibilities next summer.
Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and others are set for a league-altering free agency next summer. Few would be shocked if Dame (on a long-term deal) asked for a trade after yet another disappointing Blazers playoff exit that seems inevitable. If Simmons’ camp is hoping Morey and company decide to panic and sell-low in February knowing that the Sixers might be taking themselves out of the running for several whopping superstar fish in July, they should probably reassess.
I don’t know if Simmons will be mentally ready to play over the next few weeks. That’s a decision he will have to make for himself with input from his health-care practitioners, friends and family. But if he did really want a trade before the deadline, if he did want to throw his hat into the ring for another All-Star bid or Defensive Player of the Year bid this season, and maximize his earning potential along the way, there’s incentive for him to casually suit up for one or two of these games around that key December 15th date. There may be a few teams who simply want any signal at all that he’d be ready to play before the start of the 2022-2023 season and don’t want to simply rely on his agent Rich Paul’s assurances when it comes to something as unpredictable as a mental health issue.