Joel Embiid is in his prime. That is obvious watching him dominate like he did on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, it is a prime that we’re not entirely sure will last very long.
It is also obvious that the team is not in the best position they could have been to maximize his prime years.
Which is why, if they are interested in maximizing Embiid’s championship window, it is clear that Ben Simmons is worth more to the Sixers as a trade piece than he is on the court
We have now seen three full seasons of Embiid and Simmons together and their fit as co-stars on offense is no better than it was when it started in 2017. Since I wrote this in 2018 (forgive the Google link, older posts from our website are gone), the only thing that has changed is the date on the calendar. The other players on the court with Embiid need to either be proficient at spot up three point shooting or dribble creation. Simmons still does neither.
This isn’t about them being best buddies, just friends or even tolerating each other. It’s not about every two stars needing to be perfect together. It’s about calling it for what it is, and not twisting ourselves into knots by looking at absurd advanced stats that tell us what we see with our eyes isn’t true.
The Sixers need a player who can create shots for himself and others at an elite level from the perimeter to win a title. Just about every team who wins a title has one. Their most likely avenue to obtaining one is by using Simmons as bait. The caveat here is that I do not know what Simmons is worth, as his appeal is likely less than someone like Devin Booker, because his fit is so particular. But I’ll assume his value is just below that.
Now in his fourth season playing in the NBA (fifth overall), Ben Simmons’ offensive game has not improved in any meaningful way.
While his contemporaries have consistently improved, Ben Simmons has added nothing. Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Devin Booker and more have all grown and developed.
Simmons not only hasn’t improved, he has become more limited.
He doesn’t shoot well. He isn’t particularly adept at taking people off the dribble. His numbers as a pick and roll ball handler are atrocious and his post up numbers aren’t much better. It’s true that he started his career as a better player than most of the players his age, but that also must force you to wonder if maybe he started his career much closer to his peak and his offensive ceiling isn’t as high as we imagined.
To make pretend that Embiid and Simmons can run anything together in a half-court offense, Doc Rivers, just like Brett Brown before him, is trying to run absurd snug pick and rolls, eight feet from the hoop. It’s a ridiculous play that Embiid should not be forced to endure. It’s not realistic and would never be effective in any meaningful NBA game.
The simple fact that Embiid has candidly and publicly begged for Simmons to shoot outside shots to make his life easier, just like Joel does for Ben, is kind of striking. This is about two players who believe the team should be built around them to succeed and only one of those players being correct.
To be clear, the brunt of this problem is on the pre-Morey, post-Hinkie front offices, who failed at just about every turn to successfully act on the idea that the Sixers needed a high-level playmaking guard to play with Simmons and Embiid (aside from Jimmy Butler, which was doomed from the start with Simmons who was intent on playing point guard).
It’s on the front office that there is a max-level contract slot filled with Tobias Harris, and that it took two first round picks, two second round picks, and Landry Shamet to get him. Those picks and that cap maneuverability would have come in handy in acquiring not only James Harden, but any of the perimeter stars that have become or might become available. It’s possible that getting rid of Tobias Harris’ contract could cost as many first round picks as it would to acquire a star level player.
But make no mistake, even if that player was on the Sixers, for Simmons to have true value as a forward, he’d have to be willing and able to hit spot-up, corner three point shots. He’s a fabulous defensive player, but fabulous wing defenders who don’t shoot are not players that you build around who take up 30% of the salary cap.
It’s often said that the current NBA is ‘positionless,’ and that Ben Simmons fits within that structure, but that’s not all together true. The current NBA is not positionless. What’s happened is that bigger players have become more skilled and it’s forced a good number of players to be able to play more than one position. Some bigger players can play down a spot and some smaller players can play up a spot. The guard positions are more interchangeable, more small forwards can play power forward, and more power forwards can shift to center, but there are positions and roles on any NBA basketball team.
Joel Embiid is a center, Chris Paul is a point guard, Kawhi Leonard is a small forward. Ben Simmons isn’t anything.
Ben Simmons isn’t positionless because he’s so versatile, he’s positionless because he doesn’t have the requisite skills to excel at any one position. He can’t protect the rim on defense, so he can’t play center. He doesn’t shoot corner threes, so he can’t really be a power forward or a small forward. His ball handling and shooting aren’t good enough to play point guard or shooting guard.
Ben Simmons is a really good player, but he’s a luxury, a complementary piece on a great team. The Sixers are not in a position to take advantage of that luxury. They aren’t a great team and overpaying for a complementary piece does not make any sense when they don’t have the core players necessary. I won’t bore you with a list, but I casually went through NBA rosters and found nearly 60 players who would make the current Sixers better than Simmons does, simply because their skill set would better complement Embiid.
Maybe it will be Harden and maybe it won’t (I get the idea it won’t). But the idea that trading Simmons at 24 for a star player at 31 is robbing us of a decade of SImmons and Embiid is just not reality. If this isn’t a championship level team this year or next, one of them will be gone one way or another.
Making some big trade for an unhappy superstar isn’t what I had hoped when we started this. I, like a lot of people, had this dream that our guys would all stay together, grow together, and be great together. Hey look! It’s 2027 and Cov, TJ, Ben, Joel, Dario and Markelle are all still here and counting their rings!
I guess it just wasn’t meant to be that way. Real life doesn’t always go the way we want it to.
If the Sixers want a championship in real life they’ll accept that reality and use Simmons in the way that helps this team the most — as a trade piece.