August 11, 2021
With many of the NBA's top decision-makers melting under the hot Las Vegas sun this week, there's no better time than now for offseason trade talks to accelerate. And with Ben Simmons rumors ranging from downright nonsensical to fairly sensible, it's tough to figure out who or what to believe right now.
In steps ESPN's Zach Lowe, who delivered a long piece on the offseason Wednesday morning. Lowe named the Spurs (among other teams) as one of the teams who have expressed interest in Philadelphia's beleaguered star:
About that earthquake trade: Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, and Damian Lillard all remain with their teams. The Wizards are an undeniable winner of the offseason, having turned John Wall into almost an entirely new team -- and coming out net-neutral in first-round picks.
Simmons is the only one among them who is available, but his availability is very much tied to the other two -- and probably more to Lillard than Beal, though that can swing in time. Several teams -- including the Warriors, Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves -- have discussed Simmons with varying degrees of interest, sources said, but one reason talks haven't gone far is that the Sixers likely view Simmons as their path to Lillard. [ESPN]
There are more spicy details within the story — mostly concerning the future of Lillard — but the Spurs are a team we haven't touched on much this offseason. Their only appearance in Simmons rumors was as an illustration of Philadelphia's asking price, with some reporting the Sixers asked for a godfather pick offer plus young talent back.
San Antonio is an interesting team to throw in the mix for several reasons. One is their organizational code of silence, which prevents a lot of leaks from reaching connected reporters in the first place. They don't get thrown into trade rumors indiscriminately (not that Lowe does this anyway), so if you hear they are involved in talks with somebody, most of the time you can feel confident there's plenty of smoke.
The Spurs' organizational ethos under Gregg Popovich also seems to suit the playstyle of a guy like Ben Simmons, who has routinely dismissed questions about his scoring mentality by pointing out the providing he does for teammates. A player willing to hunt great shots and create threes for teammates will be valued in San Antonio, and Popovich has been known to admire Simmons from afar while dismissing the idea that he must shoot.
On the flip side, though, there's the same question we must ask with any potential suitor: what do the Spurs offer Philadelphia in return, should the two teams see eye-to-eye? The Spurs have an assortment of promising players on the roster, though none of them have shown the inclination to be "the guy" yet.
Dejounte Murray is the furthest along, an All-Defense talent at guard whose offense has come along over time, even with his third year wiped out by an ACL injury. But even though he's a more willing shooter than Simmons, he's not an especially good one — 31.7 percent from deep last year, 33.2 percent for his career. Add that he struggles to get to the line (less than two attempts per game as a pro) and you have the mold of a player who's a fine complementary piece but certainly not the head of the snake.
Keldon Johnson is probably the upside candidate, a 21-year-old with two years of experience who recently got a late promotion to Team USA after impressing as a Select Team member. He's a big-bodied wing whose strength allows him to power through smaller defenders, with good instincts as an off-ball cutter closeout attacker to boot. But projecting him as anything close to a lead perimeter player requires more hope than the evidence permits at the moment — Johnson has spent his time in San Antonio surrounded by guards who can do the heavy lifting.
So it goes down the line. The Spurs have plenty of "nice" players but lack a knockout young star or potential star, which is the reason they'd be after a Simmons type in the first place (they've been a middling team out West, under .500 and out of the playoffs the last two seasons). A deal with the Spurs would require subsequent moves to make the roster make sense, save for a scenario where Tyrese Maxey makes a sooner-than-expected leap to stardom, which is wildly unrealistic at this stage.
But maybe that helps the Spurs become an attractive third party in a Sixers-Spurs-Blazers deal. With numerous intriguing young players and control of all their future first-round picks, the Spurs make plenty of sense as a team that can help the Sixers get whatever they might need to close a deal for Damian Lillard — at least if one ever becomes available.
As others (including Lowe) have noted, that's the million-dollar question right now. It's fair to say that Lillard was at the top of mind for Philly as they want through their offseason process, watching other teams more or less lock themselves in on contracts and salary cap numbers while the Sixers treasured wiggle room.
Whether that pays off is another story. Rumors picked up over the weekend suggesting a Philly-Golden State-Portland deal was gaining momentum, though there's reason to believe that leans toward whisper-down-the-lane scuttlebutt rather than a real development. It underscores a basic reality of this moment in the offseason — reports concerning Simmons' communication with the team and desire to leave have come in fast and furious, and each of them contain half-truths alongside decent intel.
Simmons, for example, has not cut off everybody in the organization, as has been suggested by several people "in the know." Teammates of his have said otherwise, and one of the team's photographers makes constant appearances with or around Simmons on the west coast. That is not to say everything is hunky-dory, or that the stakes of this offseason aren't clear to both sides. The relationship between Simmons and Doc Rivers, it's worth noting, suffered significant damage that some believe is irreparable, though the Sixers would tell you when pressed on this they believe things can be worked out and fences can be mended.
(A bit of editorializing: I think people have been a bit too overzealous to discredit Kendrick Perkins, who suggested Simmons might hold out and cause a fuss if an arrangement to deal him isn't made. The former center has plenty of bad takes and shouldn't be treated as an ironclad authority, but he was further ahead on James Harden's Houston exit than most. Be cautious with both your beliefs and your doubts.)
In any event, the lack of movement on the Lillard front may put the Sixers in an uncomfortable position in the near future. Daryl Morey is okay weathering some awkwardness, holding out for what he believes is best for the team. Simmons will, at some point, weigh in on his future in a significant fashion, whether that means delivering an ultimatum at training camp, no-showing team events, or signaling his intent to play and compete here right up until he's no longer a Sixer.
Whenever that happens, the Sixers need options, either to put pressure on a team like Portland or to help them construct the sort of deal the Blazers might want. The Spurs might be the sort of silent partner they need.
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