Sports

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?

This summer the Philadelphia 76ers were the only show on TV. Nature abhors a vacuum, so the empty space of what people over 30 might remember fondly as the “NBA offseason” was filled with the Ben Simmons Saga. Largely broadcast through a series of tweets from various sources, it consisted mostly of gossip, rumors, second-hand threats allegedly made by Rich Paul (Tyrese Maxey: no longer appearing at Delaware Valley CarMax openings, I guess?), outrageous trade-package demands made by Daryl Morey (Wiggins, Wiseman, Moody, Kuminga, behind-the-plate Giants tickets, an original print of Bullitt, the deed to City Lights bookstore, and Juan Toscano-Anderson), and some ill-advised podcast promotion. We came, we saw, we quote-tweeted, we broke the Trade Machine. It kept us busy during August, and what more do you really want from a pro sports league propped up by a 24/7 news cycle?

As a Philadelphia fan, I can’t say I enjoyed it, and as an NBA watcher I don’t think I could come up with any more ways of saying “We’ll see!” This was one of those times when I could actually see the argument from both sides. I could see why Simmons would want a change of scenery, especially after he put his head down and played pretty well after a rumored James Harden trade failed to come off at the beginning of last season. If he felt like his coach, teammates, organization, and fan base had turned on him, then it only made sense that he would want to bounce. For the Sixers’ part, watching Ben Simmons in the second round of the playoffs made me want to claw my eyes out of my head. So like I said: Both sides had a compelling case.

Monday’s NBA media day was supposed to answer some of the summer’s cliffhangers. It was supposed to give some clarity to this great game of telephone that’s been ringing throughout the offseason. We would hear from Philly coach Doc Rivers, from Philly president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, from franchise player/avatar Joel Embiid, from veterans like Danny Green and Tobias Harris, younger Klutchers like Maxey, and newcomers like Andre Drummond. Surely, all these people with microphones in their faces would breathe new life into this trudging zombie of a story, right?

Well, something funny happened on the way to Tuesday: nothing. At least, not really. On a day when several notable NBA players entered the vaccination chat, and Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin revealed that Zion Williamson had had secret foot surgery to repair a broken metatarsal (an announcement that was positively Process-esque in its wait-till-next-year sense of deflation), the Sixers distinguished themselves by addressing what is a weird but not entirely unique situation: the case of their disgruntled, vanishing star player, and what exactly they plan on doing about it.

After spending more than my allotted daily time of watching Sixers media availability, I would like to make this report back from the front: I think this is fine? What seemed just two weeks ago like a totally desperate chaos-storm of institutional betrayal and dysfunction—a head coach moonlighting as a lamestream-media takesmith, an eerily silent front office, and one of the most powerful agents in basketball possibly trying to foment revolution within the franchise—well, now it all seems like a pretty quotidian NBA story.

Which is exactly what Doc Rivers would like you to think. If Doc seemed out of his depth on the interview circuit over the last couple of weeks, he seemed right at home at what must be his umpteenth media day. There he was, Morey at his side, telling folksy stories about golfing and bumping into fans in airports. He seemed entirely in control and also a little bit full of shit. But who amongst us, right?

After the ritual parrying of a mildly hostile question from local sports-media legend/personality Howard Eskin, Rivers settled into a personable if still professionally elusive line of reasoning, insisting that his oft-cited comments directly following Philly’s nauseating Game 7 playoff loss to Atlanta were not intended to be read as the under-the-bus toss they appeared to be.

Morey then joined in the proceedings to clear up some timeline stuff: Simmons’s reps approached the team at the Chicago draft combine seeking a trade for their player. According to Morey, the Sixers were not “looking to trade him.” At that time? Have they since? Have they ever? I think the answers to those questions are “maybe not,” “probably,” and “most certainly, for James Harden,” but Morey didn’t have to face those queries, nor would there be any upside into answering them had he been asked.

The point of the press conference wasn’t to shine the light of truth on a story that has been dwelling in the shadows of anonymous sources on Twitter for most of the summer—it was to lower the temperature on the whole thing. Even the possibly inflammatory parts of the press conference felt comforting. You could spin a headline out of Rivers’s comments about Philadelphia being a hard place to play in response to a question about why exactly Simmons wanted out of town. It’s pretty rich for a guy who oversaw Simmons’s postseason meltdown and trade demand from his perch as coach to deflect blame on the fan base, but it didn’t come off that way.

Rivers tried to create a perception that this situation wasn’t any one person’s fault (or fan base’s fault), but rather a natural consequence of a disappointing end to a season. He brought up multiple times that this kind of internal upheaval is more common than we might imagine (and certainly there were plenty of postseason trade rumors around his Celtics and Clippers teams), and that the big difference is there is a lot more information out there than ever before, regardless of its veracity.

This was candor with a total absence of detail, and at least for now that felt way better than the innuendo and speculation that had been there in its absence. Morey would not be drawn in on degrading his player—his trade asset—nor did he go over the top talking about Ben as a tremendous human being. To sum up the famed deal-maker’s stance: Ben is good, he makes the Sixers very good, they would like him to be in camp, and they are always looking to improve the team. Morey left the door open for his return, pointing out—perhaps not totally helpfully for the Philadelphia Eagles—that much was made of Aaron Rodgers’s relationship with the Packers over the summer, and he was back dealing for Green Bay like nothing had ever happened. Broken things can be repaired.

The fear, coming into media day, was that this would be a portrait of a franchise on fire: a coach who’d rather be golfing, a front office backed into a corner by Klutch, and a roster of guys either unenthused at their chances without Simmons in a cut-throat Eastern Conference, or worried they’d be included as sweetener in a future Simmons deal.

Instead it was the opposite: The Sixers players were the best advertisement the Sixers franchise could possibly produce. Embiid tried to mend some fences while still sticking to his post-Hawks reaction that Simmons’s deferral to Matisse Thybulle in the crucial possession of Game 7 was emblematic of the problems facing the Sixers. In his usual way, Embiid tried to infuse the situation with humor, noting, “If there’s anybody that should be mad it’s me freaking calling Matisse out for missing a freaking free throw.”

Everybody had nice things to say about Simmons and even nicer things to say about the guys actually in attendance, namely Tyrese Maxey (who will probably replace Simmons in the starting lineup). The message was clear: We’d love to have Simmons back, but his absence doesn’t sink the season.

Did anyone leave with much clarity on the whole Simmons situation? Of course not. But we were never going to get the warts-and-all truth from this team. So what would the next best thing be? How about a sense of normalcy?


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