The Long Two: The Ben Simmons saga continues, Suns weigh extensions

NBA, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns

Ben Simmons’ future as a 76er has dominated the NBA news cycle all offseason, but this week it finally reached a point of no return.

There’s hardly anything new to say about The Ben Simmons Situation at this point. Uncertainty over the 25-year-old’s future with the 76ers has dominated the NBA news cycle since the end of free agency, and many online spaces — including this one — have devoted plenty of attention to Simmons’ future, the state of his relationship with the Sixers and how this situation might eventually resolve.

Fresh takes are out of stock, and Adrian Wojnarowski’s report that Simmons “will not report for the opening of training camp next week and intends to never play another game for the franchise” was simply confirmation of what had been a practical certainty for months, and a natural destination for Simmons and Klutch Sports’ slow leverage grab.

Ben Simmons could win where the Philadelphia 76ers lose

It’s logically absurd for Simmons and his representation to act as though they hold the upper hand here, given where this whole thing started. This is a player who has repeatedly become an offensive liability in the postseason and refused to improve his game or accept responsibility for his mistakes. But these situations don’t always unfold according to logic, and it’s possible — maybe even likely — that Simmons comes out of this situation a winner while Philadelphia gets stuck between two underwhelming options.

The Sixers would likely be better off with even a player of slightly lesser ability in Simmons’ stead, but they’d undoubtedly be worse with literally nothing in his place. Philly has been staunch in its stance that Simmons is worth a Holiday-like return, but with his salary taking up roughly 30 percent of the cap next season and little available means to acquire a suitable replacement, the clock is ticking fast. If Simmons really is willing to pay an entire season’s worth of fines not to show up in Philadelphia, there would be no option but to trade him, even if it requires attaching an asset to incentivize another team to take him. Simmons, meanwhile, would get the chance to rehabilitate his value with a team that will have likely held onto its best assets.

But perhaps more interesting than where Simmons ends up is how this saga might change the NBA’s transactional landscape moving forward. If Ben Simmons, a borderline All-NBA player with four years left on a max contract, can force his way out of a city, what’s stopping other top-15 to -30 players from trying the same move? Could lesser players than Simmons eventually get away with the same tactic? As discussed here last month, the modern NBA superstar has enough leverage to command a max contract and still force his way to another team if he so desires.

Simmons clearly isn’t the same caliber of player as James Harden or Anthony Davis, both of whom have forced trades in the last two years, but his attempt to put himself in that category might lower the threshold of who has the power to pull the move off. Then again, Simmons could be an aberration whose behavior might not be replicable for non-superstars. He doesn’t have as much leverage as Harden or Davis, who could effectively choose their eventual destinations, and it might take another ugly fallout between player and team for something like this to happen again. How the situation resolves will provide more clarity on the matter, and the entire NBA world will be watching closely to find out what happens.

How will the Suns handle Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton’s rookie extensions?

The most interesting contract extension candidates tend not to be the NBA’s elite, max-level players, but the solid starters whose value lies just below the max. That puts the Phoenix Suns in a fascinating position heading into the 2022 season, given that 2018 draftees Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are both eligible to sign extensions on their rookie contracts. There was little question that Luka Doncic and Trae Young would have instant max offers because those deals should be mutually beneficial. But for players like Ayton and Bridges, it’s harder to find a workable price for both player and team.

Because Phoenix can match any offer that either player gets in restricted free agency next summer, the only real financial incentive of working out an extension is securing one or both for less money than they’d get in free agency. Players, however, don’t typically sacrifice their own earning power for the good of the team, and having the fallback option of waiting until free agency makes meeting in the middle more challenging.

Both Ayton and Bridges, having played vital roles on a team that just made the NBA Finals, will have real leverage in their negotiations, but neither has consistently played so well as to demand a max contract with no questions asked. Both players are important cogs in the Suns’ ensemble on both ends of the floor, but neither currently projects as a primary offensive option or a foundational defender, and locking both in on near-max deals could significantly reduce Phoenix’s flexibility moving forward. With Devin Booker and Chris Paul are due nearly $125 million combined over the next two seasons (plus another $36 million for Booker in 2024), big deals for Ayton and Bridges would likely put the historically luxury tax-averse Suns over the tax line without a full roster intact.

A useful reference point for Bridges’ situation might be Raptors wing OG Anunoby, who signed a four-year, $72 million extension last offseason. Bridges isn’t quite the one-on-one stopper that Anunoby is, but he’s a superior team defender and a slightly more versatile offensive player who fits on virtually any kind of roster. Anunoby’s $18 million annual salary is likely on the low end of his price range, which suggests Bridges and the Suns could wind up striking a deal worth roughly $80 million over four years.

Ayton’s situation may be more complicated because his value is less defined than Bridges’. Though a strong interior finisher and post defender, Ayton hasn’t proven himself a reliable defensive anchor or offensive focal point. That doesn’t close the door on him eventually checking both boxes, and Ayton will almost certainly continue his improvement on both ends of the floor, but it’s harder for a team ready to win right away to make a significant commitment to a center whose long-term value remains relatively unclear. He may well be worth more than Bridges if he takes a real step forward as a rim protector or offensive creator, but the Suns may want to wait one more season to find out.

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