Search through the official social media accounts representing the Philadelphia 76ers and Daryl Morey. Open any post from June 16 to now. Scroll through the replies. What you’ll see is an endless supply of fans demanding — begging — the front office to pull the trigger on a Ben Simmons trade.
The angst is more than fair. In a vacuum, trading Ben Simmons is a deed that must be completed. The Sixers have waited long enough. Joel Embiid has waited long enough. However, we do not exist in a vacuum. Save for the Lakers, who can do whatever they want whenever they want, the NBA doesn’t, either.
Even with Sixers fans desperate to see the 25-year-old star dismissed after a playoff failure that left deep scarring, the front office hasn’t made a trade. To some, that Simmons hasn’t already been introduced to a new team is a failure, by its very nature. For that reason, alone, they’ve lost some degree of faith in Morey and company.
Quite the contrary should be the case, though. The confidence in Morey, Elton Brand, and the rest of the decision-makers should be as high as ever.
Just two weeks after their painful elimination at the hands of the Hawks, the Sixers proved a very important point in this whole saga. They rejected the Pacers’ offer for Simmons. That signaled the front office’s strategy of maintaining two positions of strength.
First, they were not panicked enough by Simmons’ collapse to get him on the first flight out of Philadelphia. Second, they weren’t going to settle for the first tangible offer they could get for him.
Simmons’ ceiling is still far higher than Malcolm Brogdon’s is, regardless of his disappointing career arc. He’s much younger than Brogdon and has a cleaner bill of health, too. But, there was certainly a case to make for agreeing to that trade.
Brogdon’s contract pays an average of $22.15 million over its final two years. Simmons’ deal pays an average of $36.7 million in each of its remaining four years. So, Brogdon’s deal is much less expensive than is Simmons’ deal. If it didn’t work, Philly would’ve only been tied to the 28-year-old guard for two seasons before he entered unrestricted free agency.
Brogdon is also a better basketball fit with Philly’s roster. He connected on 39 percent of his triples this past season, so he spaces the floor. He is also an extremely efficient on-ball shooter, making 40 percent of his 7 pull-up field goal attempts per game last season. That efficiency, combined with his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.81:1, translates to star-level playmaking out of the lead ball-handler.
If not for Brogdon’s age and injury history, the trade package would be appealing. But, this isn’t a perfect world. Both issues exist. That’s why Philly rightfully rejected that deal. Still, Morey and company opted for patience because they believed there was a bigger fish in the sea. That theme — operating in strength and with patience — is how you emerge from these toxic situations as a better basketball team. It’s how the Sixers’ front office has operated all offseason.
The Stylistic Nature Of Morey’s Front Offices
If the thought that Morey appears out of touch with the reality of his star point forward has entered your head, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a memo that has apparently circulated around NBA front offices for some time. In early August, John Hollinger wrote this:
Getting back to Morey and how his front office people operated in Houston, they definitely had a distinct style. First, they were active as hell: They called about trades more than any other team, by a mile. But second, they always started with a sky-high asking price, making borderline absurd offers and then working their way back to something reasonable. They often got there; Houston, in Morey’s tenure also completed more trades than any other team, so these calls weren’t just hot air from the ridiculous guy in your fantasy league. But the Sixers’ modus operandi so far regarding Simmons is completely unsurprising to anybody who worked in the NBA in the last decade. [The Athletic]
The purpose of such a tactic is to play up Simmons’ value, of course. It also simultaneously maintains a holding pattern for the real trade target to become available. Hollinger seems to see it that way, too: “One reason the Sixers might drag their feet on a Simmons trade and spend the intervening time demanding a huge asking price is that the number one player on their list hasn’t come available yet,” he wrote in the same piece for The Athletic.
These aren’t just theorems, either.
The Spurs And Raptors Rumors
The Sixers reportedly asked for four first-round picks, three pick swaps, and a young player from the Spurs — a package appropriately deemed outrageous — for Simmons. Then there was the laughable deal proposed to the Raptors. According to Matt Moore of The Action Network, Morey and company asked for Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and the fourth overall pick in the 2021 draft.
Philly’s management is attempting to set a high bar for the three-time All-Star. Their reported actions in this saga reflect an effort to price themselves into a category that nets them nothing less than a star in return.
It wasn’t long ago that the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the Sixers for Robert Covington, Dario Šarić, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick. Most trades involving disgruntled stars see the team with the disgruntled star redeeming him for much less than his value. However, Butler was traded in the final year of his contract. So, Minnesota was losing him for nothing in free agency if they didn’t trade him for something. Philadelphia’s current circumstance is significantly different because Simmons has four more years on his deal. Time is on the Sixers’ side. They don’t need to rush a deal for unsatisfactory value. Philadelphia can keep Simmons and work with him to rehabilitate his value if both sides agree that a trade is the only solution.
Even with that end goal in mind, there is some flexibility in getting to that destination. It doesn’t have to be as confined as a one-for-one package. In fact, there exists a very real possibility that the Trail Blazers or any other team with a disgruntled star might opt for a full rebuild instead of a reset with another star.
The Sixers are very aware of that possibility. Some league insiders have pointed out that the Rockets rejected Philly’s offer for James Harden partly because Houston opted for that complete rebuild. Whether or not you believe that reasoning is up to you.
Still, the reported flirting with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors conveys an awareness that a trade partner might like that rebuild flexibility. But, Philadelphia has shown a willingness to wait for that star to become available. For now, they’re building rapport with those two teams. People close to Simmons have told The Painted Lines the same thing that has been reported for quite some time — Minnesota and Golden State have expressed the most interest in the Australian star.
By the way, there hasn’t been anything out of Philadelphia’s side that has challenged such reports. Neither team has tangible assets that Philadelphia should eagerly accept as the basis of a Simmons trade. But, they do have draft equity and interesting young pieces — such as Golden State’s Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga, and James Wiseman and Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels — that could interest Portland or another partner that has the star Philly wants.
So, entertaining conversations with those teams fosters the optionality that Philadelphia could need in order to return a star in an eventual Simmons deal. Philly is developing a pivot to involve a third team. In doing that, they’re creating the capital flexibility needed to get the job done either way.
The Sixers have control of the situation, for now. Those last two words are very important. Simmons is represented by Rich Paul, the most powerful broker in the NBA landscape. Paul and company could decide to stage a hold-out in order to force a trade.
This writer’s opinion is that Simmons’ best ticket out is to show up and play like a man possessed by basketball spirits. In fact, in an episode of The Hoop Collective published on Friday, Brian Windhorst opined that Simmons “is preparing to start the season with Philadelphia”. If he wants out, he has to help himself by raising his trade value enough to net his current team a star in return.
Still, there are more and more rumors that a hold-out could happen. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If that happens, the situation could certainly get ugly.
The First Lightning Strike
Jake Fischer’s appearance on The Gastroenteritis Blues, a podcast hosted by Liberty Ballers staff, in late July was the first lightning strike indicating a hold-out could ensue. On the podcast, Fischer revealed that the Sixers had been unable to get in contact with Simmons since the season’s conclusion. Such a report understandably tightens Philly’s hamstrings a bit if true.
Obviously, it makes no sense for the Sixers to acknowledge or confirm such reporting. In fact, they denied the report when approached by PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck:
“We talked to Ben on his birthday a couple of days ago, we’ve been in touch with him throughout the summer,” one source said. “We’re going to send some training personnel out to see him this summer, too…we have good dialogue with Ben, his team, and his family.” [PhillyVoice]
Still, given the ways head coach Doc Rivers and star center Joel Embiid (understandably) threw Simmons under the bus after the game 7 loss to the Hawks, things must be awkward. That’s just human nature. But given the words said by Rivers and Embiid, and Fischer’s report a month later, the only thing the Sixers could do was downplay the damage to the relationship. To acknowledge the disconnect would be to concede that the situation is untenable and the relationship fractured. Philadelphia is no stranger to this, either. In fact, it was this same calendar year that the Eagles operated through a similar situation with their own quarterback. When it gets to that stage, control is lost.
The Sixers have control of the situation, for now.
Positioning For A Star
That control is volatile because this situation’s endpoint is unknown. The saga will come to a conclusion in one of two ways. The right star will become available and the Sixers will pounce. If not that, the situation will deteriorate to the point where the Sixers’ brass will grow uncomfortable enough to settle for what they can get.
At this point, the only thing Philly’s brass can do is put themselves in strong-enough position to land the guy they want while they wait for him to become available. In early August, Yaron Weitzman revealed that Philadelphia hired Phil Beckner, Damian Lillard’s long-time trainer, to the title ‘Consultant to the Coaching Staff’.
Lillard has been among the stars named that Philadelphia has had its eyes on during this offseason saga. Ever since word was first delivered that a Lillard trade request could be on the horizon, the Sixers have been linked to the star guard. Above all else, hiring Beckner is a brilliant move to put the franchise in favorable position to land Lillard. It also signals that they’ve locked in on the point guard as their primary trade target.
That isn’t the only thing they’ve done to position themselves for a star like Lillard, though.
The Free Agency Strategy
The front office waived guard George Hill and forward Anthony Tolliver instead of guaranteeing their contracts for the 2021-22 season. Those moves save them a bit of money. They also open up two roster spots. But, the bigger picture is that cutting veterans forces Rivers to put younger guys in the regular rotation if the saga lingers into the regular season.
George Hill’s departure all but guarantees that Tyrese Maxey will be a lock in the rotation. If Maxey flourishes, the Sixers are a better team and he becomes an increasingly attractive trade chip. The same applies to the rest of Philly’s youngsters, too.
The Sixers’ lack of aggression in free agency, in general, indicated that they were looking to gamble on the upsides of their young prospects.
Little Money To Show
It’s a fair argument that being conservative was a product of limited financial resources. After all, the Sixers only had veteran minimum deals and Mid-Level Exception money to expense on new players. Beyond that, they had Bird rights on their own free agents. However, they used a veteran minimum on center Andre Drummond. That move came in lieu of signing a floor-spacer to back Embiid. That decision doesn’t support the “play the young guys” argument. But, it conveys a willingness to trust Paul Reed as that floor-spacer in spots where Drummond isn’t effective in the game.
Additionally, the Sixers could’ve involved themselves in sign-and-trade scenarios. After all, that is the primary vehicle for teams lacking cap space to add free agents. Look no further than the Sixers’ decision to sign-and-trade Jimmy Butler to the Heat for Josh “Mr. Accountability” Richardson as an example of that vehicle. Miami had no space to add Butler outright. So, they facilitated a sign-and-trade with Philadelphia to add the star.
However, consider that getting involved in trades could’ve hard-capped the Sixers. Hard-capping themselves would limit the Sixers’ flexibility in a trade for a star. It might even render such a deal impossible.
The star they want may not be available at this moment. But, all of Philadelphia’s roster decisions this offseason illustrate a plan. They’re focused on maintaining flexibility so that they can pivot the moment a star is available.
Pivoting And Maintaining Composure
Keeping that optionality is an exercise in maintaining composure. The fact of the matter is that Damian Lillard hasn’t requested a trade yet. In fact, he recently said on Instagram that he plans to stick around in Portland. That is, at least for the time being.
Almost simultaneously, it was reported that the Sixers were prepared to have Simmons on the team headed into the season. Granted, Ramona Shelburne, in an appearance on NBA: The Jump in early August, said that the Sixers were open to bringing Simmons back. She even ventured to say they preferred to bring him back.
My read of it is that Philly anticipated that the player they wanted wasn’t going to be available in the near future. So, they pivoted to conveying an interest in fixing the situation with their star. Doing so downplays the idea that trading Simmons is the end-all. In communicating that message, Philly maintains control of the saga.
All of that positioning and pivoting underlies one core purpose. Morey and the Sixers are deriving leverage with teams that they engage with by signaling that they don’t view this situation as emergent. In fact, Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice put pen to paper on that idea. He reported, “Throughout the pre-draft process, team sources made clear that Philadelphia was in no rush to make a deal for the sake of making one,” in a piece published at the end of July.
That is an addition to the leverage they inherently have by rostering a star who is contractually tied to them for a number of years anyway. Sure, he might not show up (I think he will) if his camp tells him it’s the best way to force out of Philadelphia. But at the end of the day, the Sixers have the player. The two parties are married to each other for four more years. Morey and the Sixers do not have to trade him because there’s no risk of losing him for nothing.
The Waiting Game
With that leverage, Morey and company can play this game to the very end. If the desired star isn’t immediately available, that’s fine. They’ve shown they’re willing to wait.
In fact, the only way to win the deal is to wait. Giving in too early in order to get draft equity and lesser tangible assets is too big a risk to gamble upon. It leaves the Sixers stranded if the trade target they want never becomes available.
It also exhausts their major trade chip. That danger leaves them exposed in the event that another team’s tangible asset makes a significant jump in development. Should that happen, the team with the player making the surprise jump is in better position to acquire the star when he becomes available.
The memory of Simmons’ cripplingly poor play is still very fresh. But, the Sixers are better off with him than they are giving him away for anything less than a star in return. Such is especially the case in the modern day Eastern Conference. Returning anything less pushes the Sixers back to purgatory. You might argue that that’s where they are now. But, try explaining that trajectory to Joel Embiid. He might force his way out if he sees there’s no chance at a championship. If that happens, it’s back to agonizing disinterest as you wait for the Sixers to draft their next set of stars.
The Sixers know Simmons is their last major trade chip. Morey knows they cannot waste his upside value. That recognition is reflected in the events of this offseason. It should inspire confidence that the Sixers, as long as they don’t relinquish control of this situation, will find the exit to this maze.