Ben Simmons no longer wants to be a Philadelphia 76er, according to a report from The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey. That news has reenergized an offseason already filled with hypothetical trade scenarios surrounding Simmons, the All-NBA guard who has fallen out of favor with Sixers fans because of his reluctance to shoot during the Sixers’ disappointing playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks last season.
But one team, the Portland Trail Blazers, has two players who could be the centerpiece in a swap for Simmons. Acquiring megastar Damian Lillard could be viewed as a best-case scenario for Philadelphia — or a pipe dream. Trading for CJ McCollum appears to be one of the more realistic immediate options.
Gina Mizell: Let’s immediately rip the Band-Aid off. At this point, how realistic is a trade involving Damian Lillard from a Trail Blazers’ perspective? And how has that potentially changed throughout the offseason?
Aaron Fentress: Highly unlikely. At least this summer.
Lillard is starting a supermax contract this season and is locked in for three years with a player-option for the fourth. The Blazers are under no obligation to trade him unless he were to demand out and threatened to not report to training camp. That doesn’t fit Lillard’s personality. He has preached loyalty for his entire career, so the idea that he would pull a stunt like that right now has always seemed remote.
Plus, Lillard lobbied for Chauncey Billups after the Blazers parted ways with Terry Stotts. Lillard participated in the interview process and named Billups, along with Jason Kidd, as his top two choices to take the job. Billups told me he took the Blazers’ coaching position fully expecting Lillard to be around. Lillard also put in effort to recruit unrestricted free agent Norman Powell to return. Powell told me he re-signed expecting Lillard to be in Portland. Others close to Lillard have told me that they aren’t expecting him to demand a trade this summer. CJ McCollum has gone on record saying he believes that Lillard is “all-in.”
The only people on the planet who don’t seem to accept or understand any of this are fans of NBA teams linked to trade rumors involving Lillard.
But I can say that I would be absolutely floored if Lillard were moved by the start of training camp. Now, could he be traded by the All-Star break or next summer? Well, that’s a different discussion.
Mizell: The deal for Larry Nance Jr. raised my eyebrows a tad because he is a clear defensive upgrade and shows the Blazers are at least trying, but I still wonder if those on-the-margin moves are enough for the Blazers to contend in a loaded West.
For fun, let’s pretend Simmons and Lillard are both still on their respective rosters at the start of the season, but that the right scenario brews on both sides to revisit this in the coming weeks and months. What do you think Portland would expect back in such a deal, in addition to Simmons? Tyrese Maxey?
Fentress: Should the Blazers struggle and things aren’t working out, I could see a scenario where Lillard backs the Blazers into a corner and wants out before the trade deadline. However, I’m more inclined to believe that any potential Lillard deal wouldn’t take place until next summer should Portland fail once again to make a major deal to acquire another star.
But, if Lillard backs the Blazers into a corner before the trade deadline, three things must be considered:
Lillard wouldn’t demand a trade to just any team. He would want to go to a franchise he believed would present a better shot at a winning a title than Portland presently offers.
The Blazers, I can safely say, would not be interested in a deal for a mediocre player, or two, some picks and pick swaps just to placate Lillard. They would want a young star in return.
The trade partner would have to be a team that could give up said young star and still remain a contender with the addition of Lillard. That is a tough needle to thread.
However, Philadelphia provides both the needle and thread needed to satisfy all of the above. A package of Simmons, a second player, 3-4 first-round picks plus some pick swaps, would make sense for both teams. A trio of Lillard, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris would certainly contend.
The Blazers could roll out Simmons, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic and probably still make the playoffs.
However, one major problem here is that Simmons has reportedly said he does not want to play in Portland. That would be a huge turn off for the Blazers. The last thing they’d want to do is trade Lillard for a potential headache.
As for a second player in a deal, I’m not sure the 6-foot-2 Tyrese Maxey makes the most sense given that the Blazers already have three guards all around 6-2 to 6-3. But from an asset standpoint, obtaining Maxey would give the Blazers another piece they could move, maybe along with some of those acquired picks, later on down the road.
Mizell: OK, let’s close the Lillard door and open the McCollum one, since that seems far more realistic heading into training camp and the season. McCollum’s name has swirled in trade rumors for years. Would a swap for Simmons be an ideal scenario for the Blazers to break up their longtime backcourt?
Fentress: Yes! I wrote 2,000 words on why I would trade McCollum for Simmons in a heartbeat. I love the fit for both teams. However, I’ve been told by some within the Blazers organization that they are not sure how well Simmons and Lillard would fit together. Simmons wants to play the Magic Johnson role, which requires having the ball in his hands. Well, that’s Lillard’s job. I could see Lillard playing off the ball more often but in the end, it’s his team and he will want the ball the majority of the time. That would force Simmons to play a role he isn’t used to.
Still, I trust they could all figure it out. A lineup of Lillard, Powell, Covington, Simmons and Nurkic would be fierce defensively, which was the team’s most glaring weakness last season (29th ranked in the NBA). Plus, Simmons is a fantastic facilitator who would thrive going to the basket and passing out to Lillard, Powell or Covington for threes. I’m also imagining Simmons grabbing a defensive board, and instead outletting to Lillard, taking off like a freight train down court and either going to the hoop or attacking the rim and then passing back out to shooters.
Also, I believe that Lillard, the consummate leader, would have a positive influence on Simmons. He does not have a veteran leader in Philadelphia with the same level of credibility and history Lillard possesses. Next, factor in the addition of Billups, a former champion who will demand accountability, and you have a coach-star duo that should be able to influence Simmons to elevate his work ethic, which has been questioned.
I would make this deal yesterday. But it’s obvious that Philadelphia wants Lillard, not McCollum and is holding out for the former. But, given how sour things are with Simmons, the 76ers might want to stop pretending that they are dealing Magic Johnson as opposed to a disgruntled, poor man’s version of the Magic Man.
Mizell: I can understand why this deal is enticing from a Portland perspective. Simmons is an All-NBA player and perennial defensive player of the year candidate — granted, those are both regular-season awards and the mounting criticism centers around his playoff and crunch-time shooting performances. McCollum has not yet been an All-Star, though one could argue he would have that status had he been playing in the East.
Are we undervaluing or overvaluing McCollum here? We all know about his scoring punch with the ball in his hands, but what should Philly fans who don’t watch every Blazers game know about his game? And how do you anticipate he would fare on a roster that isn’t so guard-dominant? You mentioned you also love the fit for the Sixers.
Fentress: Philadelphia clearly needed a perimeter player who could get his own shot during the Atlanta series. That’s what Simmons failed to provide. McCollum is a premiere scorer who is as equally potent from mid-range as he is on threes. On the most critical play for Philadelphia during Game 7 against Atlanta, the 76ers went to Embiid out top and he tried to make a spin move resulting in his eighth turnover, a ridiculously high amount for a center and somewhat overlooked because of Simmons’ apparent scoring phobia.
But I digress. The fact is that Philadelphia needed a player such as McCollum to create a play for himself or a teammate. That all said, McCollum’s defense would be a huge drop-off from what Simmons provides. Then again, McCollum had a better defensive rating last season than Lillard.
What’s amusing for me regarding both situations is that in Portland, many Blazers fans turned on McCollum because of his play in the playoffs against Denver and want him gone but expect him to be flipped for a major star. Meanwhile, many 76ers fans and the franchise turned on Simmons and alienated him to the point where he wants out but they aren’t willing to trade him for McCollum. They expect to land a superstar such as Lillard.
The mutual hypocrisy is hilarious.
In reality, McCollum, with a sweetener, is a fair trade for Simmons. If the 76ers can do better, more power to them.
Mizell: Let’s wrap up by exploring if the Sixers could hypothetically do better. Which other potential trade partners most intrigue you and why?
Fentress: Sacramento has two quality point guards, De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. Ideally, the 76ers would probably prefer Fox but do the Kings want to give him up for Simmons? Would Philadelphia contend with Haliburton, 20, given that he has just one season under his belt?
I don’t see what the Warriors could or would offer that make the 76ers better. Maybe a truckload of assets Philadelphia could use in a different deal later.
I’d try to get D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards out of Minnesota. But would Minnesota do that? Maybe Philadelphia sends Simmons to Toronto for power forward Pascal Siakam, then moves power forward Tobias Harris to another team for a guard? I’m literally just spitting up scenarios.
In the end, to contend right now, and assuming they couldn’t get Fox, I’d go with McCollum.