Ben Simmons will soon be eligible to receive the biggest contract ever given to an Australian athlete. Whether he receives it or not, could determine his status for the Australian Boomers’ 2019 World Cup campaign.
Come July, Simmons will qualify for a five-year maximum contract extension from the Philadelphia 76ers. Current NBA projections estimate it will be worth $USD160 ($AUD223) million.
With Simmons’ participation in the World Cup up in the air, his contract status is one of many factors that determine whether he suits up for the Boomers this year.
The Sixers hope to be playing playoff basketball into June, and a sustained postseason run would shorten Simmons’ rest period before the national team gets into training camp in August.
It’s also fair to ponder whether Simmons spending his offseason with the Boomers is the best decision for his long-term NBA career prospects. Concerns over his shooting form are widespread within NBA circles right now. While opinions are split on how important an effective outside stroke is to Simmons, there is no debate when it comes to how the problem must be fixed.
Multiple NBA scouts who spoke with The Pick and Roll were unanimous on this: Simmons must commit an entire offseason to his jumpshot, if it is to improve. “He needs to lock himself in a gym all summer and break down his shooting mechanics,” said an Eastern Conference scout. This will be a near impossible exercise should Simmons commit to the Boomers World Cup campaign, as national team duties would occupy him from early August through to the beginning of NBA training camp in mid-September.
Away from the NBA, there is also Simmons’ relationship with Andrej Lemanis and the Boomers coaching staff, which was strained after Simmons was overlooked for the 2014 World Cup team. There has been a concerted effort from Basketball Australia to regularly engage with all of its NBA athletes – Simmons included – during the current Olympic cycle. Patty Mills’ comments earlier this month gave public voice to growing concerns as the number of NBA players within the Boomers camp has risen.
Players in the NBA are accustomed to a certain level of coverage Basketball Australia has been unable to provide. As Olgun Uluc pointed out in the direct aftermath of Mills’ comments, sub-standard living conditions and access to bespoke medical coverage during major events are just two issues that have been raised.
While Andrew Bogut was left voicing his concerns on social media during the Rio Games in 2016, Team USA boycotted the Olympic Village and instead stayed in a luxurious top of the range cruise liner. In fact, American teams haven't stayed in the Olympic Village since 1988. The fact is, Basketball Australia simply doesn’t have the budget to match their rivals.
"We don't stay in the village because we don't feel it's the best way to prepare for competition," said USA Basketball spokesman, Craig Miller, in February of 2016. "The players have a long professional season, and they want to spend as much time as possible with family and friends."
Mills’ comments are a bigger story because Simmons’ availability is seen by many as the subtext. While trivial to some outside the basketball industry, these concerns are warranted, given the year-round professionalism required of NBA athletes.
Back to Simmons for a second. It’s also fair to ask whether he wants to play in an event that isn’t internationally recognised as the ultimate level of the sport. He has repeated a desire to win an Olympic Gold medal, but a World Cup campaign simply doesn’t have the same allure in global basketball of the Summer Games. Exposure to the Chinese market could provide a financial benefit to playing at the World Cup, although any financial windfall available from marketing and brand exposure pales in comparison to the money on offer from the Sixers.
Simmons has been asked at multiple points this NBA season whether he intends to play for the Boomers this year, most recently in Los Angeles last month. Simmons' public messaging has been consistent: he is currently focusing on the Sixers NBA campaign and will review his national team availability in the offseason.
Having already missed a full NBA season with a broken foot in 2016, it would appear foolish for Simmons to play FIBA basketball without securing a contract extension from Philadelphia. The risk of injury – plus the potential catastrophic consequences should one arise - would be too great, given the generational wealth on offer. Simmons only has to look at childhood friend Dante Exum for the risk that can come from playing FIBA basketball on an NBA rookie scale contract.
Exum suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during an exhibition game between the Boomers and Slovenia in 2015. The injury kept him sidelined for the entire 2015-16 NBA season, and Exum’s NBA career has been plagued with a series of ailments since. The Melbourne native, who played all 82 games as a rookie with the Jazz, has only played in 119 out of 305 NBA games since his ACL tear.
Those around the Jazz franchise were annoyed that their prized young asset was hurt in what amounted to an inconsequential FIBA game, league sources told The Pick and Roll. The injury took away a year from Exum’s NBA career and stunted his development on the court. With NBA salaries skyrocketing, franchises are shrewdly viewing their players as assets and looking to protect them, along with their own inherent interests, more than ever.
Dealing with NBA relationships and player contracts represents a new reality for a Boomers program that is suddenly flush with NBA players. With Deng Adel now a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, there are ten Australians on NBA rosters and that number will only continue to grow. Isaac Humphries and Mitch Creek are hoping to emulate Adel and graduate from the G League over the coming months, while Arizona Wildcats commit Green will almost certainly be on an NBA roster by the Tokyo Games.
Exum is committed to joining the Boomers squad this year for the first time since his injury, although that is dependent on the 23-year-old’s health following the current NBA season. Like all of his countrymen, Exum’s training program will be specifically tailored knowing that his NBA offseason will hopefully be cut short.
“[Playing for the Boomers] does make an impact with how I manage my body,” Exum told The Pick and Roll in November. “The one thing I’ve said to myself, is that I only play if I am 100% healthy.”
Matthew Dellavedova and Aron Baynes both hold player options for the 2019-20 NBA season. Each can elect to become a free agent in July. With Dellavedova in line to receive $USD9.5 million from the Cleveland Cavaliers, it is highly unlikely he opts out of his contract. Baynes, who is slated to receive $USD5.5 million from the Boston Celtics, could opt out and look for a multi-year commitment as he ages into his thirties.
It’s extremely unlikely that either Baynes or Dellavedova opt out of their NBA contracts without a firm understanding of what their next deal looks like. If either becomes a free agent, it should be short-lived. Simmons is a different story. He will be eligible for a rookie extension, which is different from being a free agent on the open market. While the Sixers can commit to Simmons in early July, they are under no obligation to do so.
This becomes a moot point if Philadelphia immediately offers Simmons a five-year maximum contract. Should the Sixers demand Simmons take less than the max, delays could ensue. As the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year and newly minted All-Star, Simmons has every right to demand every dollar he can from the Sixers.
An example of how fluid rookie extension talks can be took place this past offseason. Devin Booker signed his extension with the Phoenix Suns on July 7,while it took Karl Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves almost three months to formalise an agreement. Both players received five-year maximum extensions, although the processes and timeframes in getting there were completely different.
It must also be acknowledged that Philadelphia has more pressing matters to sort in July. Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick will all need new contracts, and each has the power to walk away as a free agent. With many teams around the NBA now flush with cap space, including the four franchises that occupy the NBA’s biggest markets in New York and Los Angeles, the Sixers face a looming battle in keeping their team together.
Philadelphia could very well focus resources on retaining their free agents – and scouring the market for replacement players should the need arise - knowing that Simmons can be taken care of at a later date. NBA teams are under no obligation to accelerate their timetables due to FIBA obligations and this can create logistical challenges for players seeking to represent their nation.
Ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, Dellavedova’s preparations were altered because of his own free agency. Dellavedova, who was an NBA free agent in July 2016, was in camp with the Boomers but unable to participate in full practices until his deal with the Milwaukee Bucks was official. He was restricted to individual workouts with the coaching staff, before flying back to America to sign his contract and then returning training camp in Melbourne. Dellavedova’s earlier free agency provides the backdrop to Simmons’ impending contract situation.
Those within the Boomers have compassion for Simmons’ situation and the logistics of representing your country as an NBA superstar. Bogut has publicly voiced his support multiple times and Mills’ comments, which he voluntarily raised during a conference call with Australian media, only seeks to confirm that the playing group know better than anyone the impact of managing an NBA career and how it factors into availability for the national team.
Simmons is going to become Australia’s highest ever paid sportsperson the instant he signs an NBA extension. But it cannot be forgotten that his body is a half a billion-dollar asset over the next twenty years. Taking national allegiance out of the equation, it would be unquestionably foolish for Simmons – or anyone in his position - to play FIBA basketball without an NBA contract secured.