Ben Simmons promised the 76ers he would never play for them again, and he was right.
Simmons sat out the season until he was traded to the Nets for James Harden. Simmons had kept to himself during this period, not talking with the media or making public appearances. He waited for action from the 76ers and general manager Daryl Morey.
The Nets rid themselves of Harden, who wanted out after not meshing with Kyrie Irving, and returned Simmons, Andre Drummond, and Seth Curry to put together a championship contender.
It will take time, however. The Nets are likely headed for the play-in tournament because of a horrible stretch of 12 losses in 14 games because of injuries to Harden and Kevin Durant, as well as Irving being unable to play in home games because of New York’s COVID-19 restrictions for unvaccinated players.
But that will change when Durant returns in the coming weeks and Simmons gets back into basketball shape and improves his mental health, which he said suffered during this situation.
Simmons, 25, said he is looking forward to this new opportunity.
“I think it’s going to be scary,” he said. “Having those guys run alongside me is, you know, multiple different weapons on the floor. And I think at the pace we want to play at, it’s going to be unreal.”
What exactly happened in Philadelphia is unclear. Simmons had a terrible playoff series against the Hawks last year and became afraid to shoot in the fourth quarter. In one key sequence late in Game 7 with the 76ers trailing, Simmons passed up an open dunk — and the potential of being fouled and having to shoot free throws. He passed to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and split the free throws, costing the 76ers a key point.
Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers wouldn’t confirm that Simmons would be his point guard this season. He wanted Simmons to work on his shooting and confidence, and Simmons took that as a slight and a sign of disrespect. He was a two-time All-Star, one of the league’s top players.
After that, Simmons decided it was time for a new team. He claims that his mental health suffered and he was insistent on departing, despite repeated calls from Rivers and other 76ers officials pleading for Simmons to return and move forward with a team that could contend for a title.
Simmons acknowledged it would have been difficult to return to Philadelphia, especially hearing the vitriol.
“I think that was part of it,” Simmons said. “I think, you know, I just wasn’t in the place there to do that. And a lot of things had happened over that summer to where I don’t — I didn’t feel like I was getting that help.
“But it is what it is. You know, I don’t have any — it wasn’t a personal thing toward any player or coach or owners, or anything like that. It was about myself, getting to a place where I need to be.”
What was compelling about Simmons’s comments is that he acknowledged he was dealing with mental health issues far prior to the Atlanta series, and leaving Philadelphia was crucial for him to return to his previous state mentally and physically.
“I don’t think it was really [the playoffs],” he said. “It was more so just — it was just piled up, a bunch of things that have [happened] over the years to where I just knew I wasn’t myself. And I needed to get back into that place of being myself, and being happy as a person, and taking care of my well-being.”
Mental health for athletes, even those who make millions of dollars and appear to have every advantage, has to be taken seriously because we’ve seen too many cases where it was disregarded or ignored.
“And [mental health] was the major thing for me,” he said. “It wasn’t about the basketball, it wasn’t about the money, anything like that. You know, I want to be who I am, and get back to playing basketball at that level, and being myself.
“I’ve had some dark times in the last six months and I’m just happy to be in this situation with this team.”
The question remains, how much did the 76ers offer to help Simmons? Did he accept any offers or did he decide to seek his own assistance? Of course, the 76ers will claim they tried to give Simmons all the support he needed. He said he didn’t feel that sentiment.
The NBA public won’t know whether this time off was positive until Simmons finally plays again. He would not commit to a return date, but the Nets play at Philadelphia March 10 in what could be the most anticipated game of the rest of the season.
“Excited to get on the floor with these guys, incredible team, incredible talents,” he said.
“I want everybody to look at us like we’re the best team, and it’s going to take time. I’m never going to put my teammates down, my coaches. I’m not that kind of person.”
It seems that final comment was a direct shot at Rivers for his criticism of Simmons following the playoffs.
Rivers has seen this all before
NBA fans will eventually find out which team got the better of the Brooklyn-Philadelphia trade. The 76ers received James Harden (and Paul Millsap), giving coach Doc Rivers another megastar to go with Joel Embiid and the responsibility to maximize their talents.
Rivers acknowledged the past few months have been stressful. He said he’s now able to relax because the roster is set and he can concentrate on blending Harden into their concepts.
“What I know is what we have, and that’s a good thing for everybody, that everybody is self-assured,” Rivers said. “Everybody is more comfortable and now we have to try to build it into a winner.”
Rivers, 60, said he will use experiences dealing with the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, and the Clippers trio (Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Griffin) to facilitate how to deal with this current dynamic duo.
Harden is coming off two situations where he asked for a trade after he didn’t mesh with fellow stars. In Brooklyn, he clashed with Kevin Durant over the Kyrie Irving situation, and he was also unhappy playing with Paul and Russell Westbrook in Houston.
Harden promises to be on his best behavior and Embiid finally has a productive scorer on his side.
Rivers acknowledged the relationship with Simmons soured and they shared different approaches.
“Everyone’s different, some you do well with and some you don’t, and that’s just part of coaching,” Rivers said. “You don’t match everybody. It just doesn’t happen that way. What I found out for the most part is when they want to win, things work out. I just believe that, and it’s more than just wanting to win.
“Everybody wants to win, you hear that every day. But if you just want to win and you just want to do it the way you’ve always done it, it’s usually harder. If you want to win and figure out what’s the best way for this group — because every group is different — you have a great chance of being successful. That’s what you’re always hoping for.”
Rivers has enough experience to massage the situation and ensure Harden and Embiid blend into a championship duo.
“I pull a lot from being a player in these situations,” Rivers said. “As a player, you’re in the locker room when teams make a trade. You have to figure it out and when a new guy is walking in and walking out, and I’ve been in a locker room where we didn’t like the trade. And sometimes we loved it and it didn’t work out. It’s a human game, just like life, and you try to figure it out and figure the right buttons for this group and the right path.”
The discussion by NBA experts over the past several days has centered around how two ball-dominant players can co-exist without any dissension. Harden has proven to be an above-average distributor and pick-and-roll player. And while Embiid is having an MVP-type of season, he undoubtedly would love another scorer to take the pressure off him.
“I think it’s a pretty easy combination,” Rivers said. “James Harden and Joel Embiid in the pick-and-roll. James Harden coming off Joel Embiid. James Harden being a post passer for Joel Embiid. I don’t think that part is going to be difficult. The part about having great rhythm, great continuity, that will be the toughest part for us.
“We don’t have a lot of time. We know that. You could tell the guys are talking about doing extra work. Everybody’s motivated. That’s good.”
Rivers said Harden asked him about a Garnett story from the late 2000s where Rivers removed Garnett from a practice scrimmage when he did not want to be removed. Garnett responded by running up and down the out-of-bounds area as the player who replaced him did during the scrimmage. He wanted to practice so badly, so he mimicked the session.
“We were all laughing because he was asking me the story today about Kevin running on the sideline, mocking the guy that was in,” Rivers said. “Usually you should sit down when you’re on the sideline. That’s why you get taken out, but he did everything the guy on the floor did. In some ways I punished everybody because of this nut. Kevin had to be what he was to be great. I don’t think he honestly could have done anything else.”
Longtime stars can thank families
The NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night will feature two players in LeBron James (37) and Chris Paul (36) playing at nearly their career peaks. Former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has set the standard for career longevity, playing until age 44 before retiring this month.
The difficulty of playing until nearly age 40 is more complex than just having your body cooperate. Players have families and outside interests and other life happens that could pull them away.
“You find other interests,” said former 13-time All-Star Dwyane Wade. “You become a husband, you become a wife. You become a mother. You become a father. I think they take you away from the game, but you see it’s not just about basketball.
“To have the mentality to able to be LeBron and CP and to be able to have the careers they’re having, it takes a family that loves the [expletive] out of you because you’re gone from home for so long.”
Wade retired at age 37, although he could have played perhaps another year or so. He also said good fortune does play a major part in a body cooperating.
“It takes a lot of things,” he said. “Everybody don’t get those opportunities. Brandon Roy didn’t get that opportunity to keep coming back from injury. Some people are lucky and some people don’t get hit with the bug and some people just find ways to take care of their bodies in a way that they continue to keep going.”
WNBA standout Candace Parker was considered aging and beyond her prime before leaving the Los Angeles Sparks for the Chicago Sky and leading the franchise to its first championship at age 35.
“Everybody kind of shares information in the NBA and I think that’s so important,” she said. “I remember when I hit 33, 34, I need some help, I needed a regimen. How did you get to play in your upper 30s? I think everybody shares that knowledge of how important it is from a young age to take care of your bodies. We’re going to see players playing longer because they understood the assignment earlier. And how important it is to do those things. That’s super important and crucial.”
Parker was also asked about the possibility of the first female NBA head coach coming in the near future. Becky Hammon left an assistant coaching position with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs to become head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.
“I think we just have to continue to [push] for this,” Parker said. “We limit our minds to what we will allow and I think that across the board opening up your mentality and mind to what it could be and whether somebody is good or not, whether they’re a great leader.
“I think that’s part of the reason why Becky Hammon decided to come into the WNBA and be a head coach because I think the knock on her was she didn’t have head coaching experience. But if you are never given the opportunity to have that, how can you have it?
“In our minds, we’ve always envisioned in order to be an NBA coach, as a woman, you have to go through the NBA ranks, but there’s been a variety of ways to get to the NBA. You’ve seen overseas coaches come over. But it’s coming, it’s in the near future.”
The Rockets had inquired about Dennis Schröder days before the trade deadline and the Celtics were able to spin off a deal that included bringing back center Daniel Theis. While it seems Schröder would be a prime buyout candidate, the Rockets are indicating they want to keep him for the rest of the season. Schröder is playing for a lucrative contract next season, while the Rockets are in total rebuild mode. Another free agent who may be attractive to the Celtics is point guard D.J. Augustin, who was waived by the Rockets . . . What’s ironic about the Trail Blazers’ rebuild is that despite trading CJ McCollum, Robert Covington, and Norman Powell and basically playing kids, they are still in the thick of the play-in race. After losing Nassir Little to season-ending shoulder surgery, the Blazers will also be without former first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr. for at least a month with a torn elbow ligament. While the top of the Western Conference has three of the league’s best teams in the Suns, Warriors, and Grizzlies, the bottom of the West is filled with flawed teams clawing for the four play-in spots. The Lakers are four games under .500 and ninth in the West but still lead the Blazers by 2½ games. The Pelicans, Spurs, and Kings are within 3½ games of Portland. The Blazers are banking on Anfernee Simons, who is a Most Improved Player candidate and scored 31 points in the Blazers’ win Monday at Milwaukee, which was without Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was Simons’s rapid development that encouraged the Blazers to part with McCollum, who had been coveted by New Orleans for years, and bring back Josh Hart and a first-round pick. Portland could be one of those rare teams that is making a playoff run in the midst of its rebuilding effort.