December 17, 2021
If you could hop in a time machine and return to late June, imagine telling someone who had just watched the Sixers' seven-game collapse against the Atlanta Hawks that Philadelphia had yet to make a major move to shake up the team. It would have seemed impossible at that moment, and it seemed even more unlikely as trade discussions (and demands) centered around Ben Simmons picked up between their final game of the season and draft night.
But here we sit in mid-December, the Christmas holiday fast approaching, with Simmons still on the roster and the Sixers treading water at .500. It has become harder and harder to make the case that the Sixers should just make a deal to get it done with based on the outlook of the current group and a cursory read of the marketplace.
At 15-15, there are plenty of excuses for the Sixers to point to as a reason for their slide after an 8-2 start. COVID ravaged the rotation and removed Joel Embiid from the lineup for an extended period of time, with Philadelphia struggling to find any rhythm since then. It gets harder to feel sorry for them, though, when they lose back-to-back games against Miami and Brooklyn teams ravaged by health issues, Philadelphia burying themselves with poor play in the first half of each game. And those spectacular losses are just the culmination of season-long trends that lurked in the background even as they managed to win games. You don't have to be a stats major to see the structural problems in Philadelphia.
They have gone from the league's best defense to a bottom-10 unit in the league, struggling to make do with a much smaller backcourt and no clear-cut option to guard an opponent's best player. Matisse Thybulle was seen as a worthy candidate for that role, but playing him with the other starters has been so disastrous for Philly's offense that it bleeds into their defense, with teams able to get out and run more. They are slow as molasses on offense, dead last in pace, something that suits Joel Embiid fine but leaves them without a curveball or counterpunch to throw if their offensive Plan A isn't working. Rebounding has been an Achilles heel for this team: they grab a smaller percentage of offensive rebounds than any team in the league, and rank in the bottom five in defensive rebounding, keeping company with teams that have small-ish frontcourts like the Hornets and Raptors.
If those sound like issues that stem from losing a player who lifts them up in all of those areas, you may have watched Simmons play a time or two. Whatever you think of Simmons — and my thoughts on his tenure here have been spelled out many times over — he has been a productive regular-season player who gives them multiple outs on any given night. Beating up on bottom feeders and wounded teams doesn't tell you much about your ability to lead a contending team, but you need to get those easy wins in order to have a chance to contend down the road. Simmons was a big part of taking care of business in those games, combining with Embiid to establish a defensive baseline and putting together enough stretches of uptempo basketball to swing games from tightly contested to comfortable wins. Simmons' ascent to the top of the league's defensive rankings reflected an improvement in his night-to-night competitiveness, taking every assignment and matchup more seriously than he had early in his career.
This has been part of the message the Sixers have presented to teams interested in Simmons from the beginning. They are more aware of his strengths and weaknesses than any other team in the league, and after the trade-heavy period around the draft came and went without a deal, the organization made it clear to Simmons and his camp they would simply prefer to keep him on the roster and work through issues rather than trade him for a substandard return. To put it lightly, they are better with him than they are with a $30 million hole in the roster.
So where does that leave them now? In need of help from elsewhere, quite frankly. The last six months have produced quite a few reports and suggestions that something, anything, would get done soon or by a different date. Surely, the draft could not go by without a trade. Surely, the Sixers wouldn't let this get past the preseason before someone else was brought in here. Then the messages start to trickle in about December 15th, a date that only represents a hurdle in terms of trade execution rather than trade discussion. The constantly shifting timeline for a deal is like the significant other your insecure friend made up to get you off of their back in high school — you wouldn't know her, bro, she goes to another school.
There were levels of truth in all these supposed deadlines and expiration dates, but they were always dependent on the market. And Damian Lillard doubling down on his position in Portland has left the Sixers without a no-doubt target to aim for in the marketplace. There has been scuttlebutt about some big names in other markets, though none appear close to being shipped out from where we sit today, unless you care about guys like Russell Westbrook who the Sixers aren't interested in to begin with.
(Here's one way to think about it that I don't think has been put in these exact terms — most teams are as interested in trading for Simmons to be the team centerpiece as the Sixers are in making him the centerpiece of their franchise. His value is viewed as dependent on how he aids the alpha dog on someone's roster. There are plenty of teams around the league where you could argue Simmons is better than their best player, but the Sixers are trying to make deals with teams who can offer their best player and a co-star to put next to Embiid that will upgrade their talent. You can understand why talks have dragged.)
The longer this goes on, the more it seems the Sixers are prepared to let this play out into next season if necessary. The last month has featured increased mentions of future sign-and-trade possibilities in the rumor mill, speculation about how they could get something done in the summer. Hell, James Harden's name has popped back up again, one year after the Sixers tried and failed to pry him away from Houston using the exact same player as bait.
Delusional as it may seem given the path we've all traveled to get here, members of the organization have even noted their intrigue in recent weeks at the concept of Simmons returning to play for this team at some point during this year. That admission seems preposterous on the surface. But to be fair, at no point have the Sixers sounded like a franchise on the verge of pulling a trigger on a big move.They are a franchise with options, of that there is no doubt, but if a specific and suitable option was on the table, no one has been able to nail down what that looks like. And they've made it no secret they'd like to have their cake and eat it too, winning games with Simmons until they can find a deal that suits all parties.
None of this is to say the Sixers have botched this or left money on the table by letting it play out this way. Their sins of the past have harmed them more than any recent decisions, and if the Sixers were to make a deal for one of the available offers that have been floated out there, those past mistakes would generate even more focus. Tobias Harris' terrible start to the season (COVID impact notwithstanding) is something you can look past temporarily if you are under the assumption the spot vacated by Simmons is going to be filled with a true impact player who will minimize his role in the process. But if you make a deal that brings in a decent, non-star player who by extension keeps Harris in a position of central importance, you're not really changing the team's calculus much. The Sixers need a trade that doesn't just add a player who fits, they need a guy who can change the team's hierarchy and DNA.
Between now and the February deadline, as we've stressed throughout this process, the most important thing to keep an eye on is the happiness of the major figures involved. Despite the team's current predicament and place in the league, there have been no major rumblings about, for example, Embiid's happiness or ownership's patience or Doc Rivers' willingness to navigate this strange situation. Any of those could blow up in an instant, and if the big man walked into Morey's office tomorrow and told them he was sick of playing with a handicap, you get the feeling everything would change rather quickly. But with the big man locked in on a supermax through the 2026-27 season, the message has been sent that they need to focus on fixing this situation and the team in a meaningful way over the long-term, rather than slapping yet another Band-Aid on a problem that deserves more serious attention.
If nothing else, the Sixers have been able to keep the power players in step for the time being, buying them time to hope sentiment changes elsewhere. Should that hold up through February, and should a star fail to become available before then, we may very well live in a world where the Sixers let this season run its course without a major move, preparing to make their big push next summer if it's what is necessary to maximize the return for Simmons.
The Sixers have remained open to different deal frameworks these last six months, inviting teams to offer young players and readymade stars alike in their quest to reshape this team over the short and long term. There is a lot of time left to get a deal done during this season in an attempt to make the most out of this year of Embiid's prime.
But if you watch and listen closely, the Sixers' message has been clear for some time now. If nothing suitable turns up in the next two months, they're going to continue waiting this out, hoping for a change in fortune rather than betting a middling deal is enough to push them over the top.
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