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August 31, 2023

Mailbag: Is a Ben Simmons reunion possible? When will James Harden situation be resolved?

In a new mailbag discussing Ben Simmons, James Harden and more, Kyle Neubeck answers Sixers fans' questions.

Deep in the month of August, it's hard to believe anyone can be made to think about the Sixers, let alone summon questions to ask me about the team. But no matter how many times this team decides to let you down, your curiosity persists, and I admire that about Philadelphians.

Let's get to the latest batch of questions for this mailbag.

By now, I assume you've all seen Ben Simmons' quotes about potentially coming back here. It is quite a pivot from him and his agent's stance that he would have been better off starting his career on a rebuilding team with lower expectations. Though to be fair to Simmons, he has avoided sniping back at Philly fans and the city since leaving. He had plenty of testy moments with the media here, but beyond his "stay on that side" quote he has usually embraced the approach of Sixers fans.

In theory, sure, it is possible that Simmons could come back, just like it is possible I could wake up tomorrow and hit the lottery. Maybe Simmons is a minimum contract player with everything to prove and the Sixers have a need down the road; maybe Simmons finally discovers a jumpshot in a meaningful way and he becomes an easier piece to fit; maybe the Sixers trade Embiid and build a radically different team that Simmons fits into better. You can make up possibilities and rationalize them in your head, and the fanbase is down so bad that I've seen more than a few people entertaining these ideas on social media.

But here on Earth One, a return would require several meaningful, significant changes on both ends of the equation. The Sixers are certainly not interested in max contract Simmons in any way, shape, or form right now, nor is basically anyone else in the league. To warrant real consideration beyond his current contract, he has to prove he can be a normal basketball player after putting together by far his worst year as a pro last season. If we chalk that up to nothing more than physical limitations, the burden of proof is still on him, as issues with his back have now been relevant for several years. Athleticism has been a central pillar of his effectiveness up to this point, and if he is more limited there moving forward, he would need to reimagine his game to be a meaningful contributor. It would be an absolute circus if he returned here at some point, and the diminished version of Simmons we saw last year is nowhere near worth that.

So never say never, but I wouldn't buy a future custom City Edition jersey and put No. 25 and "Simmons" on the back.

I tend to think Tyrese Maxey is able to make at least one All-Star team during his career, though competition in the backcourt is always fierce. Let's just think about who he might have to beat out in the Eastern Conference over the next few years. Of last year's Eastern guards, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown, and Tyrese Haliburton are three players with a lot of runway in front of them. DeMar DeRozan is probably toward the end of that portion of his career, and Jrue Holiday was a somewhat surprising selection, but then there are guys like Trae Young and Jalen Brunson who didn't make the team and will likely come back with stronger tailwinds behind them. Sprinkle in some names like Darius Garland, Zach LaVine, or even LaMelo Ball, and there will be competition on the fringes of consideration, too, before we consider any ascending players with higher profiles (e.g. Cade Cunningham) who will factor in down the road.

Maxey has all the ingredients to make a team — he's super likable, he improves every season, and he's fun to watch — though he'll have to become more of a team and winning driver in order for him to get in the mix. With Embiid basically a nailed-on All-Star, the Sixers are going to struggle to get a second guy in the game unless they are one of the dominant regular-season teams the league has to offer. Failing that, he'll probably end up being perennially on the fringe, with the talent to battle for a spot but never quite crossing the threshold.

(From a narrative perspective, Harden leaving and Maxey upping his production once again would be a huge jolt for him, though that partnership has allowed him to focus on his strengths while Harden does much of what Maxey can't yet.)

Love this question. Off of the top of my head, I think Oklahoma City best fits the criteria. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Lugentz Dort, Jalen Williams is a great starting point, they love playing small, Chet Holmgren's debut is super exciting, Vasilije Micic is finally coming over, they've got shooters (Isaiah Joe, sorry for the PTSD), I could go on. It's just a very likable team with flexibility, future upside, and short-term intrigue. And I don't have to deal with the fallout if their rebuild leads to disappointing playoff results, which is a nice bonus after going through the Process with the Sixers.

The Grizzlies used to rank fairly high here, though Marcus Smart's admittedly helpful talents probably take them down a notch (maybe that's offset by the departure of Dillon Brooks' shenanigans), and they'll be without Ja Morant for about a quarter of the season. 

I think I tend to enjoy watching teams who are interesting offensively despite valuing defense more than most people. It's either why I ended up rooting for Liverpool in EPL or a product of that fandom, because they have a history in my lifetime of talismanic goalscorers (Michael Owen, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, and so on) who required more than they got from the rest of the team.

I want to say the answer is no, but I would have been wrong when I felt the same about the Ben Simmons situation a couple of years back. This time it feels different because of the increased urgency they have to put a competitor around Embiid, the expiring deal James Harden is on, and Harden's proven track record of causing problems when he isn't getting what he wants. I believe the Sixers and Daryl Morey when they say they'll hold out for a deal and a time that's right, but that time should probably be sooner rather than later.

I am actually a pomade guy. If you get a good brand, you can get some sheen and hold for your hair without it looking/feeling hard and crusty the way gel does over time, which is the best of both worlds to me.

Continued improvement and health for Embiid is the biggest thing, followed closely by Maxey's trajectory. If Maxey can become a genuine playmaker for others while maintaining his scoring and shooting numbers, he will boost Philadelphia's floor all by himself. But so much of this simply comes down to answering the question, "Can Joel Embiid be the best player on a real contender?" If he proves he can be, everything else falls into place. That's just a big if as things stand right now.

Selfishly,  I would love a new arena just to upgrade the workspace we have as writers and media members at the games. The Wells Fargo Center has been upgraded and tweaked with fan experience in mind, but it has not exactly been a treat to deal with the quirks of the lower bowl over the last six years or so.

I think a new arena is something people enjoy in the abstract, particularly when taxpayers don't have to fund its construction, but I do think the biggest challenge (beyond getting the residents of Chinatown on board) is changing the habits of multiple generations of fans. There are thousands if not millions of people who only know a world where they go down to South Philly, set up shop in or around the lots, and then go watch their favorite teams. While a good chunk of the fans come in via the BSL, converting more people into public transit riders for a downtown arena requires a shift that will be cultural for a lot of fans. It may end up changing who comes to games and from where, and I'm not clairvoyant enough to know if that's good or bad.

Until there's a material impact on people's lives and/or people can actually experience the grandeur of a newer, shinier arena, I just think it's hard to get people to care about things that are seven or eight years down the road.

My default expectation is that a head coach in a situation where they're expected to win will play veterans more than young guys. Bringing along young guys is a much tougher task than I think it is given credit for, and while the Sixers have sort of set themselves up to play a lot of up-and-comers — when you roster this many centers, there will be opportunities elsewhere — I think it would be wise to assume Nurse will play known quantities first while he figures out what he has with the rest of the group.

But since we're not even that close to training camp yet, it's only an assumption. I hope we can see some serious Terq Smith action this year, even if he'll be equal parts frustrating and explosive.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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