Simmons Rex: The Philadelphian Tragedy

Ben Simmons
PHILADELPHIA, PA – MAY 05: Philadelphia 76ers Guard Ben Simmons (25) looks toward the net during warmups before the Eastern Conference Semifinal Game between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers on May 05, 2018 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

“When He pronounced those many evils to me, He also said that, after a long time, this should be a resting place; That I would come to a final country, where I should find a seat of the solemn gods and a refuge for strangers.”

– Oedipus at Colonus (87–90) 

The overlong melodrama of the Ben Simmons saga is finally over. The play that refused to end and kept assuring us that a new twist was just about to happen throughout its entire, boring runtime has just ended. Are you not entertained?

Trading Ben Simmons was an inevitability as soon as “the pass” happened. The exasperated shrug by Embiid moved the story forward, and the rest played out as expected. Simmons would never report. Morey would never trade him for parts. The Sixers would carefully say the right things to the press. The only movement in the situation would be time itself until an outside situation collided, and thus James Harden is a Philadelphia 76er.

Like any good tragedy, the Ben Simmons era ends in a funeral. The Sixers era of growing and holding onto your young talent is over. Simmons, along with Curry, Drummond, and two first-round picks, has been traded for a player who will be on his third team in two years. More than that, the Sixers have traded youth for maturity—not just basketball maturity but the place in a team’s life cycle. Harden will be 33 in August. There is no more “we have a few years of Embiid’s prime.” The Sixers have aged instantly. They have short-circuited the natural process of growth and replacement, gained all their powers at once, and now are staring at the looming cliff. 

The Nets know this too. Their trade for Harden last year accelerated their team’s timeline by trading away all the team’s young talent, leaving only veterans and a short championship window. By trading Harden away, it’s safe to say the window has closed again. Simmons may fit better, but he is not the same talent as Harden. The Nets traded away their future memories for a chance at present glory, then traded away present glory for future heartache. What’s there to care about anymore?

And likewise, we, too, grieve. We grieve the end of the Ben and JoJo era (2016–2022) and the imagined memories we were robbed of. We are not unlike Oklahoma City, who put together one of the best young trios the league has ever seen, glimpsed glory, and then lost it. One of those players is now ours. Another is languishing on a sluggish, “faded glory” team across the country. The final one is Brooklyn’s. 

Kevin Durant’s journey is the most interesting of the three. After losing his chance at greatness in OKC, he went to Golden State in search of it, only to find it unfulfilling. He departs to Brooklyn, recenters, and surrounds himself with his friends as he tries to repeat the cycle (while wiser). But the cycle has a set pattern, and Kevin Durant is at the wrong point on the cycle. Even worse, the Scary Hours experiment interrupted the Nets’ cycle as well. Only Joe Harris is left from their late-2010s rebirth, and he hasn’t played in three months due to injuries.

In Greek tragedy, kings are often a stand-in for cities. When the King is vanquished or leaves the city, the tragedy is complete. Oedipus Coloneus ends with his death and the sense that Athens will now dominate Thebes. This is not isolated to Greek drama: Hamlet ends with its prince dead and an invading country taking over Denmark. Beowulf ends with the hero dead and the nation defenseless. The King and the Land are one.

The King of the Nets is breathtaking but injured and aging, in need of help. The King of the Sixers is younger, hungrier, and able to carry the team himself. King James Harden, who senses his mortality approaching too, has made a decision as much due to pragmatism as any factor and aligned himself with the strongest King.

Like any Greek tragic hero, the Nets and their King are done in by the gods. The plan of acquiring James Harden was to guard against KD and Kyrie’s health and acquire basketball’s ironman superstar. Instead, the trio barely played together, and Harden got hurt one minute into the Bucks series last year. This year, the trickster god LoKyrie altered the chemistry of the team, leading them to trade for another Loki (as far as petulant beings with daddy issues go) in Ben Simmons. As mythologies go, this seems unwise.

And who will be left to tell the tale but the Greek Chorus? The townspeople see, observe, and lament, but they cannot act in the story. When the heroes rise and fall in epic fashion, the Chorus remains. They are fixed in space and time, and facelessly they deal with the fallout of the hero’s fall. Sixers fans have been rooting for their team this year as usual, while Simmons has made his moves. Nets fans still will be rooting for their team now that Harden has made his.

The only question that remains is whether the next part will be a feast or a funeral.

Comedies end in marriage and feasting; tragedies end in funerals and lamenting. The Sixers are all-in on the championship this year. If they win, the Simmons pass will become a hilarious footnote in the grand arc of their story. “Remember when our point guard threw a pass, and we lost? Joke’s on him; we passed him off and won a championship.” But there is not much time left for a final-act twist. Harden is aging, his salary is about to become an albatross, and teams’ first chances are often their best ones. This is the moment. Will Kings James and Joel be able to deliver the team the prize they’ve long been chasing, or will they be thwarted? Or are they tempting fate?

On this, the Chorus is silent. The answer will have to come from the basketball gods.

This article has been submitted to Philly Sports Network by Ty Clark.