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January 21, 2020

What they're saying: Every good Sixers performance creates a new trade discussion

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4_Matisse_Thybulle_Ben_Simmons_sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers head coach Brett Brown talking to Ben Simmons (25) and Matisse Thybulle (22).

With the trade deadline approaching and Ben Simmons playing his best basketball of the season with Joel Embiid on the bench, it is not surprising half of the internet is spending their time constructing fake trades to put the Sixers over the top. 

'Tis the season, after all. 

It is also true that in spite of their clunky fit, maddening lulls, and constant inability to keep the full starting five on the floor together, the Sixers are 29-16, only a couple of games away from the top of the non-Milwaukee playoff picture in the East. Philadelphia has everything left to play for down the stretch, and a schedule that will give them a chance to pile up wins as they coalesce near the finish line.

So it's time for a new edition of what they're saying before we get too deep in the deadline weeds. Let's start off with a pair of tweets from rival radio stations in Philadelphia...

For the record: this is not an attempt to pick on sports radio, which I enjoy and understand as a medium. Nobody is calling in if the show topic is, "Gee willikers, that Sixers win in Brooklyn sure is swell!" They are in the business of creating attention and a reaction, and Simmons taking off without Embiid is a natural bridge to these topics.

But as someone who has watched as many Sixers games as I have during my lifetime, boy does it feel shortsighted to view every individual triumph of Simmons or Embiid as the impetus for a potential trade, or a reason to draw a line in the sand between different segments of the fanbase. This is showing my age some, but there has never been a point in my life where the Sixers had two players as good as Embiid and Simmons on the team at the same time. It is the sort of pairing the Sixers dreamed of creating when they desperately flailed around in an attempt to put a second star next to Allen Iverson.

Raw talent, of course, is not enough to win at a high level in the NBA. But as frustrating as these Sixers have been at times, no one should lose sight of the fact that Simmons and Embiid have been the only two constants on a team that has won over and over and over again since they stepped on the floor together. The Sixers have had a number of different five-man lineup combinations that were at or near the top of the league in two-way efficiency, and the more combinations they run through, the more trades and signings Elton Brand makes to reshape the roster, the clearer it becomes who drives their success. It has always been the core duo, and perhaps always will be.

The simplistic view of Simmons' recent success is to attribute all or most of it to Embiid being absent. A better observation would be pointing out that his offensive ascent began while Embiid was still in the lineup — in a loss to the Rockets with Embiid sharing the floor with Simmons, we saw the early stages of their weaponization of Simmons as a screener that has come on in recent games. That strategy is easier to turn to in non-Embiid minutes, no doubt, but this isn't an either/or proposition.

Both of these guys have very real flaws that leave them susceptible to poor performances against elite competition. Even during this monster Simmons stretch, even with Embiid out, the same inability (or unwillingness) to score in crunch time has been there. They are not finished products as players, nor should they be expected to be at this stage in their development. And that's what makes the trade discussion so foolish, as it is jumping the gun on declaring a pairing DOA that probably still has its best days ahead of it.

We ride this roller coaster each time one of Philadelphia's young pillars has a standout game. It's tempting, I get it. One day, the Sixers might reach the fork in the road where trading one guy is absolutely necessary. It isn't now.

No, the Sixers aren't trading Ben Simmons this year

Bryan Toporek | Forbes

Just to make sure we really hammer this point home, there is almost zero chance Simmons is being traded this year simply because of salary cap mechanics:

When the Sixers signed Simmons to a five-year max extension in the summer, they effectively ensured he'd be on the roster for the entire 2019-20 season (if not longer). That's because the NBA's collective bargaining agreement makes it prohibitively difficult to trade players on rookie-scale contracts shortly after signing them to extensions. 

If a team trades such a player before his extension kicks in, "the player's trade value for the receiving team is the average of the salaries in the last year of the rookie-scale contract and each year of the extension," per Larry Coon's Salary Cap FAQ. Meanwhile, "the sending team uses the player's actual salary when calculating their total outgoing salary, and uses the current-year maximum salary in place of the (unknown) maximum salary for a future season, if necessary." 

 Simmons is earning $8,113,930 this season and will earn $168.2 million over the length of his five-year extension, based on the projected $116 million salary cap for the 2020-21 season. His outgoing salary thus would be $8.1 million if the Sixers traded him this season, but he would count as $29.4 million in salary for the receiving team. [Forbes]

Please, put down the NBA Trade Machine, for the sake of everyone's sanity.

Zhaire Smith is hunting threes

Noah Levick | NBC Sports

On a positive note, as Levick notes in the story below, Smith has been excellent from deep since the start of December. A version of Smith that shoots 40+ percent from deep would have an obvious place in Philly's rotation.

Smith hasn’t appeared in an NBA game for the Sixers in his second professional season. He was preoccupied with recovering from a broken foot and a severe allergic reaction for much of his rookie year after being acquired by the Sixers in a draft-night trade. 

“He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said on Oct. 18 of Brett Brown’s plan for him. “Last year we tried to develop, but then obviously I had the setback. He feels like this is my rookie year, like this is [about] development.” 

Smith thinks he’s making progress.

"I feel like I’ve improved a lot,” he said Monday. “Especially last year — last year was kind of like rehab. But looking back to my freshman year of college, I feel like I’ve made a big jump. I feel like I’m improving. … Shooting, ball handling and just being confident. Especially playing the guard position. Looking back at Texas Tech, I was playing the four and three. So, [now] I’m on the wing and I’m improving. It’s coming quickly." [NBC Sports]

It still feels to me like last year's freak occurrence for Smith may have doomed his future in Philadelphia through no fault of his own. When they drafted him, the Sixers were still in the process of trying to track down another star player, stuck between modes as a rebuilding team and a contender. Without much juice on the wing, a developmental project (and the extra pick that came with him) made some sense for a team without much bench punch.

How do you fit Smith into the current rotation? The five normal starters are locked in, Matisse Thybulle is already brilliant as the defensive wing off of the bench, and Furkan Korkmaz brings a shooter/scorer's profile that Smith will likely never be able to match. Anyone beyond that needs to complement Philadelphia's starting group in some way, and Smith's improvement from deep would need to be real to trust him alongside the likes of Embiid and Simmons.

With the Sixers in the hunt for someone who can help them with a title push right now, the more likely scenario is that Smith is a trade chip a rebuilding team can view as a shot at upside, while the Sixers bring in someone ready to play playoff minutes. Outside shooting aside, Smith hasn't exactly blown the doors off of the G-League, so who knows what his future holds.

Likes and dislikes at the midway point

Derek Bodner | The Athletic

A quick zoom in on Philadelphia's turnovers, a source of pain that has gone away recently:

During Brown’s first year as head coach, the Sixers were the worst team at taking care of the basketball. It was easy to overlook in the 2013-14 season, as the Sixers “featured” Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten as they chased high draft picks in a quest to build a contender.

 The 76ers’ focal points changed from Carter-Williams and Wroten to Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, and eventually became Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. But the turnover problems remained and continued to plague the Sixers each season even as they became more relevant. In fact, the Sixers’ league-wide rank in taking care of the ball over Brown’s first five seasons in Philadelphia barely moved: 30th, 30th, 29th, 30th and 30th. 

 That began to change in 2018-19, as Simmons and Embiid started to mature, and the Sixers added Jimmy Butler. For the first time in Brown’s tenure, he finally had a ball handler who could reliably create quality offensive looks in the half court. From the time they acquired Butler in November 2018 until the end of the season, the Sixers ranked a respectable, almost normal 22nd in turnovers. 

 Even though Butler left for Miami over the summer, that improvement continues to trend in the right direction. The Sixers rank 19th this season, and fifth since Dec. 15. Over the last 14 games, they’ve turned it over on just 12.3 percent of their possessions. [The Athletic]

If you're asking me personally, the turnover "problem" has always been a bit overrated. They play through a traditional center in the post, which is a turnover-heavy style, and until this season Embiid was never all that good at navigating double teams. The personnel surrounding Embiid and Simmons did nothing to help matters in their first season together — the next time Robert Covington executes a successful dribble move will be a first.

As Bodner notes, this is in part a reflection of Philadelphia's reliance on Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris this season — and I'll even add Trey Burke's name here. The Sixers have more players than ever in the rotation who are comfortable hunting shots as pull-up shooters, which is going to naturally cut into your turnover numbers. Fewer passes will lead to fewer turnovers, and as long as the Sixers can make enough of those shots in pick-and-rolls or isolation situations, the decrease in ball movement can be survived.

Unfortunately, the offense is still lagging behind their defense, unsurprising given the personnel.

Can the Sixers survive without Norvel Pelle?

David Murphy | The Inquirer

If it wasn't so sad, it would be rather hilarious that Norvel Pelle is so integral to Philadelphia's current success. Wihtout him in Brooklyn on Monday, the Sixers turned to Kyle O'Quinn and Jonah Bolden before playing small-ball in the second half. It did not go well, and is cause for concern as we look ahead:

Set aside all of the perfectly valid reasons that the Sixers had for telling Pelle that they would not be in need of his services against one of the most active pick-and-roll teams in the NBA, the fact remains that they made a conscious decision to take the court at less than full strength. 

 This is not a small point, not even now that the Sixers have managed to escape the Barclays Center with a 117-111 win. With one day of NBA eligibility left on Pelle’s two-way contract, and six games remaining before the trade deadline, the Sixers could need to play as many as five more games without their best backup big man before they achieve the roster flexibility they clearly feel they need in order to offer the rookie a full-time spot. Included in that stretch are three games against teams they are currently chasing in the Eastern Conference standings and a fourth against the No. 1 team in the West. 

Pelle might not be Joel Embiid, or Dikembe Mutombo, or even the sort of player an alleged contender should be counting on for critical minutes. But the fact of the matter is that the Sixers at the present are a better team with him than they are with the players they called on instead. If their decision to play without him ends up costing them a win that in turn costs them homecourt advantage in a playoff series and/or forces them into a tough first-round matchup, it will be a difficult decision to defend. [Inquirer]

O'Quinn's struggles have put the Sixers in a bind ahead of the deadline, of that there is no doubt. And while Murphy raises fair points about the importance of the games between now and the trade deadline — and on the quality of opponent — the fact remains that preserving flexibility for a possible trade upgrade is the most important thing to keep track of here.

(For those of you not up to speed on Pelle's potential impact on trade machinations, I broke that down last week.)

But that all hinges on Philadelphia's ability to execute a trade to bring in a piece that unlocks their potential between now and February 6th, and even with that little bit of extra wiggle room they have by keeping Pelle on his two-way deal, it takes two to tango on the trade market. They will need to find a suitable partner who isn't going to hold them over a barrel, and that will be easier said than done.

Ben Simmons can't shoot, but he sure as hell can defend

Rob Mahoney | The Ringer

Ben Simmons became the NBA’s hot-take singularity. The mere mention of his name has a way of pushing otherwise reasonable people further into their respective corners. Disciples of the post will portray Simmons as an affront to Joel Embiid, and thus to common sense. The Simmons faithful will inevitably compare him to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who didn’t need a jumper to become one of the best players in the league. Relevant comments from Sixers coach Brett Brown are quoted as scripture, and video of Simmons’s first career 3-pointer—or camera phone footage of him hitting step-back 3s in a casual offseason run—is parsed for greater meaning. Some things are just not meant to be discussed in polite company. 

Two decades ago, the idea that a player as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal would be unable to hit a free throw became such a curiosity it transcended the sport. Simmons touches on a similar point of fascination—the idea of basketball deficiency as absurdity, or even personal failing—only in a way that snaps into focus on almost every Sixers possession. When Simmons finally hit his first official 3-pointer back in November, Philly play-by-play man Marc Zumoff chased his call of the play with a thought: “Maybe now they’ll finally leave him alone after that!” he boomed. It was a hopeful idea quickly crushed by practical analysis, genuine mystery, and legions of the extremely online just waiting to get jokes off. 

The latest injury to Joel Embiid brings Simmons front and center for the Sixers, while serving as a reminder of how little the conversation around the 23-year-old point guard has progressed. So rather than reenact a 3-year-old debate, let’s come together on a much less controversial idea: Simmons is one of the NBA’s very best defenders, full stop and without caveat. [The Ringer]

It is important to remember all of that, especially for the next time Simmons turns in an offensive clunker that causes you to pull your hair out. Basketball is a two-way sport, after all.

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