The Ben Simmons Saga in Philadelphia is now entering its fourth month of agony. A situation that (this time, at least) started with Simmons’s flummoxing playoff series against the Hawks, included his teammates and coach wondering aloud about his postseason utility, and quickly entered a full-blown trade watch, is seemingly close to reaching a breaking point. This week, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey reported Simmons “no longer wants to be a Sixer” and is threatening to skip training camp, which begins Sept. 28. This makes sense considering Simmons has been shopped around like an old couch on Craigslist for practically the entire summer. Though even as tensions rise and with the season now only a little over a month away, there’s still time for both the Sixers and Simmons to come out the other side of this experience in better positions.
The first thing that needs to happen for either side to become happy is for Philly’s front office to lower its asking price for Simmons. Daryl Morey has reportedly been asking for multiple first-round picks, All-Stars, first-born children, secret family recipes and famous local landmarks in exchange for Simmons. A year ago, this would have made sense. Simmons was considered one of the biggest talents in the league. And while many of the qualities that made him an All-NBA player obviously still exist, no franchise is going to give the 76ers an Anthony Davis-esque package for a player who most recently kind of ghosted his team in every fourth quarter of a playoff series. Of course, Morey’s high asking price feels mostly like posturing as opposed to a hard-line stance. Still, a trade obviously isn’t going to happen as long as Philly’s front office isn’t operating in our current reality.
While a return of first-round picks and an All-Star-caliber player is certainly what every general manager would want in every trade, at this point the Sixers’ focus should be on one thing and one thing only: building a team that plays to the strengths of Joel Embiid. Philly has an MVP-level talent on its roster and somebody who can be the best player in the league on any given night. During the playoffs, Embiid tore the meniscus in his right knee in Round 1, and with that thing probably crunching like a bag of kettle-cooked chips he continued to be a menace against Atlanta, averaging a 30/13/4 while not at full strength.
Embiid did all of this despite being hamstrung by a team so clearly not tailored to what he does best. Imagine what he could do in an offense with proper spacing, a starting point guard for him to run pick-and-rolls with or four other players who could throw an entry pass to the post? This isn’t even a knock on Simmons, who we’ll get back to in a second. But despite whatever lineup stats Morey tweets out, it’s been apparent for a long time the challenges the Embiid-Simmons duo presents in a playoff series. (It can even be summed up in one play—Embiid’s missed potential go-ahead layup against the Hawks at the end of Game 4 of their series. Seth Curry has to initiate the play while Simmons stays off the ball. When Embiid goes up in the paint, Simmons’s defender ignores him completely to challenge the shot.)
By lowering their asking price for Simmons, the Sixers wouldn’t be admitting defeat. Instead, they would be admitting that simply bringing in pieces that actually fit the roster—as opposed to sexy names or coveted assets—their title chances get a lot better. Here’s a question that almost surely no one would have asked before last season: Who would Philly have been better off with in the starting lineup against Atlanta in June, Ben Simmons or Harrison Barnes?
Now, let’s get back to Simmons, who can make basically all the arguments Embiid can make. He also is not on a roster tailored to his strengths. When Embiid was hurt down the stretch of the 2018 season, Simmons engineered a significant win streak when he played alongside four shooters. It’s not ideal you have to go back three years for that example, but the Sixers have had several makeovers since then. The point is, there’s a version of a roster that maximizes Simmons’s talents, and that roster does not include a throwback center who plays best between the block and the midrange. It does include players who want to run up and down the floor and who don’t need to camp out in the paint to be at their best.
Also, Simmons has a right to be miffed with management, because this summer is not the only time he’s popped up in trade proposals. Morey may be loyal in the (Twitter) streets, but he’s a trade machiner between the sheets. Simmons was reportedly involved in a potential trade for James Harden during the season, one that seemingly fell through late due to the other compensation involved. If Simmons was on the block even when the going was good, he‘s entitled to play some hardball with the team as well.
My advice for Simmons (not that he or his agent Rich Paul are asking) would be to embrace wherever he ends up. Maybe Simmons would never sign with the Timberwolves or Pacers as a free agent. But his new landing spot, no matter the team, will almost immediately offer advantages compared to his current setup. An opportunity to play without the championship-level hype, a faster roster and a fan base that actually wants him are all things that should appeal to Simmons. He needs a chance to rehabilitate his game without every night being a referendum on his future. A smaller market can do that for him. And maybe Simmons’s presence eventually turns his new team into a contender, or it's not inconceivable in a couple of years he’s on the block again, but with more leverage because of the time left on his contract, and more interest because teams have seen him play in a more favorable context.
There may not be a literal deadline for either the Sixers or Simmons to come to a resolution. Getting this done before training camp begins, however, is incredibly advantageous for both sides. As drawn out and exhausting as this offseason has been for both parties, there is still a world in which both are happy when this is all over. If both the Sixers and Simmons lower their expectations up front, it could end up paying dividends in the long run.
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