A few years back, I remember talking to the now-retired Shaun Livingston about the disproportionate value of shooting in the modern NBA. He agreed with my seemingly obvious premise, that it is extremely difficult to be a superstar in today's game if, as a perimeter-based player, you can't shoot. Naturally, I asked about Ben Simmons.
"He's an exception," Livingston said.
It was an assessment in line with everyone I talked to at the time: Simmons, at 6-foot-10 with elite athleticism, versatility and vision, was so uniquely gifted that normal rules didn't apply. A lot of people still believe this. But some are teetering on what is a very thin line between the many things he can do and the one thing he can't. And now the 76ers are facing the prospect of potentially trading Simmons, if it comes to that, with James Harden on the block and Philadelphia on his short list of preferred destinations.
New Sixers president and GM Daryl Morey has stated he has no intention of trading Simmons, and that the plan continues to be to build around him and Joel Embiid. Perhaps that's true. Given the presumed, and underwhelming, competing offers for Harden, it seems like the Sixers would have the inside track on a deal if Simmons were indeed available, yet so far there is no deal.
That doesn't mean Morey isn't strongly considering the idea of flipping Simmons for Harden. Of course he is. He doesn't have any connection to The Process. He's in Philadelphia to win a championship, and he'll make whatever move he feels necessary. As he stands at this franchise's crossroads, Morey is wrestling with the same question many of us have been wrestling with for a while:
How good, really, is Ben Simmons? We know he's an All-Star. We know that he's a supremely unique player, and that all rare things feel extra precious, as they should, because you don't come across them very often. But, factoring in his fatal flaw, is Simmons a true superstar? Or, at least, can he become one in the not-too-distant future?
Because we know Harden is a superstar right now, which is to say if we can all agree that Harden is, at the moment, a better player than Simmons, then the only thing that would be holding this deal up is the player Simmons can still become down the road.
That's where this gets really tough. Simmons is already a polarizing evaluation on his own -- reasonable minds can be on total opposite ends of his projection -- but he's even tougher to gauge alongside Joel Embiid. It's a tired narrative, this Simmons-Embiid fit, but there's a reason we're still talking about it. They just don't go together cleanly. Imagining the player Simmons can become in a specifically-built system and the player he can become in Philadelphia jammed next to Embiid are two very different questions.
And if you don't answer those questions correctly, trading a player like Ben Simmons, if he does in fact become the player his most optimistic backers envision, is the type of jump-the-gun move that cripples a franchise for decades. Everyone wants to get every trade right, but there are trades you have to get right. You have to get a Ben Simmons trade right, particularly if you are the franchise that also, potentially, prematurely pulled the plug on Markelle Fultz.
Can you imagine if somehow Fultz and Simmons both overcome their obstacles and become the players they were supposed to be all along, and you traded both of them in consecutive years for Jonathon Simmons and a couple second-round exit years from James Harden? Nightmare.
Though Morey has had nothing to do with it, the Sixers are on a terrible transactional run. They traded a better-fitting starting lineup for a half season of Jimmy Butler, who they then lost for Josh Richardson, who they then lost for Seth Curry. They let J.J. Redick walk to sign Al Horford, who bombed before being flipped into Danny Green. They traded Mikal Bridges, who is fast becoming a terrific player in Phoenix, for Zhaire Smith, who proceeded to play 13 games for the Sixers before they cut him loose. They traded too much for Tobias Harris, then compounded that by giving him way too much money, and now they are stuck with one of the worst contracts in the league.
You can only make so many mistakes, and if you do end up having to break apart the Simmons-Embiid duo, you absolutely can't screw that up. In a vacuum, plenty of people would actually prefer to build around Simmons before they would Embiid; the Sixers might even go that route if presented with an opportunity to choose cleanly between the two.
But Simmons is probably the one with more trade value, if only because he feels more untapped. You can still dream with Simmons, whereas Embiid is more of a finished product that offers less room for imagination.
But are the dreams we attach to Simmons ultimately clouding the reality? His inability, or unwillingness, to shoot is a huge impediment short of putting a completely complimentary roster around him, much like the Milwaukee Bucks did for Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters everywhere, including a center in Brook Lopez who stretches to the 3-point line and doesn't clog driving lanes.
Morey has immediately succeeded in putting more shooting around Simmons, trading for the aforementioned Green and Curry this offseason, but Embiid still has to be in the middle to be optimized. You can't turn him into Brook Lopez without wasting what makes him Joel Embiid. You just can't get away from what a bad tandem this is in terms of complementary skillsets, even if their cumulative talent might be up there with any duo in the league.
Harden, on the other hand, fits much cleaner with Embiid, much as Jimmy Butler did as a pick-and-roll playmaker with the added dimension of a threatening 3-point game. Harden is also a naturally methodical player, perfect for Embiid's plodding style, whereas Simmons needs to be out on the run.
This all sounds like a case to move on Harden at the expense of Simmons, but it's not that simple. Philadelphia's defense would take a major hit, even more so if it wound up having to include Matisse Thybulle in the deal. Also, Harden only has two guaranteed years remaining on his contract. Even if he were to sign an immediate extension with the Sixers, he's 31 years old. You have maybe three years of prime Harden left to make good on your championship aspirations.
Simmons, on the other hand, is 24 years old and locked up through 2025. You simply cannot assume beyond the length of a contract in today's NBA, which means short of Harden committing to a long-term deal, the Sixers are asking themselves whether they have a better chance to win a title in the next two years with Harden or the next five years with Simmons.
It's not an easy question. There are myriad variables. Right now, Daryl Morey is going over every one of them exhaustively. As offensively limited as Simmons is, there's still something about him that feels limitless. And that's a hard thing to let go of, even if the guy for which you're exchanging that potential is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history.
Will Morey ultimately pull the trigger? If I had to guess, I'd say yes. I think Morey, already a go-for-broke guy, has inherited the dwindling patience in Philadelphia, and I think Harden will end up on the Sixers sooner rather than later. Whether that's the right move, I honestly don't know. What I do know is this is a crossroads moment for the Sixers. When we look back on this decision years from now, however it works out, it will have forever changed the course of multiple franchises.