To understand what the Sixers have gained over the last week, think about what they could have lost.
What if they were 2-8 instead of 8-2? What if they were coming off two losses to the Bulls instead of two wins? What if Trae Young and Damian Lillard had lit them up instead of combining for 33 points on 12-of-36 shooting? What if, one year after finishing the regular season as the top seed in the East, the Sixers were suddenly wondering if they would make the playoffs at all?
Think about all of these things within the context of Daryl Morey’s ongoing staring contest with his disgruntled point guard, Ben Simmons. What would that leave him as he attempts to convince potential trade partners that he feels no pressure to deal? Where would that leave the Sixers as they insist to Simmons that he must play by their rules?
Think about the impact a disastrous start would have had on Morey’s public posture, the one that says he can field a competitive team even with a roster in purgatory, that the Sixers can survive without Simmons and also without whatever players they would net by trading him?
A week ago, disaster was in play. Joel Embiid was battling a balky knee that would ultimately warrant a night on the bench. Tobias Harris was about to test positive for COVID-19. The Sixers were coming off a loss to the Knicks that seemed to expose all the things they weren’t without Simmons.
Follow that up with a loss to the Hawks and two to the Bulls and they’d be 0-4 against teams that entered this season thinking they had what it would take to supplant the Sixers in the Eastern Conference standings. Add the Bulls, Hawks and Knicks to the Bucks and the Nets and the Heat and all of a sudden things would be looking awfully grim. Think about the pressure Morey would be facing, both internally and externally, to trade Simmons for immediate help.
What have the Sixers gained? They’ve gained the opposite of all of that. After moving into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference with a 114-105 win over the Bulls on Saturday night, they look like a team that can afford to wait. They’ve given the rest of the NBA’s general managers reason to believe that Morey might actually be crazy enough to let the Simmons situation linger all the way to the trade deadline in February.
You wanna make a deal? It’s gonna be on our terms.
The message is the same to Simmons and his increasingly outwitted advisers. We’ll give you all the time you need to get your head right. We want you, but we don’t need you. Come back when you’re ready. Because we’re not going anywhere. And neither are you.
This is called leverage. It’s something a lot of people swore the Sixers did not, could not, would not have once Simmons went public with his desire to be traded. They said that Morey had to trade him before training camp. Once training camp started, they said that he had to trade him before the start of the regular season. Once the regular season started, they said it was only a matter of time.
The thing everybody missed is that there was nowhere to go but up for the Sixers’ bargaining position. Maybe it was a long shot that their circumstances would improve materially enough to pay off. But there was always a possibility that the Sixers would start the season the way they have, winning eight out of 10, riding the contributions of a refurbished bench, forcing Simmons to start to wrestle with the potential that he might not play basketball for months.
There was a chance that the Sixers would get more than adequate play out of the two players most responsible for filling Simmons’ void, that 21-year-old Tyrese Maxey would be averaging 14 points, 4.3 assists and 1.9 turnovers per game with a double-digit plus-minus in half of his outings; that backup four man Georges Niang would be averaging 21 minutes per night and attempting 5.6 three-pointers per game and connecting on 44.4% of those attempts.
Granted, things can change in a hurry. The Sixers are in the midst of a brutal stretch of their schedule that includes a back-to-back set against the Knicks and the Bucks on Monday and Tuesday and a five-game West Coast trip. Early November is no time for victory laps. But a six-game winning streak has given them an 8-2 record and considerable margin for error.
It has given Morey the political capital he was going to need to weather this ongoing standoff. The Sixers might be a better team with Simmons, but they are a perfectly fine one without him. They are more than capable of making it to the trade deadline without destroying their season.
Whether the audience is Simmons or an NBA general manager hoping to trade for him, the message the Sixers have sent in their first 10 games is the one Morey has been preaching from the beginning.