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Sure, Run It Back, Fuck It

Ben Simmons slips and falls.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty

It’s starting to look more and more like the 76ers will not trade Ben Simmons prior to the start of the 2021-22 NBA regular season. This would’ve seemed completely impossible to anyone even distantly following the NBA 46 days ago, when Simmons’s brutal postseason play effectively wiped his top-seeded team out of the playoffs and ended their best chance at a title run since the mid-1980s. Doc Rivers made some noise about “getting in the gym” with Simmons in order to, ah, teach him how to score the basketball, but only because it is considered poor form for an NBA head coach to say We are going to leave him on the doorstep of the very first convent we pass on the way home about one of his team’s superstars. That Simmons would soon be traded for whatever package of players would simply impede the 76ers a little less over the remainder of their current championship window seemed inevitable.

This part’s important: Whatever value Simmons has around the NBA as a player or “asset” or whatever —definitely at its nadir after his dismal playoff showing, but also much higher in a vacuum than that of, say, 35-year-old Goran Dragic—his value to the 76ers is or ought to be determined by Philadelphia’s tantalizing proximity to a by-God championship. What the whole entire NBA learned back in June is that 34 minutes a night of Ben Simmons, on this team with this roster, is not something that brings the 76ers closer to a championship, and that’s putting it very generously. As the competition gets stiffer, Simmons’s all-world defense and dynamic transition playmaking immensely positively impact winning a little bit less, whereas his mind-boggling inability to reliably throw the ball into the basket from any spot on the floor immensely negatively impacts winning a whole lot more. That deficiency in Simmons’s game—again, that he lacks any single reliable way of making the basketball go into the hoop, from any distance—manifests as a game-breaking flaw in Philadelphia’s playoff offense. When that flaw is all that stands between your team and a literal championship, a step that fixes it is almost infinitely valuable. Goran Dragic, as a guy who can do all of Simmons’s playmaking and also make the ball go into the basket from many different spots on the floor, might legitimately have more value to Philadelphia’s title chances than the guy he’d be replacing.

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Trading Ben Simmons straight up for 35-year-old Goran Dragic would be unpalatable for many 76ers fans, for a variety of perfectly valid reasons. Anyway, it would never come to that. Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal, to use a less dramatic example, is both way better than Ben Simmons and would improve Philly’s title odds enormously; given that fact, it would make sense for 76ers general manager Daryl Morey to offer up several goodies in order to flip the guy who kills his team’s title chances for the one who would supercharge them. Kyle Lowry switched teams this week; he would’ve helped. Malcolm damn Brogdon would help. There’s a whole buffet of NBA guards, across every conceivable price point, who would move the 76ers from a team that has to hide its primary ball-handler in the playoffs, literally while on offense, to one that does not; in trades for lots of these guys the 76ers could even get back some cool sweeteners! Imagine! Imagine trading a guy who nuked your shot at a title for one who improves your shot at a title, and scoring some valuable throw-ins in the bargain. Incredible!

The 76ers evidently do not see it this way. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week that the price Morey is seeking in Simmons trade proposals—trade proposals he has been actively courting and encouraging—is astronomical:

The Sixers asked for Andrew Wiggins, James Wiseman, the Nos. 7 and 14 picks in tonight’s NBA draft along with two future first-rounders in exchange for Ben Simmons, according to multiple sources. The Warriors quickly turned down the offer.

This comes after a source confirmed The Ringer report that the Sixers asked the San Antonio Spurs for four first-round picks, three first-round pick swaps, and a young player in exchange for Simmons.

According to the Action Network, the Toronto Raptors rejected the Sixers’ asking price of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and the fourth pick in tonight’s draft for a package that included Simmons.

Philadelphia Inquirer

Beyond the absurdity of treating Simmons as if he’s the positive value in a trade featuring any player named up there other than maybe Andrew Wiggins, it’s also just extremely unreasonable to expect any of those three teams, all of which are in reasonably strong positions, roster- and asset-wise, to overhaul their whole shit so dramatically for as idiosyncratic and possibly terminally brain-boomed a weirdo as Ben Simmons. More to the point, those are not the demands of a team that is as serious about contending for a championship as it is about scoring imaginary wins on the transaction ledger. The 76ers should absolutely leap at an opportunity to replace Simmons in their playoff rotation with Fred VanVleet, who is an ace pick-and-roll maestro, a knockdown shooter, a credible defender of multiple positions, and who has proven as explicitly as possible that he can play huge minutes on a literal title team. But one does not get fist bumps at Sloan for trading Ben Simmons for Fred VanVleet, not even if the prize is an actual championship.

Anyway, now that he has spent more than a month pursuing ludicrous returns for a guy everyone on Earth knows he and his team would prefer not to have, Morey seems to have thrown in the towel on making a deal and switched over to mocking the very idea of trading Simmons:

This screenshot, of a chart from Cleaning The Glass showing that a 76ers starting lineup of Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid finished in the 82nd percentile last season by net rating, is I suppose meant to show that the 76ers are operating from a position of strength, and therefore have every reason to stand pat. That’s more or less what they’ve done so far this offseason: They re-signed Green to a two-year deal; they re-signed reserve Furkan Korkmaz to a three-year deal; they firmly refuted reports they’d made Harris available in trades; and they all but flicked boogers at teams that inquired about Simmons. The justification here is We had a real good regular season, by this esoteric metric. It’s a roundabout, needlessly nerded-up way of making that very simple and spectacularly unconvincing point, considering Morey could’ve just pointed to the standings. The regular-season success is how we know you are in range of a title! That’s what made the brutal playoff failure so horrifying! Unfortunately there’s really nothing from Philadelphia’s postseason flameout that can be used to smugly defend inaction on the Simmons front. Regular-season percentiles will just have to do.

Placing a higher priority on the theoretical asset value of trade returns than on winning, and pointing to esoteric metrics that extremely are not wins and losses to support a self-defeating roster management strategy, together form an organizational posture that will be super familiar to anyone who remembers how the 76ers wound up with Ben Simmons in the first place. It’s only fitting that the same logic should now keep the player and the team in this dumb loveless marriage indefinitely.