Joel Embiid is playing horribly. He’ll get better.
Ben Simmons is playing great. He won’t get any better; at least, not any time soon. He won’t be more valuable than he is at this moment until he grows his game, and that won’t be apparent until this time next season.
So, if the Sixers signed 33-year-old Al Horford with the expectation of winning a title this season, they’d better find a real point guard before the postseason.
Does that mean that the Sixers should trade Ben Simmons?
No. I still have faith he will become an acceptable outside shooter. I believe their championship window will be open for two more years. I never believed they were built to win this season, or even to reach the conference finals, and that will probably cost Brett Brown his job, and that’s unfair, but such is life in the Association.
However, if the Sixers lack my faith in Ben, then a trade by Thursday’s deadline is imperative.
Don’t think he’s untouchable. As I reported last year, the Sixers were willing to trade Simmons last season for Anthony Davis, which would have given them the league’s best big man as well as the No. 2 (Embiid), but they believed Davis would balk at staying long-term, and ownership wasn’t eager to admit another drafting/development failure on the heels of the Markelle Fultz fiasco.
The Sixers would have had to include a draft pick, but for me, Davis and Simmons were equal value. That’s how highly we should regard Simmons. Five sessions with Herb Magee, and Ben’s a legitimate MVP.
But Simmons chose instead to first hire his brother, Liam, and he now uses Jimmy Butler’s old shooting coach, Chris Johnson, a John Lucas disciple. Simmons still won’t shoot. An uber-millennial, he’d rather lose than learn.
These days it’s popular in Philadelphia to want to trade Embiid — often injured, occasionally inattentive, always out of shape. Understand this: Embiid is the unicorn, not Simmons. He is untouchable by general manager Elton Brand, the general manager, because he is unprecedented in terms of size, skill and athleticism. Even on his worst nights, Embiid is an irreplaceable fulcrum of any defense. At 50%, he’s an offensive monster with range and touch, stoppable only by himself, and Shirley Temples.
Trade Horford? That makes no sense. They signed him as insurance against Embiid’s fragility, which remains constant.
Trading Simmons, however, is defensible. They cannot win a playoff series against a disciplined defensive team with him on the court. The Celtics proved that two years ago. The Raptors proved it again last year. The formula is simple: You play 5-on-4 defense, double-team Embiid, face-guard everyone else, and voila.
The time is now, because Simmons is rampaging through the league. He entered Monday night averaging 23.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists in his last 10 games, a run that helped Simmons make his second All-Star team. It also was a run in which Joel Embiid missed the first seven of those games, which freed Simmons to access the paint, the only area in which he is a threat.
In that 6-4 run, the Sixers were 1-3 against teams with winning records as they enter tonight’s game at Miami. Simmons, at times, looked unstoppable. So what. With Embiid and Tobias Harris to worry about, teams don’t focus on stopping Simmons’ post-and-slash game.
It’s like trying to win the Super Bowl with only a running game and defense. Ask the 49ers how that goes.
So yes, Simmons is limited, and yes, he’s at the peak of his value. So should they trade him?
Again: no. Really, what are they going to get for him? Jrue Holiday and New Orleans’ lottery pick (I might take that, actually).
No, because I’ve seen Simmons make shots. It’s not that he can’t shoot. He just won’t. I believe he will.
I’ve also seen him develop into one of the three best full-court defenders in the NBA, along with Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo; he leads the NBA with 2.2 steals per game, a 34% increase from last season (1.4). I’ve seen him shoot 68.8% from the line in the past 10 games, and that should continue. If it does, he will be more aggressive during the entire game and less fearful of foul shots late in games. It’s hard to forget the panic shot he threw up at the end of Game 3 against Boston two years ago.
Another issue: Trading Simmons now, with just 34 games remaining, would not give the Sixers enough time to reconfigure their system — not that they have much system configuration as it is. Embiid has been slow to reintegrate, Josh Richardson is still sidelined with a hamstring injury, and Brown acknowledges that his sixth-place team “is not equipped to go into the playoffs," much less contend for the Eastern Conference title.
Trading Simmons now probably doesn’t solve all of their problems, anyway. Trading him later? That’s a different conversation this summer. But I won’t think they should; I still believe he will shoot, and he will shoot effectively. And then he will become a Godzilla version of Jason Kidd.
Until then, he’s just a poor man’s Magic Johnson. Magic hit only 29 threes over his first six seasons, making 17.7% of his attempts. But that was an era in which the three-point shot and three-point shooters were more a novelty than a staple. Magic also played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Byron Scott, so there’s that.
Moving Simmons doesn’t accomplish much in the moment. The Sixers’ best hope for 2020 is to add someone such as Detroit’s Derrick Rose or Golden State’s Alec Burks, since the Wizards’ 6-10 gunner, Davis Bertans, and the Kings’ 6-6 Bogdan Bogdanovic apparently are unattainable.
Is that any hope at all? Not really.