Once the great hope of Philadelphia, the heir to the NBA throne and one of Australia’s biggest sporting exports, Ben Simmons has rapidly become an outcast.
His actions in the last four months have left him disregarded by his teammates, despised by his own fans and yet unable to manufacture the exit that would douse these still-rising flames.
On the eve of a new NBA season, Simmons has been kicked out of Sixers training for failing to engage in drills with the rest of the team — though his mere presence marks an improvement on the complete no-show of the last few weeks.
The future is uncertain, and threatens to completely overwhelm the Australian’s career to date. Even the man himself may be wondering how it all came to this.
What has Simmons actually done?
The fallout really began during Philly’s second-round play-off loss to Atlanta last season. Simmons played poorly throughout, but reached a nadir late in the decisive game 7 loss when he inexplicably passed up an easy dunk at a crucial time in the match.
After the game, coach Doc Rivers and star teammate Joel Embiid pointed fingers at Simmons, and fan sentiment — which even throughout that game had remained positive — soured.
During the off-season, and while opting out of the Boomers’ Olympic campaign, Simmons asked for a trade from Philadelphia.
But standing in his way is his lucrative four-year contract, one that only a few rival teams could or would be interested in paying, and Philadelphia’s understandable desire to get a fair deal for a three-time All Star.
No suitable offers arrived, but Simmons remained of the opinion his time in Philadelphia was up. When the Sixers returned for pre-season training camp, the Australian did not join them.
But the proximity to the season and lack of obvious alternatives seemed to provoke Simmons into a kind of peace offering when he turned up unannounced at a Sixers pre-season match last week, taking the required COVID tests and hinting towards a begrudging reunion.
The hope was short-lived. Footage of Simmons at training this week portrayed a player barely going through the motions, almost entirely disengaged from his teammates. It boiled over on Tuesday when he refused to take part in a drill, and was told to leave by Rivers.
Could Ben Simmons play for the 76ers again?
At this stage, it seems highly unlikely.
Throughout the saga, Rivers has repeatedly said he would welcome Simmons back with open arms should he wish to recommit, and even after Tuesday’s training incident said that “every single moment I am going to give Ben a chance to be part of the team”.
At present, it seems Simmons is in no fit mental state to be playing competitive NBA basketball. He has been suspended for one match for “conduct detrimental to the team”, and the Sixers have spent the off-season preparing for life without him.
Another factor is the famously brutal Philly fans, who will not be afraid to ramp up their vitriol the moment Simmons steps back on the court — even if it is in a Sixers jersey.
But the longer Simmons remains sidelined, the lower his trade value becomes and the less likely it is that a deal suitable to Philadelphia will arrive.
Where could Simmons be traded to?
The Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs are two teams that have frequently appeared in Simmons trade debates, but there are reasons neither have yet been able to strike a deal.
Philly would want one of the Timberwolves stars in a potential deal — someone like Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell — something Minnesota is not prepared to offer, while the Spurs don’t really boast a key asset to even offer.
Versions of those conundrums have basically been replicated for every other franchise that has expressed interest in acquiring Simmons — he’s too good for the Sixers to let go for nothing, but not good enough to justify other teams offering the world.
It has been suggested his best chance of an exit may come if some star players in under-performing teams — namely Dame Lillard in Portland or Bradley Beal in Washington — become frustrated and demand trades of their own.
But at the moment, it’s a stalemate.
Can Simmons salvage his career from here?
Even before this mess, Simmons’s career was at something of a crossroads. For a player of such clear and prodigious talents, he has been too easily defined by what he can’t do, rather than what he can.
It’s no secret that Simmons can’t — or rather won’t — shoot the basketball. It makes him an odd fit as a point guard in almost any team, and was unquestionably a problem the Sixers failed to solve throughout the last few years.
His first step is finding a home he can commit to — whether that’s in Philadelphia or elsewhere — but he then simply must become a more usable presence in a half-court offence.
No matter how brilliant Simmons is a defender, or how explosive and creative he is on the break, he will likely find himself in similar positions later in his career if he does not improve upon his most glaring deficiencies.
But for now, Simmons has bigger issues than his jumpshot. There is no obvious solution to his problem, no easy road back to NBA stardom and no shortcut to regaining the respect of the league.
The next steps he takes will be the most important of his career.