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January 14, 2022

Sixers mailbag: When will a Ben Simmons trade happen?

Plus, a look at Doc's rotations, the team's ceiling this season and (surprise!) more Ben Simmons questions

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Ben-Simmons-Sixers_011422_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Ben Simmons was once a franchise cornerstone for the Sixers not too long ago.

The Sixers only just snapped a seven-game winning streak, Joel Embiid is playing at an MVP level, and yet all most people want to talk about with this team is the guy who is not playing for it. The Ben Simmons phenomenon is one I understand, but it's still a bit surprising how much he is able to dominate interest while not actually doing anything on the floor.

To that end, we go to the mailbag, with a bunch of questions centered around Simmons and the immediate future of the team. Let's get crackin'.

To no one's surprise, Ben Simmons is a hot topic again this week. Who could have guessed?

If you're asking me to make a declaration based on the market as of today, I think the answer is yes. It's not a version of reality I was prepared for when this saga began last summer, but it looks increasingly like the Sixers are dug in and content to wait until the moment is exactly right to trade Simmons. And frankly, the forces they were hoping might work in their favor haven't really changed the market that much, at least as far as I can tell.

A few points on that subject:

  1. If you were hoping for a Damian Lillard breakaway from Portland, it seems everything has gone wrong there. Portland has been bad, but Lillard has constantly reaffirmed his commitment and looks to be done for the year. I would be shocked if he finally asks out and changes course after what is basically a lost season. Doesn't fit his m.o.
  2. People have been waiting for Bradley Beal to ask out for years and there's no indication he has his eye toward the door.
  3. The Boston Celtics have been a hot mess for what feels like forever, but there's no intel suggesting they're thinking about separating Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum. In fact, I'd posit the opposite, that word out of C's land is that they're as committed to that pairing as much as they've ever been.

Who exactly is a realistic target and franchise-changing player that's out there and available right now? No top player you can think of is at risk of getting moved at the moment, let alone for Simmons. 

I'm not honestly sure how far down the list of players you go before you say, "Yeah, that team would definitely deal [Player X] for Ben Simmons." As a thought exercise, let's get a little nuts and use a top-30 player list from NBA.com coming into 2022 as a jumping-off point. 

In order, here are their 30: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, DeMar DeRozan, Ja Morant, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Khris Middleton, Zach LaVine, Draymond Green, Bradley Beal, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jrue Holiday, LaMelo Ball, Jaylen Brown, Domantas Sabonis. 

Quibble with the selections if you want, but you could make an easy case that Sabonis, sitting in that final No. 30 spot, is the only guy on that list who is actually, truly available right now, and he doesn't move the needle for Philly at all. Rising teams aren't trading the younger upside guys (e.g. Ball, Morant) for Simmons, and contending teams aren't trading the older core members (e.g. Paul, Holiday) of title hopefuls for Simmons. Teams between the extremes either don't have players at that level or aren't at the point where they're moving guys/would ask for the moon if they did (e.g. Brown in Boston).

Certainly, there are players not on that list who are good and could be in that upper group in better situations (as an example, maybe Brandon Ingram). It still comes down to whether said teams would swap them for Simmons directly. Are the Thunder swapping Shai-Gilgeous Alexander for him despite SGA being younger with fewer long-term concerns and Simmons being, shall we say, not an Oklahoma City guy? It's unclear where the line in the sand is drawn, and the further down the list you go, the more warts there tend to be, more fit concerns to worry about next to Embiid. 

You never know what might change — or heck, even what we don't know — between now and the deadline. Maybe there's a godfather offer on standby they've kept quiet about all this time. Maybe the Kings just toss the kitchen sink at them and the Sixers ride off with Tyrese Haliburton, a role player or two, and a treasure trove of assets. Heck, John Collins is very good and also apparently gettable, and maybe they can pull off a multi-team extravaganza involving Atlanta that reshapes this Sixers group around Embiid.

But if you're asking me to read and follow the signs, I just don't see the momentum building toward a deal. Teams are still trying to beat the Sixers' price down, and the Sixers are still telling them to ante up. So it goes.

The problem here (at least in my view) is less about Doc Rivers and more about the state of the roster. With few exceptions, the Sixers have to sacrifice something on either end of the floor to put coherent lineups together. 

In order to have enough shooting on the floor, you have to live with playing guys like Georges Niang, Furkan Korkmaz, and to a lesser extent Seth Curry. Matisse Thybulle is the guy whose presence screams "defensive focus" while also compromising their spacing, as the Sixers saw when the Hornets basically ignored him in Wednesday night's loss. Even if Rivers plays young guys, a la new two-way player Charlie Brown Jr., that dynamic is in play. Brown is going to have to prove he can space the floor at some point, and the jury is still out based on an admittedly small sample at this level.

One thing I can definitely say for sure — we do not need to see much more of the ultra-big lineup. If Embiid hated it with Al Horford, who can actually shoot the ball, I can't imagine his tolerance is super high for this pairing.

Less than zero. Wood falls in the "good shooter for a big, slightly above average overall" category that would feel much worse if he was the guy directly next to Joel Embiid. He's admittedly a different guy than he was when the Sixers had him all those years ago, but not exactly acing the character test, either. Hard pass.

I would be absolutely stunned if Harris is moved before Simmons. There's one primary reason — moving Harris on his own is a negative value proposition right now, at best a situation where you could swap equally bad contracts with another team. And with the Simmons situation unresolved, the Sixers don't want to be in the business of giving up/trading away valuable picks and assets just for the sake of moving Harris' contract.

When other teams have spoken to Daryl Morey and the front office about Simmons, the message has been that the Sixers want a star back, and failing that, they want all the young talent a team can offer plus a bushel of draft capital. That's not because Morey necessarily wants to sit here and build through the draft for years to come, it's because they want to have as much ammunition as possible to put together a deal for a star later on.

Remember, when they tried to trade for James Harden last year, it's not as if the Sixers were offering just Simmons. Putting together a Simmons trade that accomplishes what they want in an ideal world could require a little extra on their end. That being the case, dealing with the Harris situation becomes a distant priority by comparison, unless they actually can deal both at once and get all their housekeeping done in one shot. Good luck with that.

As far as I understand, Ben Simmons is still being fined, and the reporting that suggests otherwise is bending the truth.

It is true that in some instances, Simmons is not being fined, as he has lived up to some requirements and scheduled must-dos that the team would otherwise dock him for. When Simmons is not participating in or no-showing scheduled activities, he is still subject to fines. I almost certainly don't have to tell you what his attendance record is for games this season. 

Whether or not he recoups the money he has been fined is another matter entirely, and the Simmons camp's belief they will eventually get it is part of why they've felt okay digging their heels in. Based on discussions with people around the league, I am a bit skeptical that will be the case, but I'm also not a lawyer. 

The answer basically has to be Tyrese Maxey, right? He's probably built the most like a skateboarder, insofar as any of these giant dudes are built like skateboarders, with a low center of gravity and the ability to change directions quickly. Footwork is an underrated component of what makes him so good this early, and I could see that translating to a board — when you can get around bigger guys for layups and time your runners to avoid shot blockers, I assume you know when/how to bail on a trick so that your learning process isn't derailed by a nasty injury.

My runner-up (and a worthy contender for the lead spot) is Matisse Thybulle, who is a West Coast guy and has shown the ability to develop real skills in his current hobby of choice, photography. 

This really depends on whether you think the offensive progress he has shown next to Embiid is real or not. After the Hornets debacle on Wednesday, where Thybulle might as well have been a cardboard cutout on offense, it's easy to think the chemistry was an aberration and a product of crappy opponents. But I won't overreact just yet, because he does have tools that should allow him to be a good cutter and finisher around the basket — good hands, great athleticism, and the willingness to look dumb for the sake of attacking. All important qualities.

If we assume a middle-of-the-road outcome, one where Thybulle is occasionally useful on offense but ignored on the perimeter most of the time, it's going to be a game-to-game struggle to figure out his role. If he can knock a shot or two down from deep, he is likely going to play 30+ minutes because of his ability to check the sort of players that dominate playoff games. If not, Rivers will likely have to live and die with, I don't know, Danny Green in that spot, giving up the defensive upside for reliable floor spacing. Assuming Green gets healthy and looks normal for more than 1.5 games in a row this year, that's not a bad option.

I think this team could absolutely win a playoff series so long as they are healthy at the end of the year. But that is going to hinge big time on who they play/draw when the dust settles, and how high up the standings they can climb before it's all said and done. I am slightly dubious of both the Bulls and the Heat out of the current top four, with the former probably the best matchup for the Sixers out of the top half of the playoff picture. 

Do I expect them to beat Brooklyn or Milwaukee if it comes down to it? Heck no, though I do think Embiid could have a monster series against the former and at least make them sweat a little bit. He is one of the few players in the league who can tilt both ends of the floor, and that will give them a puncher's chance if everyone else is merely competent.

One interesting subplot — would a team in the mix for No. 2 or 3 in the East stealth tank to end the year if the standings hold up? A matchup with the one-man show Sixers in round one and avoiding Milwaukee/Brooklyn in the second round would be a nice draw, even if Philadelphians saw the draw doesn't always matter last summer.

The real crime of this season for Philly is their abysmal record at home. Being 15-8 on the road should have them fighting for positioning at or near the top of the conference, but they have given away a bunch of close ones at home, including the early-season choke job against Brooklyn, the OT loss to Minnesota, the early November loss to Toronto, and the brutal giveaway game against the undermanned Heat. If they had won just three of those five eminently winnable games, they'd be sitting at 26-14, tied for second in the conference in spite of all the issues. 

This is a question I ask friends of mine all the damn time when they have their own questions for me about Ben, and I'm still not sure I have a solid answer. Coming into the year, I would have said it's somewhere around the tier the Kings young guards are in — good, young players who are miscast as lead guys that might make a leap playing next to Embiid. 

But the more I have to write versions of the same story regarding trades and trade rumors, the more inclined I am to say, "Great trade, who'd they get?" 

All about finding the right opportunity, brother. I enjoy doing podcasts quite a bit (especially when I only have to do the talking and not the editing) and have had some exploratory talks on the matter, but the writing comes first and I'd have to have a co-pilot, which adds a layer of complication to everything. By all means, though, if the people want a pod, your feedback is something I care about a lot.

Elden Ring is the game I am most excited for by a considerable distance, and what is driving me nuts at the moment is the fact that it comes out during a period loaded with stuff I am interested in, mainly the Horizon sequel and the new expansion for Destiny 2, which I have somehow gotten roped back into again thanks to my buddies. If those had been spread across the year, I'd have nice pockets of time to enjoy those and participate in the discourse around them, but now I have to choose which horse to back in the race.

Given that open-world Souls is basically a fever dream for me, Elden Ring is top of the heap, and it's a good problem to have overall. I'll catch Horizon: Forbidden West during a dead point later on, most likely, hopefully before Starfield makes a debut late in 2022. Or, as happens most years, I'll keep playing the same stuff I play now and just pretend I'll get to all the cool new stuff because responsibilities are the thief of joy and exploration of your hobbies. 


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