There is a world where Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis can coexist on a basketball court, and there is a world where the Sixers and Pelicans line up on a trade that could make that pairing a reality. Alas, that world is not the real world, which, as it turns out, is the one in which the Sixers must operate.
That’s bad news for the legions of armchair general managers who clocked into work on Monday after hearing the news that Davis’s agent had informed the Pelicans that Davis would not be signing a contract extension with them this summer. In the NBA’s strange brand business etiquette, the move wasn’t exactly a trade demand, or even a trade request, both of which suggest some level of disgruntlement on the part of the player with his employer.
On the NBA’s Disgruntle-ometer, this wasn’t “I hate this place and these people” (trade demand), and it wasn’t “I envision for myself a different on-court role than my current situation can offer me” (trade request). For Davis, this was more of a trade suggestion, a signal of intention designed to hasten his exit without completely destroying the team around him.
It was an act of good faith — or, at least, the best sort of faith that can realistically exist when the end result of one’s actions will leave a chronically terrible franchise an empty shell of itself after it has spent seven years building its life around him. Within the framework of the options available to a player looking to skedaddle, this was, “It’s not you. It’s me.”
Cue the Stevie Nicks song.
That being said, the rest of the NBA meat market does not care much for decorum, and within 24 hours there were already reports that two of the NBA’s preeminent “destination” franchises were preparing trade offers for Davis. Meanwhile, fans and pundits in the NBA’s other 27 markets spread open their arms and welcomed this midwinter distraction from the responsibilities of their real jobs, spending their Mondays whiteboarding deals that might bring a five-time All-Star and 29-points-per-game big man to their own city.
In terms of worker productivity, an NBA trade demand/request/suggestion ranks just behind March Madness and the latest presidential tweet in its drain on the national economy. This is a particularly true when said demand/request/suggestion involves a player of Davis’ stature. Because, let’s be honest, there is a perfect concentricity between the subsets of NBA teams that do not currently employ Davis and the set of teams that would be upgraded by the addition of his skill set.
You do not have to be Johannes Kepler, or Elton Brand, to know that the Sixers are a member of both of these subsets. They’ve been looking for a consistent answer at power forward since trading Dario Saric to the Timberwolves, and Davis has the versatility to play that position. Pairing him with Joel Embiid would give the Sixers one of the most formidable fleets of rim protectors ever assembled on a single NBA roster. It would allow Brett Brown to play all 48 minutes of every game with an elite defensive big on the court.
Even if we assume that a trade for Davis would require the Sixers to part with Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons, it would still leave them with either three of the NBA’s top 10-15 scorers, or three of its top 10-15 size-strength-speed mismatches, plus enough inches of wingspan that they could tie JJ Redick’s arms behind his back and still run a bucket brigade from baseline to baseline.
So, no, it isn’t hard to envision a world in which a player of Davis’ ilk ends up being the missing piece that the Sixers have sought since prostrating themselves before the Court of King James this past summer. Problem is, the world in which we live is not some Build-a-Big workshop with operators standing by to take our order. There is one Davis, and there are 28 other teams that do not employ him, and those two constraints alone are likely enough to keep a dream pairing between him and the Sixers relegated to the realm of fantasy.
On Monday, when my colleague Marcus Hayes laid out the case for trading Simmons for Davis, he was careful to include the caveat that any deal would need to be contingent on Davis' agreeing to sign an extension here in Philly. That’s a rather big contingency. As noted above, the NBA has its own peculiar way of doing business. Davis' agent, Rich Paul, is one of the NBA’s foremost power brokers. He also happens to represent Simmons. And LeBron James.
There is a pretty good chance that Davis' decision was the not the result of some Sunday-morning Bourbon Street epiphany. There is a pretty good chance he knew he wouldn’t be re-signing with the Pelicans well before this weekend. And there’s a pretty good chance that if Davis had identified Philadelphia as a preferred destination, his representation would have found a way to instill in the Sixers an inkling that such was the case.
Which raises the question: If the Sixers had such an inkling, and had identified Davis as a legitimate trade target, why wouldn’t they have waited until Davis became available instead of trading for Butler in November?
Sure, there’s a scenario in which the Sixers figured they could keep Butler and spin off Simmons for Davis, or vice versa, but there has been zero indication of that being the case. And, in the NBA, there are always indications.
Even if Davis was open to staying in Philly long-term, the Sixers would need to decide that signing him to a max extension would make them the best possible version of themselves. Would a trio of Embiid-Davis-Butler or Embiid-Davis-Simmons be better positioned to contend than a trio of Embiid-Simmons-Butler plus two complementary pieces?
I’m not sure that’s the case. Davis might not be your prototypical back-to-the-basket big man, but he also isn’t your prototypical stretch four. His game is much more Embiid than Saric or Kristaps Porzingis or Kevin Love. Over the last four seasons, he has averaged two three-point attempts per game with a .323 conversion percentage. True, he managed to coexist with DeMarcus Cousins for a half a season, but he’s spent most of the past couple of years as the primary option in the paint.
Last year, when on the court together, the Davis/Cousins pairing outscored opponents by an average of four points per 100 possessions. But that margin was plus-11.2 when Davis was paired with four man Nikola Mirotic, who averages six-plus three-point attempts per game. The counterargument to that is the success of Davis' pairing with Julius Randle this season (plus-7.2 net points per 100).
Still, this is just as much about Embiid. The big fella needs room to roam. He needs space to face up from 15 feet and use his dribble and footwork to get to the rim. How would those abilities be affected by the presence of another big man who is at his most effective when attempting 18-plus shots per game?
Most crucially, would that pairing be any more deadly than whatever the Embiid/Simmons pairing ends up becoming, especially if surrounded by a trio of shooters? There’s a tendency to assume that what we see out of Simmons is what we are always going to get, and that is almost certainly not the case. One of the most effective pairings for the Sixers this season has been Embiid and Mike Muscala. They are plus-14.2 per 100 possessions when on the court together. Simmons, Embiid and Redick are plus-15.2 when playing together.
The formula that makes the most sense for the Sixers is Embiid, Simmons, and three players who can shoot. The irony of the Davis conversation is that there are several other players on the Pelicans' roster who might make better fits, from Mirotic to Jrue Holiday to a three-and-D wing player such as E’Twaun Moore. The Pelicans might not be in full fire-sale mode, but the NBA trade and buyout market should offer a variety of these options.
The Sixers do not need to reinvent themselves. Embiid is the best big man in the game, on both ends of the court, Davis included. Simmons has the potential to become one of the game’s most impactful defenders, regardless of how his offensive game continues to develop (and it is developing).