• Cameron Tabatabaie

What recent NBA training camp dramas can teach Ben Simmons and the Sixers

Ben Simmons has played his last game for the Philadelphia 76ers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the three-time All-Star will not report to training camp with the team, and is willing to continue to sit until he is traded away from Philly.

This is a gargantuan development for one of the NBA’s most iconic franchises. Having just inked franchise superstar Joel Embiid to a hefty extension, the club is looking to win now. It’s certainly an ugly bit of drama to start the season for the Sixers.

There hasn’t been much momentum on a Simmons trade, and Philadelphia’s asking price has reportedly been rather steep. Simmons is, after all, an incredibly promising talent. Perhaps the dormant NBA trade market will wake up following this ultimatum, though.

What happens next is unclear. But Simmons and Philly would be wise to consider recent training camp dramas as they try to predict their respective futures.

Kyrie Irving

Ben Simmons isn’t the only high-profile Australian point guard to demand a trade in recent years. Although it feels like a lifetime ago, Kyrie Irving’s departure from Cleveland could be a cautionary tale.

At the time, it was reported that Irving told the Cavaliers he was considering skipping training camp ahead of the 2017-18 season as he agitated for a trade. This followed weeks of disagreement between the two parties and months of possible Kyrie trade rumors. The parallels to the Simmons situation here in 2021 are pretty obvious.

For Irving, the results were sort-of positive. Kyrie didn’t land with one of his preferred teams as reported at the time, but did end up on a Celtics team that won 55 games the following season. Things in Boston ended unceremoniously. After all, Irving never chose to play for the C’s.

Still, there were moments where it looked like Irving got exactly what he wanted in leaving Cleveland, and just a few seasons later, he does appear to be living his best life.

The Cavaliers fared similarly after Kyrie’s initial decision to abstain from training camp. A trade haul of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the pick that became Collin Sexton looked like a very reasonable bounty at the time - especially considering the team desperately needed to keep LeBron James happy.

Both Irving and Cleveland appeared to separate on reasonably positive terms; each side looked to be headed toward greener pastures given the circumstances. Despite how things played out in the next few seasons, this might be the best framework for Philadelphia and Ben Simmons.

Cleveland didn’t necessarily capitulate to all of Irving’s demands - they traded him for the best possible package, not to one of his stated preferred destinations. Still, because he was and is such a talented player, the Cavs were able to recuperate some real value.

76ers general manager Daryl Morey has been refusing to blink during this Simmons stand-off, which is why there hasn’t yet been a trade. If he and the Sixers relax their expectations just a bit, though, Philly could bring in a nice haul with time to integrate new players alongside Joel Embiid and the rest of the team.

Waiting to do so could be an invitation for a decidedly thornier situation.

Jimmy Butler

While Irving and Cleveland separated rather amiably following a protracted trade request, there’s no such guarantee for peace and cooperation. Sometimes things get messy.

Jimmy Butler’s now infamous divorce from the Minnesota Timberwolves should scare Philadelphia’s entire front office.

After Minnesota forcibly and publicly denied Butler’s trade request heading into the 2018-19 season, JB took matters into his own hands. A defiant, focused Butler returned to Timberwolves practice in early October, torched the team’s starters in front of everyone, and then promptly sat for a tell-all interview with ESPN.

Butler did eventually suit up for Minnesota for 13 games before finally being traded. But he unequivocally won the moment by commandeering and controlling the narrative.

Like Irving, Butler eventually joined a contender (more on that in a moment). Minnesota, meanwhile, received Robert Covington, a young Dario Saric, and Jerryd Bayless. Not exactly a king’s ransom, but a reasonable package for a team that expected to compete at the time.

Ironically it was the Sixers who landed Butler, albeit under a different front office regime. Still, the team was intimately involved in a disgruntled superstar training camp drama. Once again, it appeared at the time that both sides did OK following the trade, but inactivity on the part of the team created an ugly and public power imbalance. This Philly FO should be mindful of potential PR nightmares to come.

As an aside, this isn’t an article about how we got to this point. But it is worth noting that the Sixers have dropped more than a few balls in getting to this moment. Butler was an excellent pairing alongside Joel Embiid, and yet he’s down breaking hearts in South Beach, not in Philly. At a certain point the 76ers ought to reflect on their role in getting to this point. (Until Simmons learns how to shoot an actual jump shot, he’s also far from guilt-free.)

James Harden

Training camp holdouts are, apparently, a pretty common occurrence in the NBA. Because it was less than a year ago that we saw a similar drama play out in Houston.

James Harden did eventually report to training camp and begin the 20-21 season with the Rockets. And true to form, he was lethargic, disassociated, and absolutely stellar in his final days with Houston.

Unlike Butler, though, Harden wasn’t a fun villain. Instead, his lack of COVID awareness and safety were, frankly, inexcusable, and though once the season began he was professional and courteous until he was eventually traded, it wasn’t exactly fun or interesting drama.

Still, like Irving and Butler before him, Harden eventually landed on a bonafide contender. The ends justified the means for the player following some intense training camp drama. And from Kobe to Paul Pierce, this has been a tried and true piece of leverage for disgruntled stars.

How Houston made out is still worth debating, but the Rockets seem content in their new chapter. (Unlike Minnesota, Cleveland, or this Philly team, however, the Rox didn’t have a hometown star to try and appease.)

Why the Sixers didn’t preempt all of this drama by trading for Harden themselves is unclear. It’s another example of Philadelphia missing out on any opportunity to solve this problem proactively. And again, it’s worth noting that Simmons’ inability or unwillingness to adapt has been just as devastating.

What happens next for Ben Simmons and the 76ers is unclear. Simmons should yield interesting enough trade offers if Philly can meet the market where it’s at. If the recent past is any indication, however, ripping the band-aid off might be more frightening on paper than in practice.