The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers were outscored by 23 points with Dwight Howard on the floor in their second-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Danny Green missed most of the series due to an injury. Matisse Thybulle committed multiple unforgivable fouls. Tobias Harris missed multiple gimmes at the basket in a close Game 7. Doc Rivers ran a 10-man rotation in that loss, sat his second-best scorer (Seth Curry) for 17 minutes because of foul trouble and tried inserting an ice-cold Shake Milton into the game for the first time at the start of the fourth quarter. In total, he gave his bench 69 minutes of playing time. The Nets and Bucks combined to give theirs 49 in a more traditional Game 7 that even included in an overtime period.
All of this is to say, Ben Simmons is not the only problem in Philadelphia. There are pathways to improvement that don't necessarily involve trading him. Doing so creates as many problems as it solves. The Defensive Player of the Year runner-up was a rather important component of the NBA's No. 2 defense. Simmons generates most of Philadelphia's transition points and 3-pointers. He makes the 76ers weird, and weird can be a good thing. Ask the 2019 Raptors how much trouble Simmons' size as a nominal point guard gave them. Philadelphia came closer to slaying those eventual champions than anyone. A friendlier bounce on Kawhi Leonard's series-ending jumper might've made Simmons bulletproof.
But four years of Simmons have yielded four independently devastating playoff disappointments. The 76ers have lost as underdogs and they've lost as favorites. They've lost healthy and they've lost injured. The result is the only constant, and the (lower case) process isn't as correctable as it once was. Sam Hinkie left the 76ers with so much capital that even two separately horrendous general managers couldn't keep this team out of contention. If Bryan Colangelo drafts Jayson Tatum, we aren't having this conversation. If Mikal Bridges isn't traded, we aren't having this conversation. Philadelphia desperately needs a shot-creator and it had Jimmy Butler in the building. If Elton Brand doesn't let him slip away, we aren't having this conversation. The margin of error Hinkie left the 76ers has evaporated.
That makes Simmons the likeliest sacrifice for their sins. Rivers has four years and $32 million remaining on his deal. He's probably not going anywhere. Harris has three years left on a max contract. Nobody's taking him. Brand tried to solve the backup center dilemma with a star free agent in Al Horford and even that didn't work. What hope does Daryl Morey have there with the minimum? These problems aren't so easily fixed.
But Simmons creates as many problems as he solves. Getting four shot attempts out of a max contract is untenable on a team that doesn't employ Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. Philadelphia scored only 105.9 points per 100 possessions in fourth-quarter minutes Simmons played against the Hawks. Only the Thunder had a worse fourth-quarter offense during the regular season. The best post-up player in the NBA would probably prefer not to have someone taking up space in the dunker spot while he works. When asked if the Sixers should run it back, Embiid called that a "tricky question."
There are teams on which these deficiencies are less glaring. Pair Simmons with a star guard and a center that's comfortable nesting behind the arc and suddenly, the balance between the good and the bad starts to shift. Teams capable of building him such an environment are rare. Teams that can do so while also furnishing Philadelphia with the type of conventional shot-creator it would demand in return are rarer.
And the list of teams actually willing to do so is at an all-time low. The days of Simmons as a viable centerpiece for James Harden or Bradley Beal are, for the time being, gone. Simmons may be an All-NBA talent but he's an extraordinarily high-maintenance one. After the series he just had, rebuilding an entire infrastructure around his specific needs seems like more trouble than it's worth.
That makes constructing Simmons trades an especially complex exercise. Trading him has to solve more problems than it creates for both Philadelphia and the acquiring team. Here are a few ideas that could possibly do just that.
This is going to be a staring contest. The first question Daryl Morey is going to ask Neil Olshey this offseason will likely be "how much do I need to add to Ben Simmons to get Damian Lillard." The answer, for now, is likely more than Morey has. Olshey will, in turn, ask how much he needs to add to CJ McCollum to get Simmons. The answer there isn't as clear and depends on Morey's patience. Simmons would fit with either. Lillard isn't available now. That might change if the Blazers disappoint again. Eventually, one of these two teams is going to blink.
The difference is that if Olshey decides to trade Lillard, he'll find half a dozen offers as appealing as Simmons. If Morey waits, he might never find a consolation prize as appealing as McCollum. If he acts quickly enough, he might be able to secure a suitable two-way package.
Here's a starting point: McCollum and Robert Covington for Simmons and George Hill. Philadelphia can slot McCollum into the starting lineup alongside Embiid and mix and match from there. Need offense? Here comes Curry and Harris. Fighting for late-game stops? Imagine Covington, Thybulle and a re-signed Green alongside the two core pieces.
McCollum buys Embiid all of the space he needs to work in the post. He might even coax him into a more active pick-and-roll partnership. Embiid has never had a dance partner worthy of hard rolls to the rim. But the theoretical advantage of swapping McCollum for Simmons on Portland's side is the defensive boost such a move would grant. Removing Covington diminishes that. The Blazers blew opponents away with Lillard, McCollum and Norman Powell on the floor together. Covington works with that trio because of his shooting. Jusuf Nurkic makes no sense next to Simmons.
Covington is where this trade lives or dies. Without him, the 76ers can't justify the defensive downgrade. Portland would have to buy into Simmons as Lillard's ideal partner to give up both. That's a reasonable premise with the right stretch big man. Imagine defenses blitzing Lillard with Simmons as his screener. Giving him a downhill 4-on-3 with proper spacing would lead to great offense.
There's no version of this trade that properly equips both teams. Someone is going to need supplementary moves. Philly is the team with the 24-year-old All-Star here. If Portland won't pony up, it won't get Simmons.
Picture the following scenarios: On Tuesday, Minnesota stuns the basketball world and wins the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 Draft Lottery for the second consecutive season, and, in line with the consensus, select Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham. Perhaps they rise only to No. 3. USC big man Evan Mobley might be gone, but Minnesota-native Jalen Suggs is still on the board. The Timberwolves already have Anthony Edwards. Malik Beasley was stellar last season, though he comes with meaningful off-court concerns. Is the Karl-Anthony Towns-D'Angelo Russell friendship strong enough to overcome the growing backcourt glut in Minnesota?
Perhaps. The Timberwolves did pay a hefty price to get him. Maybe their desperate to win right away would lead them to offer their prized lottery pick to Philadelphia instead. But given their defensive woes, starting Russell, Edwards and a rookie guard together with Towns, a mediocre defender at best, would simply be untenable. They'd have to at least explore alternatives.
How does Simmons and Hill for Russell and Beasley sound? It would hardly help Philly's defense, but Morey can turn around and swing a secondary deal on that front. If he made Curry available, for instance, he'd have no shortage of suitors. Russell would surely disappoint a fan base that once hoped to turn Simmons into an MVP, but 25-year-old former All-Stars don't grow on trees. Russell could steer Philly's offense toward heavier pick-and-roll usage. Beasley's spot-up shooting and supplementary ball-handling would be welcome.
The logic for Minnesota would be obvious: They need defense, and with Towns, Edwards, and a high-level rookie in place, they'd have more than enough scoring. Embiid has never taken more than 4.1 3s per game. Towns has averaged almost twice that at his peak. Spacing wouldn't be a problem for Simmons. He and Edwards would be terrifying together in transition.
This scenario relies on luck to too great an extent. Russell probably doesn't excite Philadelphia, but given Embiid's timeline, trading him for a top draft pick doesn't make much sense unless a third team enters the picture. There's something here, but what exactly remains unclear.
Here's the team that overhauls itself to suit Simmons. Indiana already has one too many centers. Adding Simmons is a viable excuse to trade one of them. Philadelphia would like Malcolm Brogdon, but he's not enough. T.J. Warren will intrigue the Sixers, but he's coming off a lost season. It's the ultimate "dollar for two quarters" sort of offer. Likely, it's a last resort, but Philly isn't exactly operating in a seller's market here.
The fit is hard to finagle on Indiana's side as well. Myles Turner makes sense as a center to pair with Simmons. The two would lead one of the NBA's best defenses. Caris LeVert could create late-game shots. A Domantas Sabonis trade could settle the rest of the roster. But where is the team willing to give up core pieces for an all-offense center right now? The Chicago Bulls was the team that made sense and they've cashed in their chips for Nikola Vucevic.
Offers like Brogdon and Warren will present themselves from half a dozen teams, many of whom we can't predict. Suitors come out of the woodwork for talents like Simmons even when they're flawed. Morey will turn over every rock in search of a higher-level piece to swap for Simmons. If none emerge, that's when teams like the Pacers can enter the proceedings.
The 2019 Milwaukee Bucks launched themselves into the title picture by surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooting and defense. Could a similar blueprint revive Simmons? It might be worth a try for the Raptors, who could recapture the success from their 2020 season by adding Simmons: excellent defense and transition offense make up for a poor half-court attack. Pascal Siakam regressed meaningfully last season and clashed with head coach Nick Nurse. Perhaps there's a swap there.
The path to something interesting from there isn't hard to imagine. Re-sign Kyle Lowry and Gary Trent. Find a stretch big man somewhere on the trade market and pair that player with Chris Boucher in the big rotation. Everybody defends. Everybody but Simmons shoots. Hope that Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby grow enough to offset the lack of a traditional superstar. It's not championship-caliber yet, but it's a foundation. Masai Ujiri traded for Kawhi Leonard on an expiring contract. He's willing to take risks in the name of star power. This is one to consider. Right now, the Raptors aren't close to the title picture. This sort of swing could change that.
If Siakam is the slightly above-average 3-point shooter he was in 2019 and 2020, this trade is a home run for Philadelphia. If he's the 29.7 percent shooter he was last season? That's a bit more complicated. He's far better at creating his own shot than Simmons, but does less for teammates. Simmons is the better defender, but it's not an overwhelming gap. He's a somewhat reliable 20 points per night. He makes his free throws.
This is a snow globe trade more than anything. Both franchises are sorely in need of a shakeup. The other can provide it, albeit with a healthy dose of risk attached.
There was surely a window in which Philadelphia could have traded Simmons for Zach LaVine. The 76ers might have even been able to acquire LaVine without giving Simmons up. It's unclear how open that window is now, with LaVine having reached All-Star status and Simmons trending downward. Chicago traded multiple first-round picks to get Nikola Vucevic seemingly in an effort to placate LaVine, who is now only a year away from free agency. Vucevic's versatile offensive game would pair just as well with Simmons.
Chicago trapped itself by trading for Vucevic. They're all-in on the present and LaVine knows it. His agent will surely ask for a renegotiation and extension this offseason which would deprive Chicago of most of its cap space. Do it and the Bulls are capped out with a lottery roster. Don't and LaVine could walk in 2022 for a better running mate. Simmons is locked in for four years. The Bulls would have plenty of time to build around him. Vucevic is a nice start.
LaVine is only 26, a year younger than Embiid. There's a world here in which they contend together for almost a decade. McCollum doesn't offer that longevity. He's never led an offense for a full season as LaVine just did. If LaVine is on the table, he's Philly's first choice, but he might have played himself off of it. Why would the Bulls want to bail the 76ers out like this? That makes Chicago a somewhat unlikely destination.