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Derek Lee

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Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers: The evolution of the offseason's most complex saga
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RAMONA SHELBURNEESPN Senior Writer8:00 AM ET15 Minute Read

Is there hope that Ben Simmons and 76ers can repair relationship?
Adrian Wojnarowski shares the latest on talks between Ben Simmons and the 76ers.
AT FIRST GLANCE there was nothing out of the ordinary about the call Philadelphia 76ers general manager Elton Brand received a few minutes before 7 p.m. on Monday night. Agent Rich Paul was on the line, for probably the third time that day.

That had become standard as the Sixers and Paul's client, Ben Simmons, played out one of the longest, most frustrating games of poker between a franchise and its disgruntled superstar the NBA has seen in years.

After months of a mostly unproductive staredown, Brand received a call and text message from Paul, informing him that Simmons had ended his two-week, unpaid staycation in Los Angeles and was outside the door of the team facility, reporting for a COVID-19 test.

Simmons had shown up to face an organization and a city he'd let down in the playoffs last season -- something many in the organization doubted he'd ever do.

"I don't know if he can face the team or the fans after everything that happened last year," one source close to the situation puts it.

But there he was in Philadelphia on Monday night, this transcendent player whose confidence had unraveled to such an extent he has sworn all summer he'd do just about anything except face the people who witnessed it.

The Sixers didn't have time to ask questions. They had to hastily arrange for the testers to come back to the facility, according to sources close to the situation.

Simmons wasn't giving away any answers, either.

Was he actually back? Will he play in Friday's preseason finale in Detroit? Or was he just reporting to stem his financial losses?

Simmons' side had been dealt a blow the previous week when the NBA and players' union issued a memo stating a player without a "reasonable excuse" will not be paid for games he does not play. Previously, the collectively bargained league memos had used slightly softer language, like "would not" be paid, which Paul's agency believed left room to argue Simmons could ask to be paid for the salary he lost if and when he was traded, sources said.

That memo -- issued while Simmons was across the country, hunkering down for a protracted absence he thought would create leverage, or at least incentive for the team to trade him -- had felt like the kind of small event that could have a giant ripple effect.

But in a meeting with Brand, head coach Doc Rivers and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey on Tuesday, Simmons offered little insight -- and has offered his teammates even less.

The only explanation he has offered them throughout this process came months ago, when Paul invited everyone to his house in Beverly Hills.

Much has been made about that August meeting. Snippets of the Sixers' message to Simmons have been revealed and dissected.

But it's what Simmons said to them that mattered most.


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Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
ON THE MORNING of June 20, less than 10 hours before the Sixers were due to host the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series, Simmons was in limbo.

"They're not letting me play," he told his brother Sean Tribe and several teammates via text message.

Simmons was being held out of the team's shootaround, he told them, due to a possible exposure to a team masseuse, who'd returned an inconclusive COVID-19 test.

Several players were questioned about whether they'd seen her that morning, but only Simmons said that he had.

"He answered the question honestly, without thinking of the implications," says one source close to Simmons.

But according to multiple sources, many within the team questioned whether Simmons had actually seen the masseuse -- or was just trying to get out of playing as he battled the basketball version of the yips. Simmons had taken just 10 shots combined in Games 5 and 6 -- he'd averaged 11.6 shots a game over his career -- and had missed 16 of his previous 23 free throws.

"If you're trying to prepare for Game 7, you don't really want to be dealing with that in the morning," a source close to Simmons says. "Especially when the spotlight is already on you."

His confidence had already been shaken. The skepticism from within made everything worse.

Later in the day, the staffer and Simmons' test results came back negative, according to sources, and he was cleared to play in the game. But he wasn't in a good place, and neither were the Sixers.

"He was thrown," the source says.

Simmons was tentative all game, taking just four shots. But he contributed in other areas to help Philadelphia keep it close.

Then, The Play.

With 3:35 remaining and the Sixers down 88-86, Simmons took the ball in the right post. Backing down Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari with three power dribbles with his left hand, Simmons spun baseline, leaving Gallinari off-balance and leaning in the opposite direction. He took one more dribble. There was four feet of distance between him and the basket. Trae Young, who'd been guarding Matisse Thybulle on the other side of the baseline, faked a contest -- but barely.

The 6-foot-10 Simmons was wide open for a game-tying slam over the 6-foot-1 Young, whose only choices were to let him dunk it or foul him.

Instead, Simmons passed.

An audible gasp roared through the Well Fargo Arena. The unexpecting recipient, Thybulle, went up for his own dunk but was fouled by a rotating John Collins and Gallinari.

"That's when you know the game is in your head," said color commentator and former player Jim Jackson. "That's a dunk for Ben Simmons right there. ... You gotta shoot that shot. Be confident."

Thybulle went 1-for-2 at the line.

The Sixers lost 103-96. Simmons, who ended the game with five points -- on 2-for-4 shooting -- 8 rebounds and 13 assists, didn't play for the final 54 seconds.

After the game Rivers, who'd repeatedly praised Simmons and had long tried to minimize the impact of his shooting woes, demurred when asked whether the team could win a championship with Simmons at point guard.

"I don't know that question or the answer to that right now," Rivers said. "So I don't know the answer to that."

Embiid, who'd openly campaigned for Simmons to win Defensive Player of the Year, despite his own desire to win it, was asked if there was a turning point to the game.

"I thought the turning point was when we -- I don't know how to say it -- but I thought the turning point was just, we had an open shot and we made one free throw," Embiid said.

There was no camouflaging what happened. Everyone saw the play and the series.

Simmons faced the cameras after the game with stoicism. "I had a bad series," he said. "I expect that [criticism]. It's Philly."

The quotes from Rivers and Embiid have been cited all offseason as a tipping point. But those close to Simmons acknowledge they were more of a final gut punch.

Just like his confidence, his relationships within the Sixers had been eroding for some time.

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AP Photo/Matt Slocum


 

Derek Lee

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EMBIID AND SIMMONS are the only constants remaining from the period known as the "The Process," but their journey together has been anything but.

They've fallen in and out of favor depending on who was in charge. Former president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie and Embiid were close on and off the court. Bryan Colangelo, who led the team from 2016 to 2018, seemed to prefer to build around Simmons, according to multiple team sources. Former coach Brett Brown and Brand tried to help Embiid and Simmons coexist -- with mixed results. Morey and Rivers hoped a different voice and approach would unlock their immense potential together.

But as much as Morey said he believed in the Simmons-Embiid pairing, one of the first things he did upon taking over the Sixers' front office was explore a trade for Rockets star and former MVP James Harden, who'd grown disgruntled in Houston.

Word eventually made its way to Simmons, who didn't initially run toward the idea of being traded to Houston, but didn't run away from it either. According to sources close to Simmons, early last season he started wrapping his mind around the idea, even looking at real estate in Houston. He imagined what it would be like to have his own team, built around him and his playing style.

When negotiations fizzled and Harden was instead traded to the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons seemingly moved past it -- he even made the All-Star team. But his comfort in the organization had diminished, according to confidantes.

"It was too far gone before Doc even got there," a source close to Simmons says. "They were trading the kid before Doc even had a chance to coach him."

Then in April, his older sister Olivia posted a series of tweets accusing his brother Sean Tribe of molesting her as a child. Tribe issued a statement on Instagram, strongly denying the allegations, and filed a defamation lawsuit against his sister.

An Australian court awarded Tribe $550,000 in damages in August after Olivia Simmons repeatedly failed to appear in court or provide evidence to support her allegations.

Simmons has never commented publicly on the situation. But he was close to his sister, and also close to Tribe, who lived with him earlier in his career and has become his manager.

Everyone understood what he was dealing with, and the organization decided to give Simmons space.

Simmons' only message to the team, according to sources close to the situation, was that he appreciated his teammates' support and would prefer none of them comment on it publicly either.

Privately, a family source said, it weighed on him deeply.

"How could it not?" another person close to the situation says.

CONFIDENCE IS A fickle flame. One day a player has it, the next he's searching the depths of his soul for it.

Sports psychologists give athletes tools to handle the moments that trigger these crises in confidence. Shooting coaches give them specific mechanical adjustments to work on, so when the pressure builds, they can trust in their muscle memory.

The Sixers had given Simmons all of these resources. He had worked with renowned shooting coach John Townsend during his first three years in the NBA, both in Philadelphia and during offseason workouts in Australia. They had hired Damian Lillard's shooting coach, Phil Beckner, to work with him this season. They had a leading sports psychologist available to consult.

Initially, sources said, Simmons was receptive to specialists like Townsend. While he didn't turn Simmons into a marksman, he at least got Simmons to shoot, and keep shooting no matter how many he made.

In his rookie season, Simmons took 230 shots of 10 feet or farther from the basket. He also got better with his free throw shooting that 2017-18 season under Townsend, improving to 70.7% in the playoffs after hitting just 56% in the regular season.

It was something to build on, people within the team believed. The organization wanted Simmons to continue on with Townsend in the offseason and into the following season. Instead, Simmons decided to work with his brother Liam Tribe.

According to sources close to the situation, the Sixers were disappointed in the choice, and that they were given scant explanation. Last season, Simmons' fifth, he took just 55 shots beyond 10 feet. He shot 61.3% from the free throw line in the regular season and 34.2% in the playoffs.

The past two summers Simmons has been working with Chris Johnson, a well-known and respected NBA trainer whose website lists more than 40 NBA clients, including LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul.

None of this is out of the ordinary for NBA superstars.

But the lack of connectedness only exacerbated the organization's disappointment when Simmons issues' worsened

There is frustration on Simmons' side, too. Even his strongest supporters can't always defend him.

"When you go rafting and you fall out, there ain't no lifeguards," one source close to Simmons says. "You've got to be a willing participant in your own survival. Right?"

Says another, "If you fall out of the raft you've got to swim. You have to participate in your own rescue. ... I think that's very true to this."

THE BEN SIMMONS that Kevin Goorjian knew back in Australia needed no rescuing at all. He was preternaturally gifted physically and with basketball intelligence.

"As soon as you saw Ben," says Goorjian, who coached Simmons at Box Hill Senior Secondary College in Melbourne. "You knew it was something special -- once in a lifetime."

He was 6-foot-6 as a ninth grader, and he was so physically skilled and such a gifted passer, nobody could stay in front of him, much less slow him down.

"He could shoot the ball then, too," Goorjian says. "Fifteen, 17 feet, he'd knock those down. You had to guard him. For me, he didn't go a whole game and not take a [3-pointer]. If [the opponent] didn't respect it, he took it and he made his fair share."

After tenth grade, Simmons had outgrown Australian basketball. He wanted to be in the NBA, the No. 1 pick, and to do that he needed to play in the United States, so he enrolled at Montverde Academy in Montverde, Florida -- one of the United States' top prep basketball programs.

Coach Kevin Boyle has worked with dozens of NBA players over the years. Embiid actually played at Montverde two years earlier. D'Angelo Russell attended one year before Simmons.

"There is a good argument for him as the best high school player in the last 10 years," Boyle says. "And one of, if not the best high school player ever in terms of productivity and value to a team."

Like Goorjian, Boyle said he never noticed anything alarming about Simmons' free throws or outside shooting. He hit 68% from the line and took 15- to 17-footers whenever he was open.

Other than a mechanical flaw in his shot -- he thinks Simmons' elbow is splayed out too wide now -- Boyle said there was nothing that would portend the way Simmons' shot and confidence have unraveled. The only thing Boyle can find by way of explanation is this:

"In high school, he dominated and people weren't able to stop him," Boyle says. "In high school, you can drive, miss, usually get your rebound and put it back in.

"But at the next level, that advantage in strength, size and speed is now reduced greatly."

The players to whom Simmons was most often compared earlier in his career -- Magic Johnson and James -- faced similar challenges upon entering the league. Johnson shot 22.6% from deep his rookie season; James 29%.

But both players eventually worked their way through those challenges and evolved their games.

Simmons has not.

THE SCRUTINY FROM NBA scouts began almost as soon as Simmons arrived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He'd come to LSU as the consensus No. 1 prospect in his draft class and was determined to make good on his promise.

There are a lot of ways people react to such a rating. Some draw confidence from it and grow their games. Others get overconfident and think they've made it, before they ever have. Simmons just didn't want to screw it up.

"I think he just didn't want to give anyone a reason not to pick him No. 1," says one Simmons confidante.

So he played to his considerable strengths -- passing ability, vision, speed, size and strength -- and did everything he could not to expose his lack of confidence in his shot.

In "One and Done," a documentary chronicling Simmons' lone season at LSU, it was clear, even then, that Simmons was struggling with his confidence in shooting.

In one such example, with LSU down by a basket late in the game against Marquette on November 23, 2015, Simmons passed the ball to teammates twice on the final possession instead of looking for his own shot.

He had been masterful in just his fourth collegiate game: 21 points, 20 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals. He'd even attempted a game-high 14 shots (making six) and a game-high 11 free throws (making nine).

But at the end of the game, when the future No. 1 overall pick was expected to take over, Simmons passed not once, but twice.

A prominent scout who had watched Simmons warm up before that game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn says it wasn't aggressiveness Simmons lacked. It was confidence.

"I showed up two, three hours early to watch him warm up," the scout says. "I'd been critical of him, so he definitely knew who I was. And as soon as he saw me up there, he went back in the locker room."

This was a common refrain from NBA scouts who'd watched Simmons at LSU. An NBA general manager who scouted him in college said he went to practice to see Simmons and never saw him work on his shot.

"They were camouflaging him," says another league source.

LSU assistant coach Brendan Suhr offers a different frame.

"We made sure he could handle the ball because he had such great eyesight," Suhr says. "If he got a rebound, and he was a great rebounder, he would take the ball and go on the fast break with it and then make a great pass.

"His vision and his basketball IQ, to me, I'd never seen anyone at that level to be able to do that. And as I told the NBA guys who came to watch him back then, 'There ain't no one that can stay in front of the guy.'"

In the documentary, Simmons acknowledges that the constant scrutiny over his aggressiveness and shooting bothered him.

LSU had just suffered its third straight defeat, this time to the College of Charleston. Simmons, just 19 years old at the time, reclines into a couch, watching Skip Bayless criticize his star potential on ESPN's First Take.

"I feel like if we lose, it's my fault," Simmons says in the doc. "It's kind of like on my shoulders."

"I'm sick of losing. I'm not a loser. I'm a winner. I don't want to be a part of something like that."

He puts his hands on his head and tilts his head up, staring into the distance.

"S---."

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Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
FOR ALL THE mystery surrounding Simmons' predicament, he has been consistent about his endgame.

When his agent, Paul, organized the meeting in August, the Sixers prepared like they were pitching a superstar free agent, not a 25-year-old who had been with the organization for five years. If they could just get in a room with Simmons, the Sixers figured, maybe they could start to change his mind.

It took place in a special room -- across the pool area at Paul's house -- filled with cigars, sports memorabilia and expensive liquor.

Simmons was there waiting, ready to hear them out.

Morey went first, presenting him with a detailed statistical case showing how good Simmons and Embiid were together defensively -- the top duo in the NBA since they entered the league -- and even argued they weren't nearly as bad together offensively as Simmons' might feel. Their combined offensive efficiency of 118.2 points per 100 possessions, Morey outlined, would have led the NBA among all teams.

Rivers then appealed to Simmons' professionalism and competitiveness, reminding him that he'd signed a five-year, $170 million contract extension just two years ago and the team hoped he'd honor it.

The overarching message was clear: No matter what had happened at the end of last year's disastrous playoff run, they wanted him back. They still saw him as a great player. They believed they could help him through the shooting and confidence woes that had derailed his career. And frankly, they said, there were no trades out there that made sense for them.

When it was Simmons' turn to speak, he was focused on something entirely different.

He didn't dwell on Rivers' or Embiid's quotes from after the Sixers' Game 7 loss to the Hawks. He didn't say he felt betrayed by being included in the Sixers' attempts to trade for Harden last fall.

His first three years in the league, the Sixers had such a bright spotlight on them and so much early success, he told them, that he didn't feel like he could make the mistakes other top draft picks were afforded. His growing pains were too public and consequential.

He needed to start over, he said, in a place where he "could make mistakes."

Simmons and his supporters believe the Sixers tried to protect him in those years by doing things like having him inbound the ball at the end of a game, rather than be put in a position where a team might foul him. Or by challenging him to shoot more behind closed doors -- in heart-to-heart chats with then-coach Brown -- rather than through the media.

"I appreciate you guys coming out here," Simmons said, according to multiple sources at the meeting. "I understand how you feel. But I feel how I feel. And it's just time for a change."

The Sixers have let those statements marinate for months. They believe they can salvage the relationship with Simmons and reintegrate him into their team. He does not.

He wants a change of scenery. They want to help him change.
 
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