I’m guessing that my reaction to Thursday’s news was the same as a lot of Sixers’ fans. If The Process ends with Ben Simmons being traded for Jerami Grant, did it ever really happen? Was the real Process the friends we made along the way? Is this Adam Silver’s fault?
On Thursday afternoon, The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey offered us our best look yet at why Simmons has remained a Sixer and why the Sixers have remained steadfast in their insistence that they haven’t seen a deal worth taking.
According to multiple NBA sources, one of the more realistic deals Sixers president Daryl Morey has considered would center around Grant, a Pistons forward whom former GM Sam Hinkie drafted in the second round in 2014 and then traded for a first-round pick two years later. The framework for such a deal would include Grant, another potential rotation piece (possibly stretch big Kelly Olynyk), a young player, and a draft pick.
While Grant has put up some decent box score numbers in his two seasons in Detroit, his transaction history might give us a better indication of the value the Sixers would be returning for Simmons. In 2019, the Nuggets acquired Grant, his Bird Rights, and his $9.3 million contract for a first-round pick that was almost certain to be well out of the lottery. The pick was top-10 protected for good measure, but it ended up falling at No. 25. One year later, the Pistons acquired Grant’s three-year, $60 million contract for cash in a sign-and-trade with Denver.
Long story short, Grant’s market value isn’t much more than his contract. At best, it’s a late first-round pick. Keep in mind, earlier reports suggested Morey was asking teams for multiple (presumably) late first-round picks in addition to a first-division starter.
It’s probably safe to assume that the crux of any trade negotiations between Morey and the Pistons will revolve around draft-pick protection. Detroit is a bad team. Really bad. Like, potential No. 1 overall pick bad. In fact, the Pistons are so bad, and their future so bleak, that it’s almost impossible to render an opinion on a potential package without knowing the exact conditions of any draft compensation. Grant plus an unprotected 2022 first-rounder? That’s something. Grant plus a top-10 protected pick that eventually becomes unprotected three, four, five years down the road? That’s an abstraction.
If nothing else, Pompey’s report helps to bring the Sixers’ current conundrum into clear focus. Either they can continue holding out for a deal that nets them a current or potential centerpiece player, or they can attempt to cobble together a deal that leaves them close to the team they would be with Simmons in the rotation.
Consider the chasm between the two scenarios the Sixers are reportedly considering. The first is the Grant package. The second is holding onto Simmons through the season and then hoping to trade him to the Nets for James Harden in a sign-and-trade. The odds of the Harden move coming to fruition are almost absurdly long, which should give you a decent indication of how underwhelming the Grant package is.
But this is where the Sixers are, and it’s probably where they’ve been since the beginning of this thing. Is 75 cents on the dollar in present-day money better than the expected future value of chasing a star?
Some pertinent questions:
Can Grant replace Simmons’ defensive abilities while being a net positive on offense?
The Sixers would essentially be trying to recreate Simmons with any trade that they make. Grant isn’t regarded as an elite defender, but he is versatile, and he would certainly help the Sixers on that end of the court. In Olynyk, they’d be getting a player who can guard bigger bodies and allow them to go small when Embiid is out or on the bench.
Offensively, the hope would be that Grant can be a net positive in a role that better fits his skill set. In Detroit, his efficiency has dropped as his volume has increased. He’s averaging 21.5 points per game over his two seasons with the Pistons, but his effective field-goal percentage is a below-average .485 and he’s shooting 34.3% from three-point range. But the last time Grant played for a playoff-caliber team — in 2019-20 with the Nuggets — he shot 38.9% from three-point range with a .537 effective field-goal percentage.
But that still leaves them in need of a player who can dictate to a playoff-caliber defense off the dribble.
Can Morey pull off another move for a playoff-caliber facilitator at the point?
There’d have to be another move, right? The Sixers might be able to survive a regular season with Tyrese Maxey as their only true point guard. But the postseason? We’ve seen what happens when Tobias Harris and Shake Milton have a defender in their chest. And, frankly, as good of a scorer as Maxey has been for the Sixers this season, he is still a below-average facilitator for the position. His 6.2 assists per 100 possessions rank 65th in the NBA, smack dab in the middle of Shake Milton and Payton Pritchard.
Just to give you some context regarding the scale we’re talking about, there are 11 NBA point guards who are playing starters’ minutes (29-plus minutes per game) and averaging at least 10 assists per 100 possessions. Chris Paul, Trae Young and James Harden are all averaging twice as many assists as Maxey.
Granted, assists don’t come close to capturing all that a point guard does to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Another metric we can look at is the field-goal percentage of the other four players when Maxey is on the court compared with the Sixers’ field-goal percentage when he is off the court. Maxey’s impact there is positive.
Sixers when Maxey is on the court (minus Maxey’s own shooting numbers): .462 FG%, .391 3P%
Sixers when Maxey is off the court: .445 FG%, .318 3P%
But how does that difference stack up to other point guards? I was curious, so I selected Ja Morant at random and looked at the Grizzlies’ effective field-goal percentage with Morant on the court (minus Morant’s shooting) and Morant off the court.
Grizzlies eFG% with Morant: .527
Grizzlies eFG% without Morant: .469
Compare that to the Sixers with and without Maxey.
Sixers eFG% with Maxey: .540
Sixers eFG% without Maxey: .513
So, in other words, the Grizzlies are more than twice as efficient with Morant (versus without) as the Sixers are with Maxey (versus without).
Again, this hardly counts as a scientific inquiry into Maxey’s relative play-making ability. It’s just a for-instance that jibes with Maxey’s relatively mediocre assist numbers. It also jibes with what we see with our eyes. Maxey is a score-first point guard. And that’s a good thing. It’s much easier to find a facilitator at the point than it is to find a scorer. Facilitators are eminently available. Teams tend to want to hold on to scorers. And, to be clear, Maxey is hardly Alec Burks. But the Sixers clearly miss what Simmons brought with his combination of height, court vision and passing ability.
Can the Sixers survive without Simmons and without replacing some of what he does?
The early returns suggest that they can, provided Joel Embiid and the rest of the team stay healthy. That’s obviously a huge question mark, particularly when you consider the long road Embiid could face in recovering from his bout with COVID-19 and getting back into basketball shape. The worst thing Morey can do right now is panic. If the Sixers think they have a legitimate shot at leveraging Simmons for a player who can be a legit secondary option to Embiid and help carry the team when he is out, then there’s a strong argument for them to continue chasing that.
But if such a scenario is mostly wishful thinking, then there’s an argument to make that Grant plus another veteran depth piece and a future asset would at least leave the Sixers close to being no worse for the wear. At least, you could make that argument.
One argument you can’t make is that trading Simmons for Grant would serve as an indictment of The Process. Keep in mind, the Sixers initially traded Grant away in exchange for a first-round pick. That pick conveyed in 2020. The Sixers used it on Maxey.