Ben Simmons Contract Is a Litmus Test for the NBA’s Ill-Advised Supermax Extension

Injuries and the NBA health and safety protocols did a number on the Philadelphia 76ers. Even with the ongoing Ben Simmons soap opera, the Sixers won eight of their first 10 games to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference. But attrition took a toll. Tobias Harris missed time in the protocols, then Joel Embiid tested positive for COVID-19 and missed nine games.

Philadelphia won just twice in that stretch. The 76ers are 1–2 since Embiid returned on Nov. 27. At 11–11, the Sixers are 11th in the East. While they are tied with the New York Knicks for the final play-in spot, New York owns a 2–0 head-to-head tiebreaker (it’s way too soon to be talking tiebreakers, but it’s to illustrate the point). The Sixers are part of a six-team clump between sixth and 11th in the East. Someone’s getting a spot in the main bracket, while someone else won’t even get the consolation prize.

With the Dec. 15 moratorium on trading players on new contracts rapidly approaching, the Simmons situation looms large.

Ben Simmons is with the Philadelphia 76ers, sort of

The ongoing stalemate between Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers underscores the flaws with the NBA's supermax extensions.
The ongoing stalemate between Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers underscores the flaws with the NBA’s supermax extensions. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Since training camp, there has been a black cloud with a No. 25 on it hanging over the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons wants out, though he is in the first year of the five-year, $177.2 million designated rookie extension he signed with the team in July 2019.

The designated rookie extension, more colloquially known as a supermax, was introduced in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. But changes in the 2017 CBA allow players to meet specific criteria to get a more significant piece of the salary cap, per Spotrac.

Simmons signed a standard maximum extension in 2019, a salary equal to 25% of each season’s salary cap. But the deal had a provision allowing it to become a supermax if Simmons met any of the criteria in 2019–20. His All-NBA selection triggered that caveat. That bumped the annual salary to 30% of the cap.

But the fallout from a dismal playoff performance last season left Simmons feeling betrayed by the organization. He demanded a trade and refused to report to training camp. Simmons eventually reported to the 76ers, got himself thrown out of practice, then told the team about his mental health concerns.

Now he’s with the team. But he’s not with the team at the same time. He’s around the team facility sometimes. There is no timetable for him to return to the active roster. Most telling was a comment from coach Doc Rivers on Dec. 1, per a tweet from Justin Grasso of SInow:

“I literally don’t even talk about [Simmons]. I coach the team and the guys that I can see every day. … [President of basketball operations Daryl Morey] and [general manager Elton Brand] deal with all of the other stuff.”

76ers coach Doc Rivers

That sounds like some first-class organizational synergy. But it speaks to the elephant in the NBA room; the supermax isn’t working as intended.

Ben Simmons and the unintended consequences of the supermax

When Ben Simmons signed his extension with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019, his relationship with the team was in a different place. It’s important to acknowledge that he signed the contract with Brand leading the front office and Brett Brown coaching the club.

He’s unhappy now, with Morey and Rivers running the show. But Simmons is also in year 1 of a contract specifically geared to help teams — especially small-market franchises — hold on to their young talent.

The designated veteran extension, introduced in the 2017 CBA, aimed to allow franchises extra ammunition to keep players coming off their second contracts. A veteran supermax kicks a star’s salary to 35% of the cap and can last five years.

The player’s current team can offer one more year and significantly more money than any other organization. In theory, the logic was solid.

In practical application, it’s been messy. After signing supermax deals, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook have been traded twice — once for each other. Anthony Davis forced his way off the New Orleans Pelicans with a year remaining on his rookie supermax extension.

Simmons now demands a trade, having not played his first game under his enormous contract.  While there have been rumors of a Simmons-for-Westbrook swap, Doug McKain of SI.com lays out valid reasons why such a deal is unlikely, at best.

That blows the “helps teams retain talent” argument out of the water entirely.

For the Philadelphia 76ers and the rest of the NBA, there’s no way to unring the bell

The supermax isn’t going anywhere. The current CBA runs through 2023–24, and agents of players who qualify for the supermax will ask for them.

When the next round of bargaining opens, the players won’t want to lose access to the mega jackpots.

As for how to fix the problems exposed since 2017? The Ben Simmons-Philadelphia 76ers standoff has the potential to set a precedent that at least one side of the bargaining equation won’t like.

If the 76ers relent and trade Simmons for less than what they perceive as his market value, executives and owners aren’t going to be happy. If Philadelphia drags this out the way Morey threatened it could earlier this year, players will take notes that could affect subsequent CBA negotiations.

There are three truths in the stalemate that is the relationship between Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers. There will be a winner, and there will be a loser. Most significantly, there will be ripple effects felt across the NBA that could reverberate for years.

Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

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