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September 08, 2021

Assessing potential deals from the Ben Simmons suitors left standing

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Sexton-Garland_090821_usat Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Cavaliers guards Collin Sexton (2) and Darius Garland (10).

A week into September and after nearly 10 days in a foreign country, I have returned to the Sixers beat to similar rumors as when I left. The Timberwolves are interested in Ben Simmons, Philadelphia's asking price remains higher than other teams are willing to pay, and Damian Lillard's willingness to give Portland a chance leaves everybody a bit stuck. You could have written those things at any point over the last two months and they would have been just as true then as they are now.

As far as I could tell with limited internet access overseas, it is the Wolves and Cleveland Cavaliers who have maintained at least a sliver of publicly reportable interest in Philly's hotly-debated star. Other teams have made it a point to either soften their stance on Simmons or suggest they have cooled their interest. The Warriors are reportedly split on him, Kings reporters are saying DeAaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton are not available, and the Raptors have been said to have moved away from the table after some interest earlier this offseason. Whether those things should be taken at face value or not, teams outside of the Cavs and Wolves are at least posturing as if they're not especially interested at this juncture.

Keeping in mind that this is not suggesting no one else is in for Simmons, we haven't spent a lot of time on the pieces who could return to the Sixers in a theoretical trade with either Cleveland or Minnesota. So here goes...

Cleveland Cavaliers

In this space, the Cavaliers have probably received the least attention/scrutiny among teams with reported interest in Simmons. Part of that is because it's hard to figure out exactly what they're doing or what their plan is beyond getting guys they like and figuring out the fit later.

As of Tuesday, the great Marc Stein reports they remain in the hunt for Simmons:

The Committee liked the Cavaliers' recent acquisition of Lauri Markkanen, even after the Cavs drafted Evan Mobley and re-signed Jarrett Allen, because they added Markkanen on a team-friendly contract that will be easy to trade if needed. This is no small thing when league sources say that Cleveland continues to keep its hat in the ring to try to pry Ben Simmons from the Sixers. Making a deal just to add a theoretical trade asset didn't exactly work with the acquisition of Andre Drummond, since Cleveland was unable to find a subsequent deal to move Drummond on, but its options on Markkanen — keep and develop him or move him later — figure to be more favorable. If only that were the case when it comes to the Cavaliers' Kevin Love conundrum … or the Darius Garland/Collin Sexton backcourt overload.  [Marc Stein, Substack]

Any deal involving the Cavaliers would center around one of the Cavs' interesting young guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who have quietly made some big steps forward despite playing on a pretty bad team. There are complicating factors for both players, though, which would need to be considered before pulling the trigger on any deal.

Sexton is the more readymade contributor, a 20+ point scorer in back-to-back seasons who has defied expectations as a shooter through his first three years in the league, making over 38.5 percent of his threes across three seasons, and he actually might be slightly better than the numbers suggest after a down year off-the-dribble in 2020-21. Excellent in catch-and-shoot situations (40+ percent every year in the league), Sexton has made offensive strides each year in the league, including a significant uptick in generating free-throws, more than doubling his attempts from 2018-21 with 6.4 per game last season, a mark that would nearly double Tobias Harris' numbers last season.

There are reasonable concerns about Sexton as a lead playmaker on your team, namely that he isn't much of one in a small guard's body. His assist numbers have gone up and Sexton has shown flashes of potential there, but he's certainly not a player who can do all of the shot creation for teammates by himself. The question is how much that would matter in Philadelphia — you could make the case that their inside-out offense built around Joel Embiid will create a lot of ball movement assists on its own if the big guy reads double teams well, with Sexton's ability to break down a defense in a tight spot worth its weight in gold.

Elsewhere, it gets a bit messy. Sexton is a tough, competitive player but on the smaller side of things, which would change the composition of their defense and the sort of lineups they'd put on the floor. Away from teammate Garland, who did a lot of the heavy lifting as a playmaker next to Sexton, his limitations in that part of the game could be even more pronounced. And the most pressing matter is whether you think he's worth a big future payday next summer as restricted free agency looms. If not, you likely run into a situation where Sexton has to be moved pre-deadline to someone who is excited to pay him, and that adds another layer of complication on for a team that wants to contend in the short term.

Broadly speaking, Garland is the more "interesting" prospect, a popular candidate among NBA diehards to break out next season. Garland made the sort of shot profile adjustments you need to see from a small guard at the pro level, cutting down on midrange jumpers in favor of more shots around the basket and improving his efficiency in the process, though that jump came from an admittedly horrific starting point (42% at rim in 2019-20, 57% at rim in 2020-21). He was downright excellent in the second half of last year, and he raised the floor of a bad Cavs team whenever he was in the lineup. Emerging as the lead playmaker for Cleveland last year, Garland profiles as a guy who would develop a mutually beneficial partnership with Embiid on offense — good shooting indicators, playmaking chops, and a growing ability to put pressure on the rim.

Still, there's a lot of projecting to be done here. Garland improving a lot last season is in some respects more about how bad he was as a rookie, and that could lead to people overestimating how much he can improve both next season and long-term. Garland is an even worse defensive player than Sexton, the sort of player who may require some creative hiding within the scheme in big moments. The kicker is that he's a Klutch Sports client, so even in a world where Simmons signs off on playing in Cleveland, who knows what Rich Paul and Co. will say and feel about another one of their players heading back to Philly (a concern I hate even having to include, but one to note in this climate).

Beyond that, you have to find the salary weight to make it work. Since it's safe to assume the Sixers don't want to take on Kevin Love's contract, Ricky Rubio's expiring $17.8 million deal is basically a necessity to include, and I think he'd be a good guy to have as a depth piece on a team suddenly building around young backcourt talent like Sexton/Garland and Tyrese Maxey. There's a little bit of money that needs to move (potentially to a third team) to make a deal work beyond that, and my guess is the Sixers would prioritize volume in first-round picks over another young Cavs player like Isaac Okoro, an interesting defensive prospect who is sort of a non-entity on offense.

(By the way, having mentioned Maxey, one of the reasons I'm dubious of any Cavs trade is what it means for the Kentucky product. Developing multiple small guards at the same time would be tricky even before including other defensive question marks like Seth Curry, and there would be plenty of lineups where the Sixers would be forced into the undersized backcourt style Cleveland now seems to want to get out of. Admittedly, they haven't had Embiid behind their backcourt, but replicating plans that failed on a bad team is not something you want to do.)

You might be able to pick up enough chips in a deal like this to justify the risk, but Cleveland still seems like a weird team to work with on a trade that helps them both short and long term.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Talking to people this summer, there were several different occasions where you could have been convinced the Wolves were on the verge of a big move. Leading into the draft, Minnesota was mentioned alongside Golden State as one of the teams hottest in pursuit of a star-level trade, and they have remained a name to watch in the Simmons sweepstakes even as other teams have seemingly taken a step back.

There have never been any questions about Simmons' value and potential for the Wolves, who could place him next to an elite stretch big in Karl-Anthony Towns to open up the floor for him. Combined with last year's No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Edwards, the Wolves could have the foundation of an interesting top three for years to come.

That is sort of the problem for Philly — Minny's most valuable current player is off of the board and their most exciting prospect is practically (if not completely) untouchable coming off a nuclear finish to his rookie season. That leaves the Sixers picking from an assortment of players who are either flawed as primary-ish options or not sniffing that level of talent or production.

D'Angelo Russell is the biggest name (and biggest contract) to be had from the Wolves, and he still seems like an eye-of-the-beholder-player six years into his career. In the right situations, he has put up good, not great offensive numbers and looks absolutely unguardable when he is dialed in, a crafty operator out of the pick-and-roll who can pull up from just about anywhere on the court. But he has needed the ball a ton to produce at his best, and the vision of Russell as a hybrid on-and-off ball threat has never really played out at this level.

The Golden State Warriors found that out the hard way in 2019-20 when they brought him back in the Kevin Durant sign-and-trade and attempted to see if he could fit into their style of basketball. While the trade was made with the possibility of moving him later always in mind, they were ready to bail quick enough to swap him for (in addition to some smaller parts both ways) Andrew Wiggins and what turned out to be a lottery pick from Minnesota ahead of the 2020 deadline. Jonathan Kuminga might end up making that whole process worth it, but it's not exactly what they had in mind when they brought him in.

Russell's off-the-dribble shooting and ability to score and play-make in the pick-and-roll is enticing in an Embiid-centric world, you just have to ignore a lot of other issues to zero in on that. He's an ambivalent and often actively harmful defender, a constant injury concern, and his style of play might actually make some other big Sixers pieces worse. A Russell-centric perimeter attack would leave someone like Tobias Harris as a stationary player in the corner a lot of the time, a waste of his all-around talents. The idealized version of Russell would give you an interesting and potentially potent long-term backcourt with Maxey, but that necessitates Russell showing us a style he's rarely been willing to play at this level.

Two other names also come up in the rumor mill on this one: Malik Beasley and Jaden McDaniels. Beasley is a player long coveted by many Sixers fans who could step in and contribute right away, an excellent shooter and athlete whose numbers have gone way up in a bigger role with the Wolves over the last season-and-a-half. Given the green light to fire away for the Wolves, Beasley maintained excellent efficiency last season while dramatically upping his volume under Chris Finch, shooting just a hair under 40 percent on 8.7 attempts per game. He's on an eminently reasonable contract for a young and productive role player and doesn't turn 25 until late November, so you could theoretically have him around and producing for this group for years to come.

McDaniels is more on the project side of things, a very limited offensive player who nonetheless could help offset Simmons' loss on the defensive end somewhat. As a 20-year-old rookie, McDaniels was asked to take a wide variety of tough assignments up and down the lineup for the Wolves, and was a gamer on that end within a team filled with downright bad defensive players. He's certainly not in the Simmons class there yet, but he's got a combination of size and athleticism to at least try to keep them in good shape against the bigger wings and forwards who dominate deep playoff rounds.

In other words, the depth pieces here are good, but this is a package lacking the headlining player who could make this all work if the big subsequent deal down the line never comes to fruition. An assortment of first-round picks from Minnesota would definitely carry weight if the Sixers chased a Damian Lillard move down the road, but the prevailing thought among people in both Minnesota and Philadelphia is that this is a trade partnership in dire need of a third team. Philadelphia securing a supermax commitment from Embiid does not mean they should leave him exposed in the short-term on nothing but hope that a title-chasing move comes together later.

All of this is to say we will probably have to wait for a few more teams to step back into the fracas to get this moving. The Sixers are certainly not out of options, loud as the angst might be in a couple of weeks.


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