It’s been a relatively busy off-season week with new developments on the Ben Simmons soap opera, front office changes at Minnesota, ESPN’s and SI’s annual player rankings, and Andrew Wiggins’s vaccination status, among others. That’s a lot to unpack in the inaugural Keepin’ It Real column, my weekly NBA roundup commentary. No hot takes, just keepin’ it real.
1. Ben Simmons does not intend to play another game for the Sixers (via ESPN)
The Ben Simmons saga has dominated the NBA’s off-season news cycle and reports of his holdout shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. But it still doesn’t make it any less ludicrous considering that this entire thing is largely his fault. It’s not like he’s holding out because he wants to play for a contender or the team has somehow wronged him for mismanaging injuries. He’s holding out because the Sixers blew a 3-1 against the Hawks due to his ineffectiveness in the 4th quarters of Games 4, 5, and 7, which culminated in this play. As much as I’d like to pin the blame on Doc Rivers, this was 70% on Ben; Doc’s fault was sticking with him even after it became clear that he’s unusable in the 4th. Simmons has played 4 years in the league and has not shown any significant improvements in his shooting. Some have tried to blame the organization for “coddling” Simmons, but that reeks of victim-blaming. It’s counterfactual too.
As Fox Sports reported, the Sixers hired veteran NBA shooting coach John Townsend to work with Simmons in 2016. The plan seemed to be working as Simmons hit 70.7% of his free throws in his first postseason appearance in 2018 (a small sample size but remarkably better than the 56% clip he hit in the regular season). However, instead of continuing to work with Townsend, Rich Paul and Simmons’s family decided that he would spend the summer of 2018 working with his brother Liam, a former low-level D-1 basketball player and assistant coach at the collegiate level. The results speak for themselves.
For someone who gets paid tens of millions of dollars to hoop, holding out while under contract is as unprofessional as it gets. It doesn’t just hurt the franchise; it hurts the fans too. The same fans who are ultimately responsible for the league’s revenue stream that finds its way to the players’ bank accounts. The Sixers can suspend and fine Simmons—and they absolutely should—but Adam Silver should step in if the situation lingers. Simmons is under contract for 4 more years which makes his situation unique compared to past stars who have threatened to hold out.
The league’s failure to take a firm stance could set a bad precedent that would further inhibit small market teams’ ability to hold on to their stars. Philly will be fine, but what if the same happens to New Orleans or Memphis? And the buck shouldn’t stop with Simmons; Rich Paul and Klutch are equally responsible for this circus and there ought to be repercussions for inducing Simmons to breach his contract.
It seems like Ben’s put a stamp on things by telling his current and probably former teammates not to bother visiting him in LA to change his mind.
2. Timberwolves fire Gersson Rosas due to toxic office environment and inappropriate relationship with an employee (via USA Today)
There was a lot of excitement when the Timberwolves hired Rosas as president of basketball operations in 2019. Rosas spent 16 years with the Rockets, where he was Daryl Morey’s right-hand man, and was supposed to bring a more analytical approach to Minnesota. The Rosas era was off to a good start, when it looked like they had successfully reworked Andrew Wiggins’s offensive game. But the losses kept piling up and with Karl Anthony Towns missing substantial time due to injuries, the Wolves decided to retool around KAT by bringing in DeAngelo Russell and drafting Anthony Edwards.
Unfortunately for Rosas, he will not see his project come to full fruition, as he was fired after salacious details about an extramarital affair with an employee and reports of a toxic work environment surfaced. Executive vice president Sachin Gupta, whom Rosas allegedly prevented from joining Houston and then blackballed after that move fell through, will take over on an interim basis.
So where does this leave the Wolves? They’ve still got KAT as the cornerstone, but there’s a growing sense that if the Wolves don’t start winning soon, he’d be the next disgruntled star to demand a trade. It sure looks like they’re running it back to 2016-17, when KAT, Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Ricky Rubio promised a bright future for the franchise. It’s not wrong to pine for that unrealized potential, but this 2021 iteration does not have as much upside—KAT is apparently not as durable as he was early in his career, Edwards is a volume shooter like Wiggins but with less 2-way potential aka a more athletic Dion Waiters, and Russell is a Rubio-Lavine hybrid lacking the best qualities of both. Perhaps the Rosas firing will end up being irrelevant because regardless of who’s in charge, the Wolves are headed to the lottery in the foreseeable future.
3. The NBA denies Andrew Wiggins religious exemption for COVID-19 vaccine (via ESPN)
As the last man on Wiggins Island, the only thing I can tell Andrew is…
… take the red pill, man. Get the jab. Wiggins should be aware that his former teammate, KAT, lost 6 family members due to COVID-19. The vaccines work and Wiggins should protect his own family by getting the shot.
Having said that, I wouldn’t go as far as to ostracize Wiggins for his choice. Vaccine mandates present a complex public health policy question that has many facets which go beyond the archetypal tinfoil hat-wearing anti-vaxxers we see on social media.
4. Clippers are unsure of Kawhi Leonard’s recovery timetable (via ESPN)
Last August, the Clippers went all-in on Kawhi by signing him to a new 4-year extension. That wager is not looking good in the short-term following reports that Kawhi will miss considerable time due to an ACL injury. Perhaps more worrying is the lack of timetable for his return, which seems like a code for “he’s out for the entire 2021-22 season.”
Kawhi is already 30 and has not played more than 60 games per season in each of the last 4 years. The Clippers are banking on him having another healthy postseason as he did in 2019, but how likely is that? To be fair, Kawhi looked like a top-5 player in the recent playoffs before hurting his knee in the second round. But science teaches us that cumulative injuries eventually take its toll on athletes and we don’t know what Kawhi will be like—and how durable he will be—once he returns.
There’s also the concern about his long-term fit with Paul George. Since they teamed up in 2019, the pair has only played a total of 80 games together. PG signed his own 4-year extension in December 2020, which means that the Clippers are committed to their 2 superstars. But their fit isn’t any clearer now than it was two years ago. Over the last 2 playoffs, the Clippers’ net rating when both Kawhi and PG were on the floor together was +1.3 in 2021 and +1.1 in 2020. When only Kawhi was on the floor, it was +14.9 in 2021 and +5.6 in 2020. When it was just PG, it was +8.4 in 2021 and +10.9. They looked to have unlocked something in Games 3 and 4 against Utah, so are the Clippers really putting all their eggs on a 2-game sample? Or maybe there’s simply no alternative for a team trying to stay relevant?
ESPN and SI unveiled their respective player rankings earlier this week. Their Top 10:
Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo going 1-2 is no surprise. Giannis led the Bucks to their first title in 50 years, but he was outplayed by KD in the East semis. Ergo, KD takes the top spot.
LeBron James at number 3 is not surprising either, but for entirely different reasons. ‘The Truth’ Paul Pierce alluded to it when he talked about his time at ESPN. Over the last 5 years, there appears to be an invisible hand at work—from the ridiculous MVP push to the collective amnesia in the aftermath of his broad shoulders boast.
He’s ahead of the top 2 MVP vote-getters last year, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, who both had better stats, carried more load, took their respective teams deeper in the playoffs, and were just plain better. But somehow a 37-year-old LeBron will be better than both in 2021-22? Cool. Never bet against LeBron, right? Though you actually would have made money if you had bet against him each time he’s been in the Finals. Just keepin’ it real.
Here’s my top ten: KD, Giannis, Jokic, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, Embiid, James Harden, Damian Lillard, LeBron, and Anthony Davis. Kawhi excluded due to injury.
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