photo via Forbes.
CBS, among all other major sports news platforms, has asserted in the last 24 hours that the Philadelphia 76ers are contributing to Ben Simmons’s mental health struggles. I would never make light of a person’s situation, especially as it pertains to their mental health, but as we all know there are several layers to this saga and I believe it is worth exploring.
Superstar Agent Rich Paul set forth the narrative on Thursday that despite Ben articulating that he is suffering mentally, the team insists that he play. The following excerpt is from CBS quoting Rich Paul, who attributes the quote to The Athletic:
“He’s [Ben Simmons] not there yet. How can a doctor, who has only met with Ben once, say, ‘Ben is mentally ready to play?’ So do we keep digging on him, or help him?” Paul told The Athletic. “Now that we understand that reluctance from Ben, it all makes sense. There was a shying away from it. If Ben has repeatedly shown behavior that entails he isn’t mentally ready to play, embrace him. Support him. We have to remove our ego from it. We all have to take responsibility.”
Again, mental health should not be taken lightly, but let’s recap the events from the summer to see how we got to this point. Before the beginning of last season, many wondered if Simmons and Embiid (the all-star center) can co-exist in a modern NBA. Throughout the season, and perhaps even before last season, you would frequently see Ben forecast as a center piece of a blockbuster trade. Things calmed down to a degree, and the 76ers went on their playoff run. They entered as a #1 in the East, although it was still common place to have the likes of Brooklyn or the Bucks ahead of them as title contenders. Nevertheless, they take care of #8 Washington and proceeded to the #5 Hawks, who impressed in a series victory over the Knicks. Philly should have won that series. They were up 26 in Game 5 and lost. Eventually, we reach Game 7, 4th quarter, score is 88-86 ATL. They clear out the post for Ben, he spins off Gallinari, and instead of taking the wide open dunk, he passes it for a contested layup and everything goes down hill from there. The Sixers lose the game and, of course, the series.
After the game, Coach Doc Rivers was asked whether you can win with Ben Simmons as your PG, to which he didn’t have an inspiring answer for. Embiid after the game was also asked where everything went wrong, and he cited the non-dunk by Simmons. After this, we get the tumultuous summer, resulting in a trade request and fines, which I wrote about last month.
Now, with Ben sitting out the season til’ this point with mental health issues, a large contingency of people will indicate that this could likely be a tactic to avoid the enormous fines he has been receiving prior to now. I don’t blame people for thinking this, as this was my first impression too. But let’s try and put ourselves in Ben’s shoes for a minute.
Philly is renown for being one of the most hostile places to play, even if you are on the team. Hell, the Eagle fans boo’d Santa Claus. St. Nicholas got heckled, and he delivered on time every year, so imagine the reaction when Ben Simmons doesn’t deliver once.
Ben has been ridiculed before the incident, and has been absolutely scorned after the fact. He also exists in a time where seemingly every trade demand has not only been met, but the player in question usually gets to go to a team of their choosing. Ben is different for several factors. For one, his GM doesn’t see past analytics. Darryl has notoriously been a stubborn number cruncher as evidenced by his ability to change the league in Houston with the bombardment of 3 point attempts being mandated from the top-down. He will simply not let Simmons go for less than the price less set by his analytics. Furthermore, requests of this nature are more typical when the player has fewer years left on his contract, thus giving the player leverage. Trade me now, I won’t resign, also buyer beware because if you weren’t on my list of desired locations, I won’t resign… Shout out Kawhi… 🙁 Ben however, has 4 years left on his deal, and the league and the 76ers have discovered that they will be allowed to hurt him financially should he not participate. So, Ben is truly stuck – stuck in a market that will openly bash him for his mistakes, and will seldom celebrate him, even if he does perform. This provides a slight, but recognizable window for someone to assess that he may be truly suffering mentally from the situation.
Where things get weird is the fact that this mental health assertion was only made after he was hit financially. I think he could have truly been in this state prior to the fines, but it was only articulated afterwards. The environment pertaining to mental health adds a layer to this as well. We encourage players to speak about it to make them comfortable, but we also recognize that it isn’t the easiest thing to talk about. How can we properly assert that Ben wasn’t feeling this way since immediately after game 7? Of course the opportunity structure here is apparent. Asserting his mental struggles will make it difficult to continue to fine him for his ongoing absences.
So if you’re the 76ers, here is the predicament that you are in. You can let Ben continue to sit out in good faith that he is working on his mental health, at the risk that it will never be recovered while he is a member of the Sixers; or you can begin to fine him again in the face of his assertions, and run the risk of a PR nightmare. Is this Rich Paul being strategic? There would surely be heightened backlash if this is the case, but in the current environment it is simply too risky to approach.