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BenWatch: Very Generously Not Blaming Things On Joel Embiid

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers still have not traded Ben Simmons away! Also he has not agreed to play basketball for them. So in the most crucial respects, the Ben Simmons situation remains unchanged. The NBA trade deadline is in nine days; one way or another, that figures to be something like a, if not the, climax for the BenWatch, unless an unscheduled one arrives before then.

ESPN's Ramona Shelburne has a lengthy feature on the situation, published this morning. If you have been a faithful or even casual BenWatcher, nothing in its outline—Simmons unhappy and withdrawn, nursing sore feelings and stewing in resentment; the Sixers organization in no particular hurry to accept the simple resolution (trading him!) on offer, pretending all of this is very Complicated and Difficult—will seem unfamiliar. It's been like this since August. The fun is in the examples of the specific stuff Simmons is or has been upset by.

Back in October, Simmons had been all but completely incommunicado from the 76ers for more than a month: all through training camp and the opening weeks of the preseason schedule. On the night of the 11th, shortly before tipoff of the team's next-to-last preseason game, he surprised everybody by appearing at the arena, unannounced, to take a COVID test and, at least nominally, fulfill his contractual obligation to show up to work. According to Shelburne, this move—again, just to be clear, showing up weirdly and unexpectedly just prior to the start of a game, with all the disturbance and distraction that would obviously entail—was intended as "a grand gesture of good faith." To the shock of absolutely no one other than perhaps Simmons himself, the 76ers did not consider this unexpected last-minute appearance at the arena—by an unvaccinated holdout who'd demanded a trade, sworn never to play for them again, ignored their calls for more than a month, and who'd need to go through the league's full COVID protocols before being eligible even to participate in practice—to be all that grandly indicative of good faith, to say nothing of fulfilling any sane approximation of game-readiness. As a consequence, the team withheld his game check. Simmons, according to Shelburne's sources, was "offended" by this. Ha!

Now, listen: I am generally in favor of workers claiming for themselves the license to work or not work as suits their needs. Anyone who has relied on me for work at any point in my life can attest to my, uh, dedication to this, ah, principle. But in most cases the arrangement between workers and workplaces is a more-or-less straightforward one, and especially so in the case of sports contracts that break salary down into discrete game checks: You get paid in exchange for your labor. If you neither do your work nor or at the very least make your labor reasonably available, you can't really demand to get paid, or anyway I guess you can but will be doing so kind of absurdly. The pay, again, is in exchange for something, which you haven't provided. If the owner of the produce stand down the street showed up at your door tomorrow—in a "grand gesture of good faith," no less—and expected you to pay him for a box of dekopon oranges you never received and which he will make no effort to give you, I think that you would be like, But wait, that's not how this type of transaction is supposed to go, man. Blow off work if you want! Show up two seconds before a work shift in obviously unsuitable condition to work! But do this knowing that, c'mon, of course you have not upheld your part of the transaction that gets you paid, and thus cannot expect to get paid. You don't have to like this! But it will be pretty funny if you decide to get offended by it.

Here's another funny one, from Shelburne's story:

Simmons doesn't dispute that he didn't reply when [Sixers head coach Doc] Rivers texted and called him several times over the summer asking to see him. But in hindsight, Simmons feels Rivers and the Sixers could've done more, like show up at a well-known gym in the San Fernando Valley where he was training.


Ben Simmons is mad at the people he spurned, pointedly and publicly, because they only tried to contact him via the channels expressly used for that purpose, instead of knowing not to do that and simply crossing the continent to show up where he was instead. This is like something straight out of a junior-high-school going-steady relationship. When I told you to fuck off, you fucked off, instead of debasing yourself for my affection, as I desired but did not communicate. I'll never forgive you! I can't help but feel this whole situation could have been resolved way back in September with a strategically placed "Do u like me? ☑ Yes ☒ No" note.

But wait, here is my favorite one:

According to sources close to Simmons, he's upset that [Joel] Embiid seemed to blame him for last season's playoff loss, when Simmons did not blame Embiid for Embiid's poor showing in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors in 2019.


That'd be the 2019 conference semifinals, which the Sixers lost in seven games to the higher-seeded Raptors. In that series Embiid, who'd gone for 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds per game on .593 True Shooting in the 2018-19 regular season, averaged just shy of 18 points and nine rebounds, on .529 True Shooting. It was, by some distance, the worst playoff series of his career, and he wept openly after the Sixers were eliminated by Kawhi Leonard's impossible buzzer-beating corner three-pointer.

Some context, there, is that Embiid played through that series, all seven games, through a bout of both gastroenteritis and flu-like symptoms that rendered him visibly feeble and obviously miserable. He was sick through sleepless nights, getting IV fluids before and between games to fight off dehydration, and too ill to practice. Even for all that, according to Basketball Reference, the team went a pretty spectacular plus-89 with Embiid on the floor against Toronto; they won his minutes in every game except the blowout Game 5 loss in which every Sixer who logged game time posted a negative plus/minus figure.

How did Simmons do in that series, the loss of which he graciously refrained from blaming on a terribly ill Joel Embiid? Well now! Simmons had averaged right around 17 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists across the 2018-19 regular season. Against the Raptors, he posted averages of 11.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.9 assists. In the regular season, he'd posted a healthy 22.1 usage percentage (as Basketball Reference calculates it) and attempted 5.4 free throws per game; against the Raptors, those figures dropped to a 14.9 usage percentage and 2.3 free-throw attempts per game, as he got hit by a bout of the same neurotic shooting aversion that would kill the Sixers (and apparently end the Philadelphia portion of his playing career) two years later against the lower-seeded Atlanta Hawks.

The 76ers went minus-24 when he was on the floor. If they'd replaced Ben Simmons with a net-zero player and changed nothing else, they would have won the series by 65 points and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

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