PHILADELPHIA — The NBA’s two biggest melodramas played out on the same Wells Fargo Center court Friday night, as the Nets and 76ers, both championship contenders, played without their All-Star guards and biggest headaches.
The Nets’ Kyrie Irving is out because he has steadfastly refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19, and the 76ers’ Ben Simmons isn’t playing because he got in his feelings when his employer asked him to work on his craft.
Simmons — who had been holding out for a trade then returned only to get thrown out of practice for being a distraction — showed up at Friday morning’s shootaround and told the team he wasn’t “prepared mentally” to play.
Nobody is going to win out of this entire sorry situation, not players, teams or fans. That’s the lesson the Nets quickly learned with Irving that the 76ers haven’t figured out yet.
“No, I don’t think we’re in that [stage]. I don’t want to look out [down the road]. I only can look now. That [Irving] situation is so different than this situation,” 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said before the Nets’ 114-109 victory.
“I think they’re similar [situations] in one way,” echoed Nets head coach Steve Nash, “or dissimilar in others.”
Yeah, dissimilar in a number of ways. Irving is at home, rarely a topic of discussion in Brooklyn, and always has been publicly supported by teammates when he is.
Simmons has been at practice every day since passing his COVID-19 test, was clearly the subject of Joel Embiid’s displeasure, and will get lambasted by the notoriously tough Philadelphia fans whenever he shows his face. He drew chants of, “F–k you Simmons” on Wednesday when the NHL Flyers played at home, and he wasn’t even there.
To say it has been a distraction has been an understatement. The 76ers seem to be banking on the meeting Friday morning as a step toward reconciliation. And it might well be. But the potential for distraction is dangerous, and the Nets cut that off by shelving Irving until he’s all-in and available.
This isn’t about either team trading their All-Star. This is about one team putting the drama to bed before it became an even bigger problem.
“Look, it’s lose-lose any way you play it,” Annette Bening warned Denzel Washington in “The Siege.” “You want to lose little or lose big?”
Nets general manager Sean Marks and team owner Joe Tsai took ego out of the equation, and opted to lose little. When Irving dug in and refused the vaccine — making himself ineligible to play at Barclays Center — they sent him home altogether on Oct. 12.
The Nets realized having a road-only part-time player would’ve been untenable in terms of distraction, chemistry and cohesion. Two games into the regular-season, the 76ers haven’t figured that out yet.
And they’re sounding like slow learners.
“This could be four years,” 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said Thursday on 97.5 The Fanatic. “The conditions that I’m pointing out to you don’t change.
“Unless Ben Simmons is traded for a difference-maker, we’re in the prime of Joel’s career. We have to get back either Ben Simmons playing well for us, who helps us win the championship, or we have to get back a difference-maker for Ben Simmons. Or this could be four years from now and we’re still like, ‘Hey, we took the best shot at it we could.’ ”
Four years? Of this? Simmons could do as much damage to this team as a bad president to a country, sulking and sinking the Sixers from the inside.
Simmons didn’t play Friday, but the 76ers had to add multiple security measures to protect players from irate fans, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
There’s a new fence overlooking the players’ entrance, keeping fans from getting close to players and looking down — or expressing their anger in other ways.
It strains credulity to think the 76ers are going to get Simmons to buy back in, and that this won’t have a negative impact on the team if he’s still in a snit.
Clearly Simmons’ behavior is unacceptable, but Morey likely overplayed his hand in demanding a king’s ransom in a potential trade. The 76ers can find takers. It’ll take a small miracle to find one willing to meet Morey’s high demands.
And how much damage can Simmons do until then?
It’s a lose-lose situation. At this point, the Sixers are risking losing big.