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Battling A Basketball Titan, Part I: NBA Agents Talk About The Fateful Moments After Game 7

Ben Simmons no look water bottle pass

Ben Simmons isn’t the only person in his camp held in disdain by the greater Philadelphia area at the moment. His agent Rich Paul, founder and CEO of Klutch Sports Group, has drawn ire from fans and media in recent weeks. In many ways, the fanbase has a right to be furious with Simmons and his party’s reported handling of themselves as they’ve made it known that they would like their future to play out with another franchise.

But, perhaps a third party would offer a different perspective. Are Paul’s tactics common? Did he overstep by attempting to leverage Tyrese Maxey to build fear within the Sixers? Given how he played in the Hawks series, are Simmons and his camp wrong to feel betrayed by Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid for their comments after game 7?

I talked to three NBA agents who felt comfortable speaking openly about another agent’s clients under the condition of anonymity to gauge their opinions on Rich Paul and the situation playing out between Simmons and Philadelphia.

In the first part of this two-part story, I talked to the agents about the postgame press conference that reportedly fractured the relationship between Ben Simmons and the Sixers.

The Immediate Aftermath Of Game 7

The origin of the rift between Simmons’ camp and the Sixers is debatable. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was Doc Rivers’ and Joel Embiid’s comments in the immediate aftermath of the shocking Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

This writer’s opinion is two-fold. On one hand, you have yourself a very flimsy camel. On the other hand, if that really was the punch that fractured the relationship between the All-Star and the team, one might presume that the player had already been looking for a ticket out of town for some time. In that case, the words delivered by Simmons’ teammate and coach were, collectively, the perfect opportunity.

Still, one agent’s criticism of Philadelphia’s head coach, for both his performance and his comments after Game 7, was significant. “As a coach, you always have to support your players, no matter what,” one agent told The Painted Lines. “Maybe privately you don’t feel that way. But in public, you always have to laud them. That’s how it works, man. But also as an organization, you just basically shot down his value when you say something like that.”

To be fair to Rivers, he’d lauded Simmons all season long. Only after Simmons’ play was the primary culprit of the Sixers losing a playoff series did he crack. Still, the agent insisted that Rivers’ comments were a critical miscalculation.

“You have to be more diplomatic and politically sensitive as a coach,” he said. “You have to because not only are you serving the organization, you’re serving the owner, you’re serving the players…The coach is held to a much higher standard. He has to answer to everyone, and his words are liable to affect everyone. It’s a little bit different.” 

It’s Not About The Point Delivered, It’s About The Words Used

Perhaps the coach is held to a different standard than anyone else in the organization is. But Rivers merely said, “I don’t know the answer to that right now,” when asked if Simmons can be a point guard on a championship-caliber team. He didn’t say that Simmons wasn’t a player capable of working in a critical role on a championship team. According to one agent, it doesn’t matter how you translate the words used. It doesn’t matter that Rivers was simply answering a direct question. 

“He could say, ‘He is a key component of a championship team. Probably, if not the most important, at least 1-B. But again, maybe position-wise, I don’t know if this is the way that we can get the most out of him.’,” the agent countered. “Say that. I mean, I just said it. I don’t know if you can give him the benefit of the doubt. If the coach said something like that about my client, I’d be super offended. I would create a ruckus. I would be like, ‘What are you doing?'”

The same agent later added, “That’s a stupid mistake…Doc Rivers has been an adult for forty years. He’s been a coach for, like, twenty years. He’s a championship coach and he was a player. It’s inexcusable, in my opinion.”

“You can excuse Joel Embiid for what he said.”

Doc Rivers wasn’t the only member of the Sixers to express frustrations with the three-time All-Star that night. Joel Embiid, without directly naming him, referred to the infamous play in which Simmons passed out of a dunk as the turning point in Game 7. But the NBA personnel man wasn’t as critical of Embiid’s words.  

“You can excuse Joel Embiid for what he said,” the agent opined. “When he said, ‘That’s when the game changed’, he was unspecific. A little bit ambiguous about who he was referring to. You know what he was referring to. But that’s a [27-year-old] player.”

Another agent saw the events of the postgame press conference as more of a difficult truth than an insult to Simmons. 

“Ben played poorly in that series. He knows that. Everyone knows that,” he said. “Doc and Joel were just expressing their opinions which, frankly, sounded like the truth about what was going on after that series concluded. Like in non-athletic life, the truth can sometimes be hard to hear, though that doesn’t necessarily make those who speak it disloyal betrayers [‘betrayal’ was the word I used in phrasing the question]. I can only assume that Ben and his camp know this.”

The Domino Effect Of The Press Conference

The events of that night created a ripple effect that led to the position the Sixers are in now. It has been widely reported that Rivers’ comments, specifically, fractured Simmons’ relationship with the franchise. To those directly involved and those who bore witness, it might come off as disingenuous to carry out a spectacular divorce over regrettable comments made in the aftermath of a devastating playoff loss.

The fanbase has a right to be furious with Simmons. He’s a star athlete with ‘superstar’ potential who gravely underperformed his own standards in a playoff series that his team should’ve won. Their fury has partially been re-directed at Rich Paul and Simmons’ camp for attempting to portray the 25-year-old as a target victimized by what should’ve been (and mostly was, to the public eye) his support system.

“I think sometimes he’s even doing the work that the Players Association should be doing.”

Regardless of whether you buy what Simmons and Klutch Sports are selling, Rich Paul is simply doing what any good agent does to protect their client’s image. When approached for comment on the way Paul has portrayed his client, one agent opined:

“He’s good at what he does. He advocates for his players, almost to a fault, very aggressively. I think sometimes he’s even doing the work that the Players Association should be doing. Like, a player that says, ‘Hey man, I don’t think this is the coach or ownership that I can play with because they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re not going to lead us to a championship level,’ way more backlash there. He realizes there should’ve been a slap on the wrist by the Players Association for someone saying that [what Rivers said] at a press conference.”

It is one thing to observe an athlete’s relationship with his team disintegrate from afar amid a public trade request. The perspective shifts when it happens to the team you’re emotionally invested in or you cover professionally. You can dispute the bane of Simmons’ displeasure all you want. At the end of the day, Simmons’ image has taken a hit, and Rich Paul is right to do whatever he can to restore it.

The second part of this story will be published in the coming days.