Holdouts don't always work

No one understands that better now than Philadelphia's Ben Simmons, but his current coach — Doc Rivers — knows the feeling, too

Little-known fact, or at least a readily forgotten one, about one of the most prominent Philadelphia 76ers voices in the quest to convince Ben Simmons to rejoin his team:

Doc Rivers, Simmons' coach, held out of Los Angeles Clippers training camp as a player for nearly three weeks in October 1991. Traded from Atlanta to the Clippers just a few months earlier, Rivers racked up nearly $9,000 in fines during a 19-day absence aimed at convincing the Clippers to tack a one-year, $4 million extension onto his existing contract. 

Rivers didn't get the extension.

He had the right idea, though. Holdouts are a rarity in the modern NBA, but players and agents have typically staged them to secure more favorable contract terms than they previously possessed. Holdouts are designed to get the player paid.

Holdouts are most definitely not supposed to play out the way Ben Simmons' unauthorized two-week hiatus from the Sixers just did. Entering the second season of a five-year contract worth nearly $180 million — meaning that he has already successfully secured his big payday — Simmons refused to report in hopes of coercing Philadelphia to trade him. Simmons instead incurred an estimated $1 million in fines and lost salary that he will have to fight to try to get back. And then on Monday night, after 14 days away, Simmons surprised the Sixers by showing up at Wells Fargo Center right before Philadelphia's preseason game against the Kyrie Irving-less Nets.

The sudden end to his one-man rebellion was merely the confirmation of signals that had been growing in strength for days that even Simmons' camp realized what they were trying to achieve had no chance of success. Various media reports that Simmons' agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, was already in dialogue with the team about brokering Simmons' return to the Sixers did not exactly scream power play.

My former ESPN colleague John Hollinger, now of The Athletic, summed the situation up well with the following short but wise tweet Monday, noting that Simmons likely would have been more successful in rattling the Sixers — a la James Harden in Houston at the start of last season — by showing up for training camp with a disagreeable disposition rather than staying away completely.

The general trade forecast in Philly that we've been reporting for months predictably hasn't changed after all the holdout headlines. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey still has ample incentive to stay patient and wait to see if potential trade partners improve their offers after the season starts, and maybe some desperation sets in for underachieving teams, because holding off shouldn’t prevent Philadelphia from staying competitive in the short term even if Simmons doesn't make an on-court comeback in the near future.

League sources say that Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, San Antonio and Toronto (in alphabetical order) have been the most determined suitors for Simmons since last season ended. Morey doesn't appear to possess anywhere near the leverage in trade talks to demand the level of star he hopes will ultimately headline what the Sixers get in return for Simmons — namely Portland's Damian Lillard — but from the start he's been in a far stronger position than Simmons.

Simmons' biggest obstacle in his yearning for a fresh start elsewhere, on so many levels, is what will surely rank as the most lucrative contract of his career. With four years and nearly $150 million left on the deal, and without a no-trade clause, Simmons faces a massive leverage deficit in seemingly every aspect of this saga. The length of the deal means he and Paul have no control over where Simmons might be traded, because teams that aren't typically considered desirable destinations are emboldened to pursue a player who is so far away from free agency. The size of Simmons’ contract, furthermore, meant the Sixers could withhold $360,000 for every game he missed, quickly turning this into a very expensive holdout.

Many unanswered questions remain, of course, because simply returning to Philly doesn't guarantee that Simmons will be playing any time soon. Before we even get to the potentially ferocious fan reaction to a reactivated Simmons in the famously, uh, demanding City of Brotherly Love, his readiness to compete, from conditioning to the state of Simmons’ psyche, is a complete unknown. The club has been hearing for months, from both the player himself and his reps, that Simmons never wanted to spend another second as a Sixer. Animus that runs that deep doesn't get erased in an instant.

"Players don't get involved with people's business," Rivers insisted Monday night when he spoke to Philadelphia reporters. "This is the one thing I think is probably overplayed more than anything.

"I've been a player and this has happened before — and I was the player that has done it before," Rivers continued. "Other than that first 10 minutes of coming back and taking the crap from your teammates about missing camp and stuff, guys want to win. Especially if you're on the type of team where you have a chance to win."

I wouldn't share Rivers' confidence that Simmons can be reintegrated into his team so seamlessly. Simmons' status as a true franchise player and his hunger to work on his game were routinely questioned leaguewide long before this ill-fated holdout. Capitulating so quickly, after it was leaked to various reporters that Simmons was determined to stay away as long as necessary to force a trade, will only add to the perception in some corners that he lacks the needed resolve (or perspective) to eventually lift his game out of the worrisome funk that engulfed him during last season's playoffs.

Yet you can give Rivers this much: Sharing some history with Simmons, thanks to his own unsuccessful holdout, can't hurt. At the very least it gives Rivers some unexpected common ground to draw from when he tries to reopen the lines of coach/player communication that seemed irretrievably broken.

Let me tell you about the time, young man, that I stayed away from my team for almost three weeks and didn't get what I wanted.

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One of the trickier aspects of the move to Substack is that I am now responsible for every cent spent on NBA-related travel expenses, as opposed to The New York Times or ESPN or any previous employer reimbursing me for work expenses. This has naturally led colleagues to ask me if I'm going to stop (or curtail my) traveling.

Answer: No chance.

Traveling is expensive, and obviously as complicated as ever in the midst of a global pandemic that refuses to relinquish its hold on all of us, but I've been traveling all over the NBA map for three decades. There's simply no replacing face-to-face contact with the people throughout #thisleague we cover, which diminishes greatly without travel. And let's face it: There's also no substitute for haggling with front desks and gate agents, chasing airline miles, Marriott points and upgrades and marrying my writing sessions with energizing coffee and dining choices.

All of that congeals into its own form of oxygen for sports writers. Hard as it is to be away from family — and I've crushingly missed so much over the years that I can never get back — it's also true that knowing I have flights to NBA cities populating in my American Airlines app gives me a jolt of purpose. I’ve always loved the joke about how sports scribes root for hotels and restaurants rather than teams and players, which is funny because it's also true.

The key now, though, is to make triply sure that the costs incurred lead to worthwhile access. I am pleased to share that I am unexpectedly in the midst of a rather productive run. A select number of reporters will be granted floor-level access at games this season after no such proximity last season, so I'm seeing five teams this week on a busy California swing that began with Timberwolves at Clippers in Ontario, Calif., on Monday night. Tonight I'll see Warriors at Lakers at Staples Center, followed by Trail Blazers at Warriors at Chase Center on Friday night.

The reporting that fills up the proverbial notebook will end up contributing to a variety of pieces, but I also plan to keep sharing travel tales here — if interest persists — in the name of taking you on my trips with me. Here, then, are some mid-trip highlights:

Best caffeinated writing aid (so far): I think we've established how much I love coffee and, yes, Turkish (or Greek) coffee when I want the strongest of jolts. This absolutely regal presentation alone from Café Istanbul in Beverly Hills demanded pictures.

Best breakfast (so far):
In a total surprise, Café Istanbul delivered in this category, too. I've never previously known a Turkish restaurant in the United States that even served breakfast, but this was absolutely scrumptious simplicity in a skillet for Sunday brunch: Eggs, onions and sucuk (Turkish sausage).

Dress code head-scratcher:
I try to avoid restaurant chains as much as I can, but the Hillstone family of restaurants is a primary (and beloved) exception. I've eaten so many meals at various Hillstone properties over the years that Houston's would certainly be a top contender in the mythical race to be named as my all-time favorite restaurant. Yet I encountered a rather puzzling situation over the weekend when dining at Hillstone's South Beverly Grill. Every Hillstone dining room has a no-hat rule for men, so I knew I'd have to remove mine once I sat down, but two women in the party of five literally one table away from me were wearing the same sort of ballcap I dutifully removed. Give it to me straight, friends, in the comments section below: Was I out of line for asking the host stand — after the ladies finished their meal because I ain't no snitch — why keeping a hat on is only considered ungentlemanly?

Best new arena experience: When I spent a summer of 1991 as the only traveling beat writer in the Class A California League, covering Mike Hampton, Marc Newfield and the San Bernardino Spirit for The San Bernardino Sun, I'm not sure I would have believed that there would be an NBA game in my future some 30 years later just 20 miles down the freeway in Ontario, Calif. That’s the long-winded way of saying I quite enjoyed Monday's excursion to Toyota Arena, home of the G League's Agua Caliente Clippers, for a Clippers-Timberwolves preseason date. Ontario feels so much more big-time than it did when I attended nearby Cal State Fullerton many years and pounds ago. This building is a big reason why.

Numbers Game

🏀 6

Memphis, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers are playing six exhibition games this preseason. Every other team in the league had four or five games on its preseason schedule. 

🏀 13

There have been only 13 seasons in NBA history, assembled by nine different players, to feature 50% shooting from the field, 40% shooting from 3-point range and 90% shooting from the free-throw line. The Nets' suddenly sidelined Kyrie Irving did it last season ... and Nets coach Steve Nash did it a record four times in his playing career. The other seven members of the 50/40/90 club: Larry Bird (twice), Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Malcolm Brogdon. 

🏀 2

Only two players in the 50/40/90 club are listed at shorter than 6-foot-3: Irving (6-2) and Price (6-0). 

Twitter avatar for @TheSteinLineMarc Stein @TheSteinLine
The Nets just announced that Kyrie Irving “will not play or practice with the team until he is eligible to be a full participant.” More NBA from me:
marcstein.Substack.com https://t.co/O5Bx1kPen6

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

We repeat: It is long since time for the Nets to take at least some of their team back. If Kyrie can’t commit to them full-time, they should move on without him until he is ready to do so. Part-time playing won’t work. LAST week’s column on the matter: https://t.co/cr56desdQA https://t.co/0WFRjFIJXU

🏀 3

I went to two training camps in Hawaii with the Lakers in 1996 and 2003, but 2021 might be recorded as the year that San Diego supplanted Honolulu as the most desired idyllic setting for the opening week of NBA practices. Three teams held camps in San Diego: Brooklyn, Denver and the LA Clippers. 

🏀 19

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced Sunday that the league will absorb the cost to pay for charter travel for both the Phoenix Mercury and the Chicago Sky between Game 2 and Game 3 of the WNBA Finals when the series shifts from Phoenix to Chicago. My question: Why doesn't the league do this more often given how short the WNBA postseason is? The first two rounds of the playoffs are single elimination, which, to me, is an even bigger slight to the players involved than the team-to-team travel inequities throughout the league. The entire WNBA postseason can at most span 19 games, suggesting that it's an expense that the league could absorb more frequently.