Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said his team referred to the drama surrounding Ben Simmons’ absence last season as “clutter”. Rivers said Simmons’ absence did not hurt the team’s odds of winning a championship more than the midseason league-wide COVID-19 outbreak did.
Ahead of the Sixers’ matchup at Barclays Center against the Nets on Monday — which coincidentally is the first game Simmons is playing after missing the entire 2021-22 NBA season due to a combination of mental health and lower back issues — Rivers said the All-Star guard’s absence “didn’t bother us” as much as the outside world thought.
“We played above it, all of that clutter is what we called it,” Rivers said. “We were a game away from, two games away from the No. 1 seed. Our guys had a great ability to kind of just focus and play.”
The “clutter” Rivers is referring to was the training camp saga with Simmons. Simmons said on Media Day he reported to Sixers training camp despite having an outstanding trade request because he wanted to “do the right thing.” Rivers ultimately threw Simmons out of practice for declining to participate in team drills and Simmons never played another game or attended another Sixers practice. The Nets acquired him at the trade deadline in the deal for James Harden.
Simmons, on a recent episode of The Old Man and The Three Podcast with J.J. Redick, told Redick he asked Rivers not to play him in any drills because he wasn’t mentally ready to participate, but that Rivers put him in on the first drill anyway. When he declined to participate in further drills, Rivers reportedly threw him out of practice.
And when asked to reflect on his time coaching Simmons, Rivers declined to do so.
“I don’t [reflect] right now,” he said ahead of tipoff on Monday. “I’m more focused on us.”
Simmons also agreed with Redick on the podcast episode that Rivers threw him under the bus in the postgame interview after Game 7 of the series against the Hawks. A reporter asked Rivers if Simmons could be the point guard of a championship team.
Rivers responded: “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Which makes it much less coincidental and far more premeditated for the league to have scheduled Nets vs. Sixers as the first game for Simmons since he was wearing a Philly uniform.
Simmons’ friend and Australian teammate Patty Mills said he doesn’t think there’s any bad blood between Simmons and his former team.
“I think when he’s come here, this is a great fresh start for him and having him on the floor,” Mills said. “What we’re looking at here is more about ourselves.”
Nets head coach Steve Nash suggested getting a game against his former teammates as the first in 440 days could be good for Simmons.
“Why not? That’s probably a question for Ben, but some guys love it, some guys could care less,” Nash said. “I think we’re all affected differently by that. Maybe it could be a positive thing to get one out of the way and then just play.”
The Sixers rested Joel Embiid, who also threw Simmons under the bus after the second-round playoff exit two seasons ago, against the Nets. They also rested Harden, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House.
Simmons has a month and a half until visiting Philadelphia as an opponent for the first time on Nov. 22. That’s when we’ll know just how strained the relationship is, presumably against a fully loaded Sixers team and the same fans he once played for.