Part of what has made Philadelphia’s big flowers-and-chocolates re-courtship of Ben Simmons so humiliating for its participants—a distant second place behind a busload of 76ers canceling a California field trip after learning the object of their affection would rather have the entire state to himself—is that it has left an awful lot of balancing truth unacknowledged, giving the whole exchange and relationship a kind of embarrassing asymmetry. If you’ve ever been dumped before, perhaps you know the feeling: Desperation motivates a campaign of glorification (you’re the best thing that ever happened to me, the Sun shines from your face, etc.) which seems to benefit from a simultaneous campaign of self-flagellation (whereas I am a hopeless piece of shit who will die without you), except in most cases you look up too late and realize that what you’ve done is articulate and affirm all the reasons why leaving was such a solid plan in the first place.
Not that this necessarily describes all that well the exact dynamic between the 76ers and Simmons, but it’s been true for a while now—since all the way back in late June, when several members of the 76ers organization opened their big fat mouths after the disastrous Hawks series and gave Simmons the feeling he’d been scapegoated—that Doc Rivers, Joel Embiid, Daryl Morey, and anyone else with the Sixers who’s spoken on the matter has been careful to say only the optimistic, sanitized-for-public-consumption stuff about the busted relationship. And, whatever, the other stuff isn’t necessarily the business of those of us observing all this, but also it’s just flatly true, wherever you fall on the matter of Simmons’s hurt feelings and what he deserves from a team and from his NBA career, that he fucked up his team’s title chances, and those guys have a right to their own resentment. Bottling it up for the sake of reconciliation is, I guess, sober diplomacy, but to me it’s always very weird and awkward when observers applaud players and executives for the effective deployment of platitudes and half-truths. It’s a charade, and the thing about charades is they belittle all participants.
Embiid evidently reached his limit with this particular charade at some point Thursday afternoon. He was asked once again about the absence of Simmons, and whether Simmons has a point about not fitting that well on a team with Embiid, and rather than continue with the no way Ben Simmons is my best buddy and I love him so much routine, Embiid sighed and said some truths. This was very refreshing.
The most interesting part of Embiid’s answer—which manages to express disappointment and frustration without a hint of earth-salting condemnation, something I have yet to pull off in 40-plus years on the planet—is when he gets into the various ways that the 76ers have oriented themselves to suit Simmons’s unusual particularity as an offensive player. Not just in the organization’s roster choices—moves like the signing of an aging and somewhat redundant Al Horford, and especially the jettisoning of Jimmy Butler—but in Embiid’s own personal professional development:
“I feel like over the years the way our team has been built, you look at last year, the whole starting lineup—I was the worst three-point shooter [other than Ben Simmons] in the starting lineup, and I shot 38 percent from three. We’ve always had shooters, and I feel like I can really play with anybody. I can make anybody better on the court. I don’t necessarily need shooters, but I feel like over the years, you look, like, when we signed Al [Horford], it’s because we needed a stretch five, just to make sure that was—most of my career, I’ve had to kind of step out to the three-point line, which I don’t mind. I like to be a basketball player, I like to do everything on the basketball court. But I feel like our teams have been built, whether it’s the shooting needed or a stretch five and all that stuff, I feel like he’s always had it here.
I feel like our teams have always been built around his needs. I mean, the reason we signed Al, we got rid of Jimmy [Butler], which I still think was a mistake, just to make sure—[Ben] needed the ball in his hands, and that’s the decision they made.”Joel Embiid
The thing that those 76ers fans who haven’t sworn a vendetta against Simmons until the end of time will find heartbreaking here is that Embiid is obviously right about all this, but in a way that illuminates what is fundamentally correct and sort of indisputable in the comments coming from Simmons and his camp. The 76ers very much have been built to accommodate their 6-foot-10 point guard who hates and refuses to shoot, up to and including sometimes stationing their enormous, dominant, physically overpowering center 23 feet from the basket and limiting him to pick-and-pop duties in order to open runways to the hoop for a guy who, despite having zero scoring moves that are not dunks, also hates to dunk. They signed a declining 33-year-old center to an expensive contract despite being a poor fit with their actual best player, in order to keep those runways clear. They cast off one of the NBA’s real killers, an in-his-prime two-way beast who temperamentally and in all other ways fits perfectly with Embiid, in order to keep the ball in Simmons’s hands. That’s a fucking lot of contortion, and along the way the various aches and pains have cost some good people their jobs.
And at the end of all that grueling work what the 76ers ended up with is a roster incapable of separating itself over a seven-game series from the Atlanta Hawks. Anyone ought to agree that that’s enough evidence to know that there’s a better way, a better fit for Embiid on the 76ers and a better fit for Simmons someplace else. Morey has to do the silly, embarrassing work of pretending he’s got leverage in order to score a windfall from any Simmons transaction—that’s the job of a general manager—but it’s a relief to see the rest of the discourse nudging its way back toward the awkward truth. Or, anyway, there’s something satisfying about the whole fraught mess coming full circle: Once again we’ve got Joel Embiid simply describing the lay of the land, and letting the consequences, both of the circumstances enumerated and of their having been enumerated, remain the problem of someone else.