CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons grew from lottery picks to All-Stars to franchise cornerstones getting paid max contracts together and _ the thought was _ they would try for a decade to win NBA championships together.
“We’ve been building this thing around us,” Embiid said.
Not anymore — not if Simmons gets his way and forces a trade out of Philadelphia.
Simmons, a three-time All-Star, was a no-show at Monday’s media day and was not expected to report when training camp opens Tuesday following his offseason trade request, even with $147 million and four years left on his contract.
But, perhaps, however unfathomable, all is not lost.
“I think there’s a lot of hope,” 76ers President Daryl Morey said.
Whether he truly believed that or it was just public posturing, only Morey knows, but he said he thought a reconciliation with Simmons was possible.
“We expect him back. We expect him to a be a 76er,” Morey said.
Morey did not address potential punishment against Simmons but said fines and suspensions were “clearly spelled out in the (collective bargaining agreement).” Morey cited Aaron Rodgers as an example of an athlete on the brink of a divorce with his team, only to work things out and thrive, as the quarterback has done with the Green Bay Packers.
The Sixers already are playing “what if” with Simmons.
Embiid wished he had to chance to sit down with Simmons and hash out any issues. Tobias Harris said he wished the team visited Simmons the day after the season ended and told him they all shared the blame in the Sixers’ early postseason exit.
“It was not one guy who made mistakes,” Harris said.
Simmons was not on the trading block until his representatives met with Morey over the summer and said the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft wanted out. Coach Doc Rivers, perhaps Simmons’ most ardent supporter, said Simmons and his representatives were light on specifics of the trade demand.
“It’s a tough answer, because it wasn’t as clear as we probably would want it,” Rivers said. “It’s tough to play here, but Ben didn’t say that. But you’ve got to assume that’s probably part of it. And I can’t say he said that. That’s just an assumption.”
Morey said he last talked to Simmons’ representatives about seven weeks ago.
Harris did not reveal details of his own conversations with Simmons but told the media “you already know.”
The toxic mix for Simmons comes down to this: He’s hurt by comments Rivers and Embiid made in the aftermath of the Game 7 loss and hurt by stinging criticism from media and fans and how he has shouldered the blame for the Sixers’ playoff woes.
His refusal to shoot beyond 15 feet and his postseason failures at the free-throw line have seemingly outweighed his assists, playmaking and a spot last season on the All-Defensive first team.
Embiid refused to back down from pinpointing Simmons’ pass on a gimme-basket attempt because he thought he would get fouled late in Game 7 as the “turning point” in defeat.
“What did I actually say? I don’t think I said anything,” he said. “I was asked a question, you know, what was the turning point of the game? I really believed that it was the turning point of the game.”
Embiid, though, made repeated references Monday to players needing more “self-awareness.”
Another sore subject is that Simmons was dangled as trade bait last season in a proposed deal with Houston for James Harden.
If trade rumors are an issue, Embiid says, get over it.
“We’ve all got to grow up,” he said. “I understand being in trade rumors, that’s just part of the business. If Golden State came and offered Steph and Klay for me, you think the Sixers would say no to that? They’ve got to say yes to that. I would say yes to that. How do you say no to that? That’s what they do, they’re always going to find ways to get better, so you can’t get mad at that. That’s just the way it is.”
Embiid was among a small group of teammates rebuffed by Simmons in their attempt to visit the disgruntled guard and coax him back to Philly. Embiid said he would have told Simmons “he’s disappointed” in the situation and feels the Sixers are closer to an NBA title with the point guard on the team.
Embiid said he grew as close to Simmons last season as they’d ever been.
“If I didn’t like playing with him, I’m honest, I would say,” Embiid said. “But I do love playing with him because he adds so much to our team.”
The 25-year-old from Australia shot 34% from the free-throw line in the postseason and was reluctant to attempt a shot from anywhere on the floor late in games. His defining moment as a Sixer came when he passed up a wide-open dunk against Atlanta that would have tied the game late in Game 7.
Rivers said the Sixers wanted Simmons to practice free throws.
“We wanted to put in work this summer, and through the year,” Rivers said. “If we get him, we plan to keep working on it. I do think that would change his game a little bit.”
With Simmons, the Sixers remain a contender in the Eastern Conference. Without him _ and with Tyrese Maxey running the point _ Morey better hope he can get a haul of picks and a star (or two) for Philly to stay on pace.
“As I told our guys, last year we almost pulled off, you know, really a miracle run,” Rivers said.
The Sixers didn’t draft Simmons and Embiid for miracles _ even, as Rivers noted, they went far with a new coach in a funky NBA season _ but they may need one this season if they want to make a run in the East.
It just won’t happen this week.
“We start training camp tomorrow,” Harris said, “and I don’t think he’s coming through that door.”