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August 20, 2021

Mailbag: Ben Simmons trade chatter, Sixers' ceiling vs. floor, and Summer League vs. NFL preseason

If you can believe it, we're only just over a month away from the Sixers' 2021 media day, which feels impossible given how fresh the memory of their playoff defeat to Atlanta is. And no matter how deep we get into the offseason, most questions still concern Ben Simmons' future with the team, as this week's edition of our mailbag shows once again.

Let's get to the questions.

If we are assuming these packages are equal in terms of outgoing stuff (they wouldn't be) it's Lillard by an almost unfathomable margin. He is the best player of the group and the most ready to help Joel Embiid compete for a title, which is really all that matters in these discussions.

But for the sake of argument, let's just say the deals are structured uniquely for each of these guys as follows:

  1. Lillard — Simmons, Maxey, and several first-round picks
  2. Beal — Simmons, Maxey, and multiple first-round picks
  3. Fox plus stuff — Simmons 

(For the record, the reason I am including Maxey vs. Thybulle in these deals is based on the desire to retain some form of perimeter defense in these deals. Thybulle's ability to take top assignments becomes a lot more important if you deal your current top defender, even if I think there's a better ultimate upside case for Maxey.)

I still think Lillard is the guy and the deal to make. With Fox, you're still sort of waiting on him to have his star breakthrough season and would have to rely on him leaping forward as a shooter and performing at a high level in the playoffs in his first ever postseason appearance. Beal is a highly skilled perimeter player who would solve some of their issues on offense, but I think you would still have to find an organizer of the offense to play next to him if you were to go that route. Lillard solves most of your issues at once — he's a dynamic offensive talent, one of the league's best crunchtime players, and he is a lead-from-the-front guy on and off of the floor, which is an underrated reason to prioritize him over other trade candidates. Embiid has taken major steps forward as a leader, but having a guy like Lillard to take some of that responsibility from him would allow Embiid to focus more on basketball than being the guy who says all the right things in public and private.

All indications suggest the Sixers' No. 1 priority is Lillard. And if you're asking me, that's the right way to approach this.

I think a lot of people believe it would be untenable for completely justifiable reasons. Looking at this thing from the outside and a big picture view, everything suggests it will get messy if this situation drags on. There have been numerous reports about the lack of communication between Simmons and important figures with the team, there's reason to believe the relationship with his head coach is icy, and logically, you could understand why Simmons would reject this situation entirely. He's shouldering most of the blame for their early playoff exit and being openly shopped by the team, and while he needs to own his responsibility in their faceplant, I would understand if he's not interested in being the organizational scapegoat.

As a thought exercise, we can entertain the scenario where Simmons either says he's refusing to report or is mentally checked out on the team. Either one is problematic from an on-court perspective, and you could argue it's even worse from a mental/team morale point of view. Players will be asked about it constantly, and what you don't want to have happen is for any opposing factions to form in the locker room. Maybe they're all checked out on him after the refused dunk attempt heard around the world, but I don't think that's the case, and letting the situation linger would open them up for petty squabbling they really don't need.

Ultimately, though, I'm not really comfortable saying how this would or wouldn't play out until we hear it from Simmons himself. Short of him telling me or some other reporter on the record that he's going to return with a toxic attitude, I don't think it's especially fair to try to predict or guess how he would handle the situation, because that tends to skew negative.

I think that's a topic to discuss with your therapist. Or your god of choice, family, friends, etc. I got nothing. 

The floor is a catastrophic fall from grace related to the ongoing Simmons situation. Again, not to make assumptions about how he'll handle himself, but if both sides dig in, the Sixers could end up with a team missing a huge piece that struggles to cope without him. Daryl Morey refuses to give in and accept less than he's worth, the early part of the season is unkind to the Sixers, and even if the problem is eventually resolved, that could be a hole the Sixers never climb out of. If Embiid gets injured while they're already lagging behind a lot of the competition, that's when you start to get in real dangerous territory.

The "pie in the sky" ceiling is that humiliation is what Simmons needed to snap to attention, he comes back looking like a different player, and they can compete for a conference title and perhaps a championship with everyone else either maintaining last year's play or stepping forward. The realistic ceiling is more like both sides working things out to stick together at least one more year, with Simmons resembling the player he has pretty much always been rather than the broken player he was in round two. Embiid stays relatively healthy throughout the season, Maxey makes a mini-leap, Simmons doesn't faceplant in the playoffs in quite as dramatic fashion as last year, and their defensive upside is enough to paper over the offensive issues that still exist for this group, giving them a puncher's chance to hang with Milwaukee and Brooklyn.

Even still, Morey himself admitted that the Sixers didn't have enough when he did his end-of-season presser and analyzed what went wrong. They did not exactly make massive, franchise-altering moves this summer, so unless one of those comes, the executive himself seems to have indicated they don't really have the horses to challenge the fully healthy Nets, the Bucks, and so forth. Prepare your expectations accordingly.

I think Reed's future hinges on two things — his ability to defend as the lone big on the floor and his trustworthiness as an outside shooter. The latter is more important because a reliable jumper would allow him to be used in a wider variety of lineups in a larger number of team situations, in Philadelphia or elsewhere. Even if some early results look promising, though, I'm not sure how much you can trust a guy with his mechanics to be a useful and consistent shooter in a meaningful way, which heightens the importance of his defensive growth.

Look, Reed's work at Summer League and in the G-League has been impressive so far, and the physical tools are undeniable. Playing hard and making use of those tools is enough to buy a young guy time to find himself in the NBA. But there's a big difference between, "Oh, it's nice to see that shot go down!" in Vegas compared to "He has to be able to make that!" That's doubly true on the defensive end, where any mental errors or unwise gambles are going to be punished swiftly by the coaching staff. Blocking a lot of shots does not necessarily mean you are a good team defender as a center, and being the defensive organizer on the back end is a responsibility many talented young bigs struggle with for years.

Reed's overall decision-making in Vegas was pretty good and improved with instruction, which leads you to believe he can be pushed in the right direction as a defender, where he swings wildly between both sides of the "Holy shit!" play spectrum. He's a very interesting young player, he just has work to do to become more than that.

Milton ended up being overextended in the role he was asked to play last season, but he's still plenty valuable to the Sixers as long as they are realistic about what he can provide to them. Carrying the bench all by himself as the lead guy is probably too much to ask of Milton, but we see teams routinely move big trade chips at the deadline for a sixth-man type who can be a difference-maker in the playoffs. Milton, who is making a paltry $1.8 million next season and has a cheap team option for 2022-23, was able to completely swing a second-round game basically by himself. Broadly speaking, I don't like analyzing production through the lens of how much the team is paying for it, but there is always going to be space on the roster and room in the rotation for someone with that level of ability on that size of contract.

Admittedly, Maxey's emergence makes it look less likely for Milton to impact the game in a point role, but that could end up being for the better. Letting Milton slide back into a more catch-and-shoot heavy role should be to his benefit, with a simplified role where he's stationary or attacking closeouts better suited for him. 

I don't love football as much as I do basketball anymore for a variety of reasons, but I think there are merits for both cases here:

  1. Football — You're at least getting some time with the team's best players during these games. The best-case scenario for a Summer League game is that you're seeing a young, unpolished talent before they can become a pillar of their franchise, while in NFL preseason, you at least get to see franchise QBs and skill position guys play a few series and get to work. The stakes are also slightly higher in NFL preseason because the guys who are fringe guys to make the roster might end up playing real snaps due to the frequency of injuries in football games, whereas fringe Summer League guys are just hoping to get a shot with a G-League program.
  2. Summer League — The diminished rosters aside, these at least resemble something close to real games, with your best players starting and finishing games except for in blowout situations. You can't necessarily learn a ton from Summer League, but there's more to learn watching a young prospect thrive or struggle than there is watching a developing QB play an opening series before hitting the showers. Plus, it's Vegas, baby.

I would lean toward Summer League being "better" mostly because these days I am leaning far more on other people's knowledge watching deep roster battles play out in football, so it's harder for me to build a frame of reference for anything (contextualizing a guy's successes or failures is harder if you're not as familiar with the competition he's up against). If I were on the ground reporting on the Eagles day-to-day, maybe I'd feel differently, but I personally get more out of watching Summer League.

I've continued to hear very little about the process for anointing Marc Zumoff's successor, though I promise I will let you know if/when I do. 

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