“This is a multi-year thing,” a Sixers source said. That exec cast in snitching-on-the-mob shadow is talking about holding on to Ben Simmons until another team puts up a decent trade offer for him. Decent according to the Sixers and Daryl Morey, who cannot stand to lose a transaction and so is keeping his jumpshot-averse forward on ice until one of “approximately 30 players who would satisfy the Sixers in a Simmons swap” becomes available. What happens when Philly brass informs, say, the Blazers that they have reviewed their application and deigned to accept a Simmons-for-Dame Lillard swap, how Morey reacts to the sound of laughter and the line going dead, we probably won’t hear about. We’ll hear the Sixers are optimistic about Simmons’s market, that they’re remaining patient.
Assigning a value to any player is a silly exercise. Numbers explain them merely obliquely and every guy in the league’s effectiveness is context-dependent. (Who are his teammates? Did he watch The Babadook last night and only get two hours of sleep?) But with Simmons, the exercise is both silly and wholly impossible. He is either a really good or a borderline useless player, depending on the circumstances. The obvious problem being that he’s typically really good in February and borderline useless at the moment when your season needs saving. Your sense of his value depends almost completely upon your belief in his ability to stop being terrified in big moments and to step into a damn jumper once in a while. The available evidence tells us this won’t happen, but people change and grow. He’s 25 years old. Considerably less fathomable things have happened, in the course of human history, than a dude in his mid-20s figuring a few things out.
If it feels unlikely that this will happen with Simmons, it’s the fact that, sure, he’s already rich and already accomplished and intensely aloof, but it’s also because since his latest playoff meltdown, we’ve been talking about him exclusively as a trade asset. It is like he’s waiting to once again come into being, sitting there on the block as he is, not participating in games or practices, or fielding questions from reporters. He is as thoroughly abstracted as an active player can get, a mute Ben Simmons-shaped vessel onto which each person projects their notions about what he is and what he might be capable of. Every week or so, there is a story from one of the NBA media’s access merchants about how either Simmons or the Sixers is as dug in as they’ve ever been. And then there’s another flurry of speculation. So, uh, does this mean D’Angelo Russell and a future first gets it done? It’s a pretty grim measure of a man.
Simmons isn’t a sympathetic figure. Perhaps that makes turning his existence into a forecast easier. Mental health struggles or no, showing up to your $30 million per year job and half-assing it so aggressively that you get kicked out of the building is lame. If you don’t owe the press an explanation, you should at least be straight with your employer about what’s up. And if your deal is that you just kind of don’t want to come to work anymore, ever, that’s not coming through on your end of the bargain. Simmons is well within his rights to not play basketball. Doing it wherever he wants and exclusively on his terms is not really what he signed up for. Then again, he also didn’t sign up to be treated like a warehoused Rothko breathing heavy through burlap as it awaits auction. There are no heroes in this saga. It’s two camps of millionaires testing each other’s mettle.
There has to be basketball at the end of this, Ben Simmons in somebody’s colors gliding at 75 miles per hour, reminding us what a gorgeous passer he is in the open floor, how he can check anybody on the defensive end. Or a Full Richie Tenenbauming. Or some blend of the two. And then we will have something more substantial to talk about, not this tortured amateur psychologist patter we’ve been doing, the parsing of boardroom table-pounding, Rich Paul maneuvering in place, the semaphore of sources who intimated on Wednesday that Simmons would be open to…
It sounds ridiculous but I do wonder sometimes if it escapes our notice that we like the sport more than we like arguing finance with different nouns, and that we care about Simmons because he’s so confoundingly sublime and inept at basketball, and that’s interesting precisely because we can’t make sense of it, can’t put numbers to it, only adjectives, which also feel wanting. He’s accidentally, tragically found a new way to play the game.
But as separated as he is at the moment from his play, he is mostly profoundly annoying—not him, not the guy Ben Simmons who ate a turkey sandwich for lunch and ignored 58 texts, but The Whole Predicament, which is threatening to subsume his person. That’s why “this is a multi-year thing” is such a harrowing threat. It invites us to imagine the situation decaying even further, an even more sad and discourse-worn Ben Simmons. Like that tupperware container full of kidney beans that you forgot about for two months? Ten times worse than that.
All we can hope is that somebody blinks soon, so that Simmons can once again step on the court and struggle to figure out whether he’s going to shoot at the rim or stare at it like it’s a razor-toothed predator leaping from the underbrush. That can be painful to witness, but surely nothing is more painful than this.