Ben Simmons’ time as a Philadelphia 76er is far from over and it’s up to management to fix this seemingly unrepairable relationship, according to NBA legend Isiah Thomas.
Simmons has looked set for an exit from Philadelphia ever since their surprise exit in the Eastern Conference semi-finals to the Atlanta Hawks last term.
Coming into the 2020-21 post-season as the No 1 seed in the East, the 76ers were expected to beat the fifth-seeded Hawks and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals but instead lost the best-of-seven series 4-3 – including the deciding fixture on home court.
Ben Simmons does have a future with the Philadelphia 76ers, feels NBA legend Isiah Thomas
Simmons has been pushing for a trade since last season’s play-off exit by the Atlanta Hawks
However, Thomas (left) believes that the relationship between both parties is salvagable
Simmons took only four shots and refused to take an open dunk late in the game that could have kept the Sixers in it – to the furore of the home fans.
Instantly the Australian’s future at the franchise was in doubt as his fellow All-Star team-mate Joel Embiid and head coach Doc Rivers failed to support him post-game.
‘I’ll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we, I don’t know how to say it, is when we had an open shot and we made one free throw,’ Embiid said.
Asked if Simmons could still be a point guard for a championship contender, Rivers said he didn’t have an answer – another damning indictment.
Since then the 25-year-old has tried to force a move away from the Wells Fargo Center – essentially by going on strike. The Sixers fined Simmons close to £1.5million for missing games, practices and meetings earlier this season but that has since changed when he told the organisation on October 22 that he wasn’t mentally ready to play.
Joel Embiid was critical of Simmons’ performance during that Game 7 loss to the Hawks
76ers head coach Doc Rivers also gave a damning indictment about Simmons post-match
And reflecting on the whole fiasco, two-time NBA champion Thomas believes the door is still ‘open’ for a reconciliation.
‘I do think the doors are still open. And, you know, I’ve said this before, but I think right now it’s up to management now to to really bridge the gap,’ he told Sportsmail exclusively.
‘He [Simmons] started six months ago saying that he would never walk into the building. Okay, now you got him in the building. Now you got him home.
‘And from a management standpoint, now it’s can you communicate enough to him to convince him now to change his mind. You can’t change his mind when he’s 200 miles away but now that he’s in your hometown, and he’s in your building, and if you want to keep him then you got to have some good conversation with him and try to figure out a way to work that out.
‘Clearly there’s got to be some part of him that wants to be there because if not he wouldn’t even be in the town, in the city, at practice – he just wouldn’t be showing up.’
Simmons has returned to practice with the Sixers, after initially going AWOL to force a trade
The Sixers had fined Simmons close to £1.5million for missing games, practices and meetings
As well as a successful playing career, Thomas has also coached at the NBA level previously over a six-year span and when asked how he would deal with Simmons if he was in Rivers shoes he said he would constantly be reaching out to the point guard.
‘I would look at it like recruiting, right,’ he continued. ‘I got to recruit a player that don’t want to come to my school. I got to convince a player that don’t want to play on my team but I know he’s one of the top two players that I have. So I got to recruit him.
‘You know, I got to convince him like: “Hey, this is a situation that can work out”.
‘I’ve got to convince his team-mates that, you know, when we look at it from a talent perspective, the situation can work out and they can work well for us. So I got to recruit him.
‘I got to go to his house. I got to spend time with them. I got to knock on this door. If you don’t let me in. I got to sit outside in the hallway. Wait for him to open the door. When he’s walking the dog. I got to walk the dog with him.
‘I got to recruit him. And that’s what I think needs to happen here.’
Having coached in the NBA previously, Thomas says he would keep reaching out to Simmons
Despite finishing as the No 1 seed in the East last season, Thomas doesn’t believe Philadelphia will be the team representing the conference in this term’s NBA Finals – citing the Brooklyn Nets as that team.
The 60-year-old feels that the Nets will face the Los Angeles Lakers in what would be a mouthwatering showpiece. The latter have been made a stuttering start to the campaign, highlighted by their shock 123-115 defeat at the Oklahoma City Thunder – which included blowing a 26-point lead, as their new-look roster tries to figure it out.
Nine-time All-Star and 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook is one of the new additions this summer and the veteran point guard has been criticised for his performances so far.
However, Thomas isn’t fazed by his early season struggles and believes that he, LeBron James and Co will figure it all out.
Thomas believes the Brooklyn Nets (centre, Kevin Durant) will come out of the East this season
‘I still have them [the Lakers] coming out of the West and Brooklyn coming out of the East.
‘I think their talent level is so vast that when they do get to the play-offs you’re looking at April/May now and I think those teams will be insane. They’ll be playing at a very high level and will have the camaraderie too.
‘I look at the Lakers, and also look at Brooklyn coming out, I think Westbrook is going to have to find his way. Similar to what [Chris] Bosh had to do in Miami, when he was with [Dwyane] Wade and LeBron, I see Westbrook having to find his way with that group.’
Thomas knows what it takes to lead from the front having been the face of the ‘Bad Boys’ Detroit Pistons side that won two-straight NBA titles in 1989 and 1990.
In the West, Thomas backs the LA Lakers led by LeBron James (centre) and Russell Westbrook
Fast-forward 31 years and this current iteration of Detroit are nowhere near the force of yesteryear. However, they do have the No 1 pick from this year’s draft in Cade Cunningham and Thomas is optimistic of better things ahead.
‘I think he’s going to be an exciting rookie,’ the No 2 pick from the 1981 draft enthused.
‘It’s always exciting when you get the No 1 pick coming to your town, for the organisation, for the fan base. Hopefully, he can back that up with with good play out on the floor.
‘If the Pistons have a good season they’ll be fighting for that Play-In spot, which hopefully they can make.
‘But it’s a young team, a lot of growth ahead of them and we’re excited.’
Thomas is optimistic about the Detroit Pistons’ future with No 1 pick Cade Cunningham there
Thomas was speaking to Sportsmail over Zoom just days after being selected in the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.
As well as winning two NBA titles, the ex-point guard won MVP in 1990, made 12 NBA All-Star appearances and is a member of the prestigious Hall of Fame. But despite a glittering career, Thomas was still humbled to be included in this fabled list.
‘When you when you start playing basketball as a young kid, you never think of these type of honours,’ he beamed.
‘It’s such a unique class of the top 75 and also making into the Hall of Fame. You dream of winning championships and everything else but this is beyond your imagination and anything that you think of as a kid. So, it’s pretty cool to be a part of such a distinguished group.
Now 60, Thomas was named in the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team that was selected last month
‘I was actually at home [when told of the news] and I was a little worried because I was like “I don’t know, if I’m going to be able to make it [the list],” and my wife was like, “Oh, you’re going to make it, you’re going to make it”.
‘It’s one of those things where you try out for the team and they put the teamsheet on the board at the end to see if you’ve made it. This is what it was like.’
Despite his modesty, there was no doubting Thomas would make the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team’s list.
The question now is will Simmons make the 76ers’ starting line-up ever again?