Nothing short of a stunning individual turnaround en route to the Philadelphia 76ers' first title in nearly 30 years will change what the entire basketball world finally seems to have realized about Ben Simmons.
Not only is he sorely miscast as a primary ball handler in the modern NBA, but Simmons' debilitating presence offensively is wasting the prime of Joel Embiid—the days of which are already numbered as the MVP runner-up deals with another knee injury under throes of the postseason.
Daryl Morey isn't naive or passive. Embiid is a generational talent, the type of two-way force who at his peak is the best player in the world. But even historical-outlier big men with Embiid's rare scoring versatility are more dependent than their superstar peers on the wing.
If Philadelphia's best chance at a title is maximizing Embiid, that means Simmons— forever a non-shooter and an increasingly passive scorer—will be playing elsewhere going forward. Similar if less grating conditions exist in Portland, where C.J. McCollum clogs up the Trail Blazers' cap sheet without magnifying Damian Lillard's strengths or mitigating his weaknesses.
Could a much-discussed swap of Simmons and McCollum—no matter what complete form it ultimately takes—actually come to pass this summer? The impossible-to-overlook gravity of Simmons' struggles against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals no doubt makes the specter of trading him for McCollum far more palatable for Morey and the Sixers than it was even two weeks ago.
But Simmons' same frustrating labors have flipped that dynamic in Rip City, with some fans wondering if trading McCollum for Simmons would even be worth it for the Blazers.
Don't let the nationwide hand-wringing over Simmons' performance versus Atlanta change what's long been obvious, though. Of course a hyper-athletic, 6-foot-10 playmaker with preternatural court vision who doubles as one of basketball's most disruptive, versatile on-ball defenders is fair return for McCollum, and not only because it would give Portland's guard-heavy roster some much-needed balance.
It's the additive on-paper partnership between Simmons and Lillard that would make that hypothetical trade an absolute no-brainer for the Blazers.
Free from the obligation of initiating offense and further unburdened by playing with an elite perimeter shot-maker, it's easy to imagine Simmons emerging as an elite secondary playmaker next to Lillard. The Sixers, with Embiid their rightful offensive focal point, barely use Simmons as an on-ball screener. He finished just 23 possessions as a roll man during the regular season, per NBA.com/stats, an impossibly meager rate that's even lower in the playoffs.
Needless to say, that wouldn't be the case in Portland. Lillard's ability to consistently draw two defenders in ball-screen action, lest the defense risk death by pull-up three, would unlock Simmons' playmaking chops behind the play with a numbers advantage and head of steam to the rim.
The Blazers tried to lessen the effects of Derrick Jones Jr.'s shooting woes by putting him in pick-and-rolls with Lillard before he was out of the rotation. As uncomfortable as Jones looked catching on the short roll, forced to make a play for himself or others, that's exactly where Simmons would thrive.
Like Jones, Simmons isn't quite the level of finisher his physical gifts suggest. He's not especially long, and plays with fleeting physicality at the rim due to his apprehension about going to the free throw line. Simmons can certainly attack the paint with proper spacing, though, and would never miss the opportunity to go from a good shot to a great one like Jones does below.
The extra attention Lillard draws defensively is the Blazers' biggest offensive trump card. They wasted way too many opportunities in 2020-21 by failing to exploit that winning numbers game.
This scenario must result in a layup for Portland more often than not.
The same lagging assertiveness that occasionally plagues Simmons as a finisher in the paint sometimes extends to the post.
What might give him the confidence needed to more fully embrace that aspect of his game? The frequency with which defenses could opt to switch Lillard-Simmons ball screens, leaving smaller defenders for Simmons to attack with power and quickness near the block.
Lillard's threat looms just as large with those ball-screen roles reversed. The Sixers rarely have shooters set picks on the ball for Simmons, then pop to the arc to clear a brief runway for the latter's hard-charging dribble attacks if the defense doesn't switch. Just like more pointed, precise off-ball movement in general, screening is one of the last remaining offensive frontiers for Lillard, and Simmons is the type of oversized ball handler who could make that grunt work worthwhile.
Speaking of movement away from the ball, why couldn't Lillard and Simmons duplicate the beautiful ball-screen and dribble hand-off dance between Steph Curry and Draymond Green?
Laying several feet off Simmons is the defense's simplest means of capitalizing on his utter lack of shooting range. There's no way for his team's offense to completely mollify the ripples of that deficiency, but pairing Simmons' awesome feel for angles and timing as a passer with one of the world's most dangerous movement shooters is certainly a good start.
It takes complete synergy to pull off those sequences, not to mention Curry's tireless efforts cutting, juking and sprinting his defenders into missteps and re-screens—an attribute which Lillard has been hesitant or even unwilling to develop.
That's not the only reality check of Simmons taking McCollum's place as Lillard's sidekick. Even playing with an all-time shot-maker, Simmons will be better off on offense if he's the only non-shooter on his team. Portland doesn't have a true stretch five on the roster; only so many quality ones exist.
That positional complication extends to the other end of the floor, too. Simmons would obviously check the opposition's best perimeter player on a nightly basis, and Norman Powell could take the next most threatening guard. But leaving the least taxing defensive assignment for Lillard wouldn't make the Blazers any more switchable across five positions, not with he and Jusuf Nurkic on the floor—capping the all-around scope of Simmons' defensive impact.
No trade is perfect, and Portland isn't exactly a McCollum-Simmons swap away from vaulting toward legitimate championship contention. At least some of the same fit issues that Simmons is facing in Philadelphia would follow him to Rip City.
But just like the McCollum-Embiid tandem makes so much more sense with the Sixers, so does the Lillard-Simmons duo with the Blazers. The import of growing concerns about Simmons' offensive game pales in comparison to that basic reality, especially considering his youth. The clock is already running out on Lillard's prime, but Simmons at least gives Portland the hope of artificially extending it by reshuffling the roster around them. The Blazers, by contrast, know exactly who and where they are with McCollum and Lillard.
Odds are a trade involving Simmons and McCollum remains hypothetical. But as the Sixers try and save their season on Friday night, go ahead and ponder what Simmons could look like playing next to Lillard. The more free throws he misses, shots he passes up and possessions he cramps the floor on Embiid post-ups, the more likely it is Morey and the Sixers realize the benefits of McCollum taking his place.