Simmons’ fate looms large in Philadelphia

CAMDEN (AP) – Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers and the team he led to the best record in the Eastern Conference last season put their hands together in the middle of a huddle at the end of practice and counted off, “1-2-3! Together!”

Lingering outside the huddle, holding a basketball and looking uninterested was the USD147 million puzzle piece in Ben Simmons. With Simmons focussed and engaged, the Sixers are again a team to beat in the East this season.

But the Sixers open the season today in New Orleans with no guarantee that Simmons will play. He has practiced twice with the Sixers since ending his holdout. Meanwhile, the Sixers hold out hope the three-time All-Star guard wants to suit up again.

Simmons has dominated the headlines in Philadelphia since his baffling offseason trade request and then mystifying decision to report, showing up without warning last week.

He declined to talk to the media for the second straight practice on Monday.

Tyrese Maxey ran the offence with the first team in the portion of practice open to the media, and Simmons mostly stood in a corner stretching or dribbling the basketball. He played defence on one drill, then walked off the court without saying a word to a teammate.

Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons takes part in a practice. PHOTO: AP

Rivers said he had no idea if Simmons will play today.

“We’re just going to take our time,” Rivers said on Monday. “When it comes, I’ll make that decision. I’m just going to wait and see and watch. The spirit has been so good. We’re just going to keep going.”

Simmons, the top pick of the 2016 draft, was paired with Joel Embiid as the franchise cornerstones as the Sixers chase their first NBA championship since 1983.

Simmons, though, took the brunt of the blame for the top-seeded Sixers’ second-round exit in last season’s playoffs. He shot 34 per cent from the free-throw line in the postseason and was reluctant to attempt a shot from anywhere on the floor late in games. That led to him spending critical minutes on he bench.

He’d be the only missing starter from last season’s run to the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Embiid, Danny Green, Seth Curry and Tobias Harris form a solid first four. Sixers President Daryl Morey has fielded offers for Simmons, but has yet to find a package to his satisfaction for the enigmatic guard.