As 28 of the NBA’s 30 teams settle into their offseason, the trade buzz is climbing to new decibels each and every week. Such is especially the case for the Philadelphia 76ers, who are helmed by big-game hunter Daryl Morey and have to address on-court issues surrounding Ben Simmons after his under-performance headlined a painful second round exit from the 2021 playoffs. According to multiple reports out of Minnesota, the Timberwolves appear interested in negotiating a trade with Philadelphia.
According to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, the Wolves “will be in on Simmons in addition to a number of other players as they try to vault into playoff contention in the Western Conference”. Krawczynski added that Morey’s degree of interest in guard D’Angelo Russell is unknown. However, he also reported that the Wolves want to keep Russell as a building block going forward.
Dane Moore, who covers the Wolves for Blue Wire, provided his own report to the trade buzz:
Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and 76ers General Manager Elton Brand met in Chicago during the NBA combine, sources say, where a Ben Simmons trade to Minnesota was discussed.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) July 9, 2021
The negotiations are not substantive at this time, sources say.
Krawczynski and Moore are two of the leading figures in the media landscape covering the Timberwolves, so their words hold weight. They also aren’t the only ones to have acquired such information. There are rumblings that, to this point, the Wolves and the Golden State Warriors have expressed the most interest in trading for Simmons.
So, let’s examine such a trade for both sides.
Does It Make Sense For The Timberwolves?
Acquiring Simmons would make for an immediate upgrade for Minnesota’s defense, which allowed the third most points per 100 possessions in the NBA this season. However, it must be noted that the Wolves finished in the better half of the league in opponent mid-range and three-point frequency. But, they also finished in the bottom ten of the league in points allowed in the paint. So, a reasonable conclusion is that they didn’t give up as many non-rim twos and threes because opponents knew they hemorrhaged points at the basket. Thus, opponents felt empowered to attack the paint.
The argument for Simmons then needs to be re-shaped. He’s not a rim-protector, and Minnesota’s defensive problems originate from the interior. If the Wolves improve their rim defense by leveraging other resources, then I can buy that acquiring Simmons’ defensive capability is a major difference-maker for Minnesota.
So, if dealing for Simmons isn’t solving Minnesota’s glaring defensive problem by itself, what does acquiring him immediately accomplish?
Re-centering Around Karl-Anthony Towns
Simmons would immediately be the second best player on the Timberwolves’ roster. Even if he can’t markedly change their defensive standing by himself, he’s elite at quite literally everything outside of scoring the ball. Simmons is wired to facilitate offense for his teammates instead of facilitating it for himself. So, he’s going to make a concerted effort to get Karl-Anthony Towns the ball whenever he can. When head coach Chris Finch came to Minnesota in the middle of the 2020-21 season, the Wolves’ offense exhibited improvement because he made a point of getting Towns more touches at the elbow. Simmons’ size and vision as a facilitator would make it easier for the Wolves to get the ball to Towns.
The Fit With Towns
The All-Star center connected on 38.7 percent of his 6.3 triples attempted per game this season. He is a better fit next to Simmons than Embiid is. While both bigs are proven outside shooters, Embiid’s dominance is felt both in the mid-range and at the rim. Towns, on the other hand, profiles as a stretchy big who can dominate from the outside inwards. Such a big, one who can forfeit positioning in the paint for Simmons’ benefit–and not have it be detrimental to the team–is the ideal fit for the Australian point forward. From a personality standpoint, the fit appears seamless, as well. Simmons and Towns are close friends off the court and are known to play video games together in their spare time.
Minnesota’s perimeter defense, as proven above, isn’t the primary issue behind their horrid output on that end of the floor. But, Simmons’ knack for recording deflections and creating steals is a benefit to any team. His stardom reveals itself in the open court and makes your offense exponentially better under a faster pace. Minnesota finished with the fifth fastest pace in the NBA this season. Simmons is perhaps the league’s most dangerous fast-paced player and would represent a full lean into a style that they evidently favor.
Intangible Selling Points
Despite Simmons’ repeated failures in Philly’s playoff runs, he’s still been a featured player on a team that has been a top-3 seed in the Eastern Conference in three of the last four seasons. For a team that has made the playoffs once since 2004, there is incredible value in adding any player that has had that experience and is heading into his age-25 season. That reasoning ties into the final bargaining chip. Simmons is still very young and has dealt with the pressures of a big market ever since he entered the NBA. Perhaps a change of scenery with a small-market franchise with lower short-term expectations could help clear Simmons’ mind and unlock the missing pieces of his game.
Does It Make Sense For Philadelphia?
Minnesota’s interest in Simmons is perhaps a bit wishful. Guard D’Angelo Russell would arguably be the best tangible piece that Philly could redeem from Minnesota. He fits with Embiid far better than Simmons does because of his ability to commingle facilitation with self-provisioned scoring. His combo-guard feel for creating open looks for himself and his teammates off the dribble is a talent that the Sixers lack. He also has the requisite experience to fit what the Sixers are looking to accomplish while Embiid is in his prime.
Russell has exhibited moments of brilliance. But, those skills have proven to be more theoretical than actual. Aside from his first full season in Minnesota (this season), he’s hovered right around where the league average currently is for three-point percentage. However, he connected 38.7 percent of his 7.8 pull-up field goal attempts per game this season. That conversion rate was better than those of Damian Lillard, James Harden, and Jayson Tatum this season (Lillard and Tatum attempted significantly more per game, though). So Russell, while inconsistent, has proven to be effective at the one thing that the Sixers’ offense arguably needs most.
Even as a combo guard who has been marketed as a shooting playmaker, Russell’s career-average assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.83:1. That pales in comparison to that of Simmons. So, Russell is a notably worse playmaker than the guy Philly would be trading has been throughout his career. It isn’t as if Russell has recovered from a poor start to his career on that front, either. He enjoyed his best assist-to-turnover ratio two seasons ago.
The Wolves Were A Better Team With Russell Off The Court
There are legitimate questions to be asked about how Russell’s play makes a team better, too. The Wolves’ offense was 1.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than with him off of it. But, their defense was 4.9 points per 100 possessions worse with him on than with him off. The Wolves were outscored by 7 points per 100 possessions in Russell’s minutes. But, they were outscored by only 4.1 points per 100 possessions in the minutes that Russell was on the bench. That data says that the Wolves, who finished 23-49 this season, were simply a better team when D’Angelo Russell wasn’t on the court.
You can make the case that Russell played so few minutes that the data is skewed–and you’d have a valid point. Russell was off the court for nearly twice as many minutes as he was on it. He played only 42 of a possible 72 games this season. What that also means is that Russell has relatively significant injury history. Since the start of 2021, leg injuries were the cause of all of his games missed. A combo guard missing 30 games with nagging leg injuries is certainly concerning. It is undoubtedly something that begs further evaluation.
The Box Score Story
Through all of that, he’s on a max contract because he puts up big numbers. In the season prior to signing his max deal, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7 dimes. He averaged 19 points and 5.8 assists per game this season. For his career, Russell has produced 17.6 points and 5.3 assists per game. At his best, he’s the second-or-third-best scorer and likely the best facilitator on a title contender. Right now, he’s your third-best scorer. He might be your best facilitator. But, he’s the second-weakest or weakest link in your starting lineup’s defense. He might even be your Sixth Man, as he often was for Minnesota this season.
Ricky Rubio and Malik Beasley
Of course, if Minnesota isn’t interested in trading him, none of that really matters. But outside of Russell, it’s very difficult to entice Philly with a package that has the requisite salary to execute a trade. Ricky Rubio and Malik Beasley would work from a cash flow standpoint. But, Rubio is 30 years old and cannot be a pillar of an acceptable return package for Simmons.
Beasley is 24 years old and can pour in points. But, he still hasn’t produced enough to garner star status. He’s also dealt with legal troubles off the court. People deserve second chances if the context warrants such forgiveness. But, those troubles make him a bit of a wild card. It’s impossible to know if or when new troubles could surface. For a team with dreams of a championship in the near future, trusting such a person to be responsible, especially at critical moments of the season, isn’t an easy sell.
If it’s just Rubio and Beasley, picks must be involved. Daryl Morey likes to trade away picks to get stars, not trade stars to get picks. A future first round pick or a young prospect to develop isn’t helping Philly accomplish its goal. So, that doesn’t make sense. Anthony Edwards is a promising young guard. But, it would be a fireable offense for Minnesota to trade both Edwards and Beasley in the same package. Morey could go the route of Rubio and Edwards. But, that’s still a bet that a rookie is going to continue to do what he did to show that promise. That’s risky, as first-year success is often a product of NBA opponents not having scouting reports on said player yet. Edwards could very well continue to showcase his potential. But, he’s still destined for growing pains and doesn’t fit the timeline on which Embiid is traveling.
It would certainly seem that any trade to send Ben Simmons to Minnesota would have to return D’Angelo Russell. But that, by itself, shouldn’t move the needle for Philly. Anything else that Minnesota can offer either presents a legitimate detractor or simply isn’t adequate return for Simmons. There could be a third team involved in the dealing that presents an asset to make it worth while for Philly. The Sixers could also have a bigger deal lined up somewhere on the timeline with this trade. Unless it’s one of those two scenarios, trading Ben Simmons to the Timberwolves simply does not yield a sensible outcome for the Sixers.