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December 22, 2020

Sixers mailbag: James Harden trade odds, Ben Simmons' potential, and more major topics heading into season

Also, can the Sixers find a way to move on from Tobias Harris?

There has never been a start to a Sixers season quite like this one, and in an attempt to make it feel as normal as possible for the people watching from home and this writer watching while masked up in an empty arena, we will stick to the classics in written form. You've got lots of questions, and so I have a mailbag, complete with questions on James Harden, Ben Simmons, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and many more topics heading into a new year.

The games begin tonight, and the Sixers kick things off tomorrow, when we'll have some predictions for the season. Until then, we go to the questions. 

I think trading Tobias Harris would be significantly harder than people think unless you're swapping him for someone on an equally problematic contract, or willing to dump multiple picks to get off of the deal. He is the owner of one of the worst contracts in the league right now, which complicates any trade scenario you put him in. It's what makes all the fake trade proposals Sixers fans have made for Harden look silly. Houston wants an attractive young player and a good haul of draft assets on top of that. Teams would likely ask for extra draft picks to take on Harris' contract, which makes a deal for Harden basically impossible if he's the centerpiece.

The best-case scenario is that Harris somehow lives up to his deal, rediscovering the form he found under Rivers in L.A. and even taking that to a new level. That seems exceedingly unlikely to happen, especially with the team's No. 1 perimeter player having his own major warts as a halfcourt scorer. Short of taking a leap as a scorer to "legitimate No. 1 scoring option for a contender," even the best version of Harris isn't super valuable. He's not a playmaker for others and he's a neutral defender on his best day. This is overly simplistic, but if teams valued what he brings to the table, he would have bounced around less prior to being in Philly.

No NBA contract is truly "untradable" but this is a team trying to win, which means they can't afford to take huge steps back just to get him off the books. For now, they're going to have to just hope he improves and see how it works out.

I think this year is unique in that every player will probably spend time in the rotation for COVID-related reasons alone. NBA rosters are much smaller than those in other sports, so it doesn't take a gigantic outbreak to change the team's short-term rotation.

Even still, I can't see Joe getting much burn this year outside of garbage time. He's got to spend time putting weight on in order to compete at this level on both ends, and they have more reliable veteran options to shoot in front of him. Would like to see what he as at some point, but suspect we'll be waiting a while.

I am already on the record saying they should make the Simmons-Harden offer, and I stand by that unless we see a significant difference in Simmons' approach to the game this season.

"Potential" is at the heart of every Ben Simmons conversation. People want to believe he has so much more to give, that at age 24 we are only seeing the start of something bigger for Simmons. For me, the hope for Simmons to become a title-leading perimeter player rests on hope more than available evidence. 

I have no doubt Simmons works hard on his game, something that is evident in the defensive progress he made last year, but we have little to no proof he wants to change on offense. The comparisons people make to other big-bodied playmakers like LeBron James are baseless because LeBron has never been a hesitant offensive player. People love to bring up Jason Kidd's name because he was referred to as "Ason" during his early years and evolved into a respectable shooter, but Kidd took over 600 threes in his first two seasons alone. No legitimate lead playmaker on a max deal has ever avoided the perimeter as Simmons has for as long as he has to start his career.

Expecting natural and realistic progression is completely fair. For example, Joel Embiid has shown flashes against double teams in the past, and with improved spacing this year, it's reasonable to be disappointed if he doesn't take another step forward. But in what world is it realistic to expect Simmons to be a totally different player, and not only that, to be disappointed if he doesn't become one? You're setting yourself up for failure that way.

We're heading into Simmons' fourth year. Peers of his have added major components to their offensive skillset — improved pick-and-roll playmaking, floaters, off-the-dribble shooting — and on offense he is mostly the same guy he was in year one. I do not agree with the assessment that he has stalled out as a prospect, because his defense is terrific and considerably better than it was when he entered the league. Maybe the work he has put in behind the scenes is going to be unleashed on the league all at once. But that's not a development path you should bank on for any player or prospect, regardless of how talented they are.

I think Ben Simmons will be a really good basketball player for a long time. Currently, I don't see how you win a title with a lead perimeter player who is as risk-averse as he is. If you can get the guy to do that job without moving him, terrific, that's an admirable goal, I just don't see it happening. In any case, Daryl Morey and Co. sound like they're content to wait it out, and that may turn out to be the smart choice. 

I think Joel Embiid publicly endorsing Brown after the 2019 playoff loss to the Celtics carried a lot more weight than the sum of everything I have ever written, said, or thought about the former coach. Just a hunch.

Am I excited to have basketball to watch and write about? Heck yeah, man. This year also fell sort of nicely for me, because the overlap of football and basketball season tends to be a bit brutal for me. Still a couple of Eagles games left, but NFL season mostly being done as the NBA starts up is nice.

I like what the kid has brought to the table in the preseason, but we're a long way away from this. If anything, Shake Milton is the more likely candidate to get bumped into a starting role, as he has the trust/respect of his head coach and a longer track record to point to. Rivers is not the most rookie-friendly guy in the world to begin with, and through no fault of his own, Maxey is down the pecking order a bit to start the year.

Long-term? Sure, that's a reasonable possibility. But while we're on the subject of Milton...

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This has been a popular suggestion on Twitter over the last week or so for obvious reasons — Shake Milton has played terrific and Tobias Harris is not especially well-liked. But I'm not sure it does as much to help as people think, perhaps because I'm a bit more skeptical of Milton as a starting/closing type player. When he was asked to be that guy toward the end of last season, Milton looked out of his depth, and a sizable role on the second unit could be the best thing for him, allowing him to attack worse defenders and guard less explosive players on the other end.

There's another side to it: would Milton have enough rope to do what he's doing now if he was in the starting lineup? Touches are going to be dominated by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and while his minutes overlap with both already, it's usually only one at a time, which affords him more responsibility and time on the ball. He can certainly help as a floor spacer in any context, but they've been getting a ton of value out of him as the primary-ish handler off of the bench. Milton is getting valuable reps as a ballhandler that I would argue are better for his development than a spot in the starting lineup out of the chute.

That said, Milton looked good enough in the brief preseason to warrant questions, and I think he has improved in some unexpected ways, too. He had some nice defensive possessions against Jaylen Brown in the Celtics game, and he's playing with a lot of confidence. This is a guy who was given a lot of responsibility in Summer League 2019 and underwhelmed as a featured ballhandler, so he deserves a ton of credit for continuing to progress in spite of injuries and an inconsistent role last year. 

Next, a couple of Shake-related props...

There were only 49 players who averaged 18 points per game or more in the league last season. That sounds like a lot, but once you get past the guys who are capable of making an All-Star team, you have to think about the circumstances most of the players are in. Many are mediocre players who got a lot of touches on bad teams, some are on good teams where their best players aren't scoring-focused, and others played in egalitarian setups that allowed multiple leaders to hit that mark (e.g. the Oklahoma City Thunder).

Shake is good and has high scoring potential, but there are some big mouths to feed on the team. Expecting him to double his average from last season, even in an increased role, is a tough ask. I'll take the under. 

It's a no for me. Bench-unit scorers (even very good ones!) struggle to get into the mix over more versatile players. Lou Williams averaged over 22 points and five assists per game in 2017-18 and still couldn't get on the Western Conference roster. Milton would have to make a significant leap to get into that conversation, and even that might not be enough.

I think the Sixers should absolutely be taken seriously in the Harden sweepstakes. There are two main reasons why:

  1. The Daryl Morey connection is real, and the new Sixers POBO believes any team that has a realistic title shot owes it to themselves to take it. I'm not entirely certain about what he's willing to give up to get this player in particular, but Harden moving will change the title picture, or at least the Eastern Conference picture, so I can't imagine Morey would sit these talks out entirely.
  2. James Harden has already floated (either on his own or through back channels) that the Sixers are one of his preferred destinations. This is different from the Jimmy Butler situation when Butler and his camp essentially floated that he "approved" of Philadelphia, not that he was actively seeking to play there. It's a small but important distinction, and the knowledge that he wants to be in Philly specifically (reportedly, anyway) is extra motivation to go out and get him.

End of the day, I think Harden probably ends up somewhere else. If you're asking me, this all feels like a bunch of needless drama before Harden eventually forces his way to the Nets. But I certainly wouldn't rule the Sixers out.

Unless Thybulle suddenly learns how to dribble, I think his ceiling as capped as a three-and-D guy, admittedly a (potentially) very good one. 

While your point is taken about defense-first players, I really don't think that's a bad outcome for a guy taken in the back half of the first round. If you look at the average draft, you're pretty fortunate if you can consistently come up with playable rotation guys the further down the draft you go. In that sense, Thybulle was a perfectly reasonable pick — he had an NBA-level skill that could get him on the floor, and the work from there is to round out his game so he can be a playoff contributor.

I think this is a nice idea in theory, but we saw last year that having Horford on the roster to practice with or against did not do much for Embiid. Even if we permit that they spent a lot of time practicing together and trying to make things worse, the logic was that having a "pro's pro" with great habits and an air of professionalism would help Embiid grow away from the court.

Would I totally rule this out? No. Howard has earned great early reviews for his ability to connect the team and set a professional tone day in, day out, and since he's not being plopped next to Embiid in the lineup, maybe he'll be more receptive to his lessons. It's also probably easier for Embiid to accept lessons from Howard since they weren't really in direct competition previously the way Horford and Embiid were as members of rival teams. They played against one another, sure, but not at their respective peaks and not in games that really mattered. Easier to start a professional relationship this way.

This is a big-time "Form or function?" question and I don't think I've played in a wide variety of enough shoes to make a claim on the latter. I predominantly wore Iverson's sneakers growing up outside of when T-Mac sneakers were a big thing (I had a pair of the T-Mac 2 Olympics) and then once I stopped growing and cycling through shoes, I have mostly played in Nike sneakers because they tend to fit my feet best. When pickup games were still a thing pre-COVID, I was partial to a pair of Flyknit Hyperdunks I got a couple of years ago.

If we are talking favorites aesthetically, I am partial to the Air Jordan IV Fire Red, and I'm partial to the OG Jordan line generally because my high school colors were red and black, so there are always an abundance of options for me to pair with old warmups and gear I still thankfully can fit in (for now).

The first step is just being a reliable shooter this year. While Thybulle's overall numbers last year were perfectly average (35.7 percent from deep), his splits were staggering. The rookie was a 44.4 percent three-point shooter at home compared to 26.3 percent on the road. Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey have made it abundantly clear how much they value shooting this offseason, and the Sixers can't afford that level of inconsistency from Thybulle or anyone else.

I do think (and I am guilty of this myself) there's been a bit too much overreacting to Thybulle's preseason, and Rivers quieted concerns himself after Friday night's win vs. Indiana. He's certainly behind Milton and Korkmaz right now, but Rivers has said they're bringing him on a bit slow after an ankle injury limited him in camp. Let's see how he looks in say, a month or two before drawing sweeping conclusions.

Squelch, this question was from last week so I hope you were able to come to a decision on lunch without my guidance. Would have advised against cobb salad though, not my cup of tea. 

Negative, unless "relocating the team" is a new arena in a Philadelphia suburb or right over the bridge in South Jersey. Even if the Sixers' ownership group was interested in moving the team somewhere far away, the league as a whole would never give them the green light. Philly is a huge media market with diehard sports fans and it would be madness to abandon it. 

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