THE SIXERS ARE back… right? One of the most promising yet ultimately disappointing teams in the NBA over the last decade, Philadelphia’s new front office has seemingly righted most of the wrongs that plagued this team.
They unloaded Al Horford’s contract, who was not only a poor fit on the court, but an equally poor fit for future financial flexibility, they swapped a talented guard who did not mesh culturally or stylistically in Josh Richardson for a better fit in Seth Curry, and they created a decent bench, headlined by Dwight Howard.
All of these moves are overwhelming positives — and yet, to avoid repeating the same story, it seems more inevitable than ever that the Sixers will have a choice to make regarding Ben Simmons.
Simmons is perhaps the most polarizing star in the league. He can reasonably be ranked anywhere from 15 to 25 in the pecking order of the Top NBA Players (he made it to #15 on our list), and it can be argued that he is his team’s MVP or one of his team’s biggest detractors to winning in the postseason.
Some of his impact metrics from last season are conflicting. Some, including a -0.1 offensive RAPTOR rating in FiveThirtyEight’s metric, paint Simmons as being closer to neutral on offense than anything else. A more conventional approach would cite the fact that Simmons led the league in three-point assists on a roster sorely needing more shooting to suggest that Simmons has tremendous offensive value.
Given the amount of time he spent in lineups that did not fit him or Joel Embiid, it’s inherently difficult to quantify how great Simmons truly is.
So, based on what is known, and what is projected for the future, why is it that the Sixers still have a dilemma surrounding their 24-year-old star? That is the question that Daryl Morey, Doc Rivers, and Elton Brand will eventually have to address.
PERHAPS IT IS best to start by outlining the philosophies of the key members of this new-look Sixers team.
Doc Rivers comes to the Sixers with championship experience from the Boston Celtics, but also disappointing playoff exits with the L.A. Clippers. His defensive and offensive strategies have changed from team-to-team, but he has mostly maximized his key players’ abilities, whether it be by running “Floppy” sets for J.J. Redick, having Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell be a pick-and-roll duo, or running “HORNS” sets with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Griffin.
Meanwhile, Daryl Morey is well-known for building a championship team in Houston by surrounding James Harden with co-stars and a plethora of three-point shooters. While the average viewer might take Morey’s presence in Philly as evidence that they will become a three-point shooting team above-all, in reality, Morey’s philosophy has been to boost his team’s championship value.
For this Philadelphia roster, that means opening the floor for Joel Embiid, who is the premier post-up scorer in the league, as well as tightening a defense whose conservative scheme under Brett Brown was ineffective in stopping scoring guards.
In fact, in his introductory press conference, this is what Morey had to say when asked about his approach heading into his new situation:
“The goal is not to shoot three-pointers, the goal is to win,” he said. “You can score on offense in a bunch of different ways. Joel happens to be one of the most efficient post-up players in the league. I used to get the question in Houston of, ‘What would you do if you had (Shaquille O’Neal)?’ And my answer was, ‘I would give Shaq the ball about a hundred times a game.’ Joel is a talent on both ends.
“And again, we played the way we played in Houston because that was the best way to utilize the talents we had in Houston. Doc knows how to win more than me — he’s at least one ring ahead of me — and so he’s going to figure out how best to use (the players). It doesn’t have to be a three.”
- Daryl Morey, via NBC Sports
The shared vision of these two has manifested itself on the court: given that they believe Embiid is a championship-worthy talent, and that the Simmons-Embiid pairing works with the right pieces, their strategy this season has been effective.
The Simmons-Embiid pairing has a varied history. Per Kirk Goldsberry of ESPN, they went from a net rating of 15.5 in their first season together to a net rating of 7.9 in 2018–2019, before disastrously falling to just a plus 1.4 last year.
This year, they have rebounded to an elite +19.4 in their first six games, with Tobias Harris, Danny Green, and Seth Curry having successfully replaced the three-man combination of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and J.J. Redick in 2017–2018 when Simmons and Embiid were a +15.5 together.
Embiid, in particular, looks like an early MVP candidate, as his efficiency has improved across the board, and he has fared well in a more aggressive defensive scheme so far.
So what is the issue? Well, nearly every player on the roster, from Harris to even rookie Tyrese Maxey, has thrived in a more clearly defined role this year. But Simmons remains the odd man out.
Simmons’ per-game numbers (13.5/9.8/7.2) are impressive in their totality, but mostly unimpressive, and this is because, though he is improving the Sixers’ win total when playing with Embiid, he is still relegated to watching his co-star post-up for the most part, limiting his output. And since Rivers is so committed to the Embiid-Simmons pairing, there hasn’t been much time at all for Simmons to lead second units by himself.
For now, Philadelphia is thriving, like they were last year when they started 5–0. But come playoff time, this story has already been told. The fate of the 2017–2018 Sixers was sealed when Robert Covington and J.J. Redick’s three-point efficiency faltered. Who’s to say that between Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Shake Milton that two, three, or even all four of them won’t see their production decline in the postseason.
Sixers fans already saw Harris underperform in the second round against the Toronto Raptors in 2019 and the first round against the Boston Celtics last year, proving that against teams with top tier wing defenders, his efficiency falters. Danny Green has already been maligned for underperforming in last year’s playoffs, and Seth Curry has never started a playoff game.
Simmons might have a nearly unlimited ceiling if he develops a jump shot, but at the current moment, he raises Philly’s floor but puts a hard ceiling on their success.
TO ADDRESS THE elephant in the room, yes, the Sixers should trade Simmons for James Harden.
Obviously, the mercurial superstar isn’t without warts — namely, his blasé attitude towards almost everything outside of games themselves, as well as ball-dominant nature.
Yet, statistically, metrics like FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR suggest that Philly should be pulling the trigger on a trade as soon as possible. Remember Simmons’ RAPTORS metrics (-0.1 on offense, +2.4 on defense)? Well, Harden registered a +8.5 on offense and a +2.0 on defense, nearly mirroring Simmons’ defensive impact while having an exponentially greater offensive impact.
While these metrics don’t take into account factors such as matchups (Simmons takes on the toughest matchups in the league every night), or concepts like positional versatility, but they certainly indicate that the Sixers’ title hopes would go from very slim to very possible if they traded for Harden.
The Harden and Embiid pairing would certainly challenge the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant duo in Brooklyn; given Embiid’s success with Jimmy Butler, a reluctant three-point shooter but a strong playmaker and volume scorer, adding Harden should vastly improve this Philly team.
But going back to Simmons and his dilemma, this scenario doesn’t have to be the case. Harden will likely be better than Ben for the remainder of his contract, but after that, he is a flight risk to leave, and there is no guarantee that he will be better than Simmons in 3–4 years.
Yet, in 3–4 years, even Simmons is in his supposed physical prime, Embiid will be nearing 30 years old, a dreaded mark for a player with such an extensive injury history.
If the appeal of Simmons over Harden is truly that he can be a franchise cornerstone for up to the next five years, that simply isn’t good enough. Everything points to Embiid, at 26, being talented enough to be the cornerstone of a championship team, and given the salary cap situation of Philly, they should be pushing in their chips to win a title sooner than later.
Of course, over the next month, if Simmons begins to live up to more of his amazing potential as a star, then this conversation can be revisited, and therein lies the paradox of Ben Simmons.
Only time will tell what Daryl Morey, Doc Rivers, and the Sixers choose to do, but based on Morey’s intentions, Simmons seems in control of his destiny: either improve to the point where he can be a star come playoff time, or be traded for James Harden, a superstar who has proven he can be a #1 option on a title-contending team throughout his career.