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The Sixers and Ben Simmons have reached the point of no return

It’s only a matter of time.

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Maybe this was inevitable.

Maybe any reality wherein the 2020-21 NBA season didn’t culminate in a parade down Broad Street would have begotten a divorce like the one we’re dealing with now.

Personally, I was skeptical that the Sixers would return the key cogs of the roster around Joel Embiid if they fell short of reaching the Finals. This belief was emboldened when I saw the particular path that had shaken out in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. My guess at the time was that a non-Finals appearance would indicate loudly enough to team President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey that a meaningful change was necessary if the team wanted to truly contend for a title during Embiid’s prime.

But the polarized and acrimonious nature of this particular impending separation feels rather unique to the reverberating thud with which the Sixers season ended last June — and to the for-better-or-worse singularity of Ben Simmons, the player at the center of it all.

Much has transpired since Simmons’ dismal performance in which the Sixers vanished from the playoffs in that fateful series versus Atlanta.

First, head coach Doc Rivers — after being, frankly, overly supportive of Simmons for the entirety of the duo’s first season together — delivered a telling “I don’t know the answer to that” when asked after Game 7 whether or not Simmons can be the point guard on a championship-caliber team. It was a far cry from Rivers’ dogmatic defense of Simmons up until that point.

Then, Joel Embiid named what has now become infamously known as The Pass (Simmons’ dump-off pass to Matisse Thybulle under the rim with 3:30 left in the game) as one of the turning points in the Sixers’ Game 7 loss.

A fraction of Sixers fans online have taken issue with Embiid’s comments, especially. On one hand, I get it. Singling out that play in particular certainly added more oxygen to the growing narrative in the media that Simmons’ passed-up dunk was especially pivotal in the game, if not emblematic of the larger issue with Simmons in the series and historically in the second round of the playoffs.

On the other hand, I have a hard time blaming Embiid for using one postgame sentence to vent his frustration. The lengths to which Embiid has gone throughout his partnership with Simmons to amend his game to make things easier for Ben in the half court are well-documented. He has talked in great detail about how, for years, he’s been shooting more 3s than he’d like as an effort to space the floor for Simmons. All the while, Simmons has made exactly zero adjustments or tangible efforts in his offensive game to lighten the burden on Embiid. So if Joel — who just dragged a torn meniscus through seven games while his co-star had what could aptly be described as an offensive meltdown in the series — decides to ever so slightly let his exasperation slip in his postgame availability, it’s difficult to take issue.

Four days after the Sixers’ season ended, this report made news:

My initial reaction to this report was that this was the beginning of the end for Simmons in Philly. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a report like this (Player X’s high-powered agent met with Front Office X to discuss Player X’s future) that didn’t ultimately result in a parting of ways.

My tea-leaf read on this has long been that this meeting concluded with Simmons’ reps and Morey coming to a tacit agreement that both sides would work together to find Simmons a new home this summer. My theory is that it was and is clear to both parties that a divorce was not only inevitable, but best for all involved. The above article, of course, includes the requisite mumbo-jumbo about how integral the Sixers still view Simmons as part of the Sixers’ core, yada yada. Leverage talk. Anyway, that’s my theory on that meeting in particular.

From there, countless rumors have swirled around the availability of Simmons this summer and the asking price Morey had placed on his beleaguered star.

The Athletic reported that the Sixers had opened up discussions on Simmons trades around the league.

On The Gastroenteritis Blues podcast (rate, subscribe, review), Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported that as of the week of the NBA Draft, the Sixers had been unable to meaningfully connect with Simmons since the season’s end.

On draft day, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski further corroborated Simmons’ rumored availability, but included the first reputable sign that Simmons and his “team” were open to a move elsewhere.

And then last week, Bleacher Report’s Jason Dumas echoed Fischer’s sentiment in regards to the lack of communication between Simmons’ camp and the Sixers at the moment.

Of course, it’s difficult during the offseason to parse exactly what information is legitimate from what is either a) fictitious or b) leaked by either side in an effort to strengthen a bargaining position. Depending on the given day, Morey is demanding Damian Lillard, four first-round picks, another All-Star and the key card to the Sacramento Kings owner’s box at the Golden 1 Center.

But all of this is to say that there seems to be immense interest from Simmons and the Sixers to consummate a trade this summer.

So, what’s the hold up?

To state it plainly, an offer hasn’t yet surfaced that Morey has defined as commensurate with Simmons’ value. Maybe the wait has been for Lillard to wrap up his stint with Team USA (which he did late Friday night) and get back to Portland to decide whether or not he wants to request a trade, once and for all. Maybe Morey just simply didn’t want to accept a non-Dame offer before knowing what’s what with the Blazers’ star.

I’m not sure what it will ultimately take to land Simmons elsewhere this summer.

But I am reasonably sure that Simmons has played his last game for the Sixers. There comes a point when you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. The Sixers lost in the second round again — this year when their particular bracket could not have panned out more favorably, and the team still failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. In his end-of-season media availability, Daryl Morey said something that I thought was particularly revealing:

A massive change is needed with this Sixers roster if the organization plans to seriously contend for a title during Joel Embiid’s prime.

If you zoom out, you may think: jeez, if only the revolving door of personnel executives for the Sixers hadn’t misspent the team’s capital and assets so consistently throughout the past five years, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

It would be ideal for the Sixers to ably make meaningful improvements to the roster without needing to offload a 24-year-old with the accolades on Simmons’ CV. There simply is not another move to make that could potentially vault the Sixers into the tier of the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks that doesn’t include trading Simmons. Tobias Harris, despite an improved season which had him on the fringe of the All-Star conversation, likely still represents negative value on his massive contract. Guys like Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle are surely well thought-of around the league, but they’re not yet headliners in a deal for a star.

It’s also a shame, if we’re assuming the Sixers must trade Simmons now (which I am), that the team will unquestionably be dealing him at his lowest value. Coming off of that series against Atlanta and with countless reports leaking out detailing the discord between the player and the organization, it’s no secret league-wide that something is in the works. While I acknowledge the queasy feeling of doing this deal when you absolutely have to do it, I’d also like to levy an even worse possibility: What if Simmons starts the season with the Sixers, locker-room concerns be damned (I’ll get to those shortly), and Simmons looks the exact same as he always has? If Simmons has developed nothing new in his offensive repertoire — and that is the expectation he has taught us to maintain — after a moment like that in the playoffs, wouldn’t you be even more soured on the idea of bringing him in, if you’re a general manager? Because if a series like that wasn’t an agent of change, what would be?

Finally, I think that those who propose the Sixers simply hold onto Simmons until his value rises again — be it at the trade deadline, be it next summer, be it in two years — are undervaluing the potentially corrosive interpersonal effect that returning Simmons to the Philadelphia locker room could have. Make no mistake: Ben Simmons wants to get out of Philly, and the Sixers want to trade Ben Simmons elsewhere. Not only do those two parties know this, but so do Joel Embiid, Doc Rivers, Tobias Harris and everyone else in the organization. If the reports are to be believed, Simmons isn’t making any effort whatsoever to mend whatever fences have erected in the interim between the end of the season and the middle of the summer. Thinking that the Sixers should and could just hold onto the asset of Ben Simmons until the most opportune time overlooks the human element of this fracture from all sides.

To sum it up, since June 6, 2021:

  • The Sixers lost in seven games to the Atlanta Hawks, as Ben Simmons struggled so mightily on offense and from the free throw line that the series has served for many as a referendum on Simmons’ career-long refusal to reshape his offensive game.
  • The Sixers’ President of Basketball Operations publicly acknowledged that the Sixers are not currently good enough to win the title.
  • Countless reports have supported the notion that the Sixers are actively canvassing the league to find Simmons a new home.
  • Multiple reports have suggested that Simmons and his representation no longer want him in Philadelphia.
  • Multiple reports have described the apparent rancor between Simmons and the 76ers organization from top to bottom.

My guess is that if any one of those events had occurred in a given offseason, cooler heads could have prevailed and this partnership wouldn’t have seemed so combustible. The issue is that all five of them happened, and that combination is simply too much to overcome.

Maybe this will mean that Daryl Morey is going to ultimately have to get more creative for what he will accept in a deal for Ben Simmons. Maybe Damian Lillard decides to wait out his situation in Portland for another few months, and Bradley Beal remains enthralled with the possibility of playing in the play-in tournament with Spencer Dinwiddie. Maybe Daryl decides to trade Ben to the highest bidder, so that he can then re-package that return for whatever big star ultimately hits the market.

One way or another, the Sixers and Ben Simmons have reached the point of no return. Him playing another game for the Sixers would represent a wholly untenable situation for all involved.

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