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January 28, 2019

Sixers can make NBA's best trade offer for Anthony Davis, but they probably shouldn't

There is not a team in the league that can offer a better mix of production and upside in a trade package than the Sixers, if they're interested in Anthony Davis. Talk as much as you want about the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, or any other team, but the Sixers have the ability to trump any realistic package those teams would offer because they have Ben Simmons.

In most cases, rebuilding teams are looking for future draft picks above all else when they're trading away a superstar. Losing a player like Davis is going to (presumably) take the Pelicans into rebuilding mode, so getting mid-tier veterans and guys who are built to win right now isn't super helpful. Building through the draft is a way to pursue upside while keeping salary commitments low and retaining flexibility to change course if opportunities present themselves.

Simmons is a rare exception in that he offers any team he plays for a package of current, high-level production and significant upside down the road. There are few players in the league who would theoretically have more trade value than Simmons, should the Sixers make him available, and it's because he's a special talent even with his very quirky flaws.

The world's crappiest salesman could make a convincing pitch on Simmons to a rebuilding team. He does almost anything you could ask him to do. He has scheme-changing potential as a defender, where he can be weaponized routinely from 1-4 and in smaller doses as a nominal big. He is unselfish, which is reflected by his tendency to pass but also by his willingness to take on different assignments each night for Philadelphia. The accumulated numbers so far have been staggering, and they've come despite Simmons having a glaring flaw in his game that teams scheme for each and every night.

All of this is despite Simmons playing in a partnership that is perhaps not the best fit for his specific skill set. He and Joel Embiid need to play at different paces to succeed, and both like to operate around the same areas of the floor. But they have carved out an understanding and created a winning partnership, in part because Simmons is aware that it is his duty as a point guard to make sure the big guy gets his touches, too. Simmons doesn't often say/offer much to the public, but he leads by example in this way.

There are other young players who the Pelicans could talk themselves into as headliners if every team made their best possible offer. Boston's Jayson Tatum is the obvious guy to bring up here, with his scorer's skills, defensive switchability, and character an enticing combination for a kid who is permanently 19 won't be 21 until March.

But if we're talking about upside, Simmons is the frontrunner and it's not super close. That goes double when comparing him to the Lakers' pupu platter of prospects. 

With even a mediocre jumper, Simmons becomes one of the 10-15 best players in the league and has MVP potential. As it is, he was borderline All-NBA as a rookie and is almost undoubtedly going to appear in his first All-Star game this February. You can see a ton of room for growth on top of his current production, and that's always a good problem to have.

And here's the crux of the issue for me — knowing all of the above is exactly why the Sixers should not trade Simmons, whether Davis is available or not.

The Sixers bulldoze teams when Simmons and Embiid are on the floor together. They did so to greater effect last season, but the constant is their elite performance on defense. Over the full season to date, with instability in the rotation and one of the worst benches in the league, Sixers lineups with that pairing are better on defense than the Milwaukee Bucks, the best defensive team in the league.

If the Sixers are going to win titles built around a traditional big man, defense is their path to doing so. Thriving on offense in the meat grinder of the playoffs is extraordinarily difficult for anyone, let alone a 7-foot-2 guy who is going to be swarmed by doubles and hacked to death. And while optimizing surrounding pieces will make offense a little easier for him, the clearer path is to build out from their existing defensive structure.

The thought of Embiid and Davis in the frontcourt is legitimately intriguing defensively. But you're swapping sets of fit problems on offense and perhaps getting a less versatile defender back. Davis can guard switches and protect the rim, whereas Simmons can take entirely different matchups, even trading off between Russell Westbrook and Paul George within the same game. The Sixers desperately need that on this roster to get through the East, with downsized teams threatening to tear them apart when it matters.

(And by the way, Davis may be surrounded by subpar defensive talent in New Orleans, but his impact there has not matched his talent or his reputation. From six feet and in, where rim protectors make their money, opponents have actually shot 0.2 percent better than their average against Davis this season. Compare that to guys like Embiid or Rudy Gobert, who cause a seven-plus percent drop-off, and he's not even in the same ballpark.)

In time, Simmons' repertoire on offense will expand. We've already seen him used more often as a screener in pick-and-rolls, and the Sixers have prioritized getting him reps as a power forward in recent weeks, allowing him to attack more as a rim-runner/lob target. He can kill teams with post passing or throw darts in transition. There will be more to come.

To date, Philadelphia has expressed no interest in trading Simmons, publicly or privately, because the players who would be worth trading him for either are not available or would come with their own downsides. Philly pushing to compete now with the Warriors juggernaut looming would not be all that different from the moves that put the Pelicans in the position they're in today, the moves that made Davis' situation untenable in the first place.

There is no guarantee that Simmons is ever as good as Davis is now, with years of the latter's prime still left. But if the Sixers are going to move him, it needs to be for a player/situation where there are more answers provided than questions. Davis is an insane talent, yet I don't think that's the case here. 

Who runs the offense, and how do you obtain that guy if they're not already on the roster? Do Embiid and Davis cannibalize each other's strengths? Do guard-heavy teams skewer you even more? How do you stagger lineups in a way that gets the best out of an Embiid-Davis-Butler core? Is trading Embiid jumpers for Davis jumpers really that big of an upgrade or a path to "better spacing"?

Players like Anthony Davis don't come around often, and they're available to be had less often than that. But by that same token, players like Simmons, an uber-talented, unselfish, versatile blue chipper, do not exactly grow on trees, either.

It takes guts to stare down an opportunity like this, knowing you could make the best offer for one of the league's best players and build a fascinating basketball experiment. And yet it's exactly what the Sixers should do.

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