The 2022 NBA trade deadline is exactly four weeks away. Things won’t really ramp up for a while yet, in part because the NBA’s new play-in makes it harder than ever to really sort out the buyers from the sellers. As many as 13 teams in the flattened-out East can reasonably consider themselves in the chase for playoff seeding; the 14th-ranked team in the West is just three games back of the conference’s final play-in berth. That’s a lot of teams who still have to figure out what exactly they have left to play for over the back half of the season.
The Portland Trail Blazers, who currently hold that last Western Conference playoff spot, got some real shitty news Wednesday night. Damian Lillard, grinding painfully through the least efficient offensive season of his career, has reportedly elected to go under the knife for a long-lingering abdominal injury, and as a result will be shelved for at least six weeks. This will not help the confusion in the West’s lower half: With Lillard and C.J. McCollum both on the shelf and the Blazers going on the road for 10 of their next 12 games, suddenly that 10th seed looks a lot more attainable for the generally very crappy outfits beneath them in the standings. A handful of bottom-feeders that would otherwise have more productive uses for their time might feel compelled to mount doomed pursuits of a playoff spot they absolutely do not deserve, further pushing off the kinds of sober self-assessments that make useful veterans into compelling trade fodder this time of year.
If, like me, you’ve been surprised at any point in the last three weeks to be reminded of the existence of Ben Simmons, this might be an annoying development. Simmons still has not touched the court for the Philadelphia 76ers this season. The Sixers aren’t the same without him, but at no point have they missed him on the court enough to change the calculus for team president Daryl Morey. They lost for the first time in their last eight games Wednesday night; they sit a respectable 11th in the league in net rating; they kept their heads above water during the worst of the post-holiday COVID-19 outbreak and seem to have righted the ship in the new year. As long as Joel Embiid is healthy the 76ers will be good, and right now it appears good is good enough for Morey and Philadelphia’s front office. But if the 76ers value Simmons enough to cling to him like this, it stands to reason that’s because he is the difference between contending and not contending. While he’s away, and while they haven’t traded him for players of similar on-court value, it’s safe to say they are not headed for a title.
I don’t particularly give a rip where the 76ers land in the playoff hunt, but this fractured season is made to seem all the more illegitimate every day that a perfectly ambulatory 25-year-old three-time All-Star sits on the shelf because he and his organization don’t get along. Simmons is maybe an uncomfortable fit in a lineup with Embiid, and yes there’s the whole problem of Simmons hating to throw the ball into the hoop in a sport where you score points by throwing the ball into the hoop, but a solid third of the teams in the league would become better or at least much more interesting if they swapped him in for whoever their best player currently is. Sam Amick of The Athletic reported Wednesday that Simmons’s camp is confident he’d be ready to rock for a new team after a couple weeks of intense conditioning. A trade that happened today could get Simmons onto the court somewhere with time enough to test his fit and make additional moves ahead of the deadline. Sweet!
Unfortunately, things appear to be moving in the wrong direction. Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that Morey, Sixers general manager Elton Brand, and Simmons’s agent Rich Paul met at a Philadelphia restaurant to talk about the Simmons situation. Something you will not care about at all is that this meal was “described as amicable and professional,” least of all after you learn that Morey seems less interested than ever in swapping the guy who refuses to play for his team for a package of guys who do not:
The Sixers are targeting top 25-caliber players for trades, but those kinds of assets have yet to be made available to them in offers, sources said. Some teams have even described the Sixers’ asking price for a Simmons deal as growing in price—not declining, sources told ESPN.ESPN
Put this together with the rest of Amick’s report, which says that Morey has recently been trying to unload $79 million worth of Tobias Harris in Simmons trade negotiations, and you’ve got a picture of a front office that feels no real pressure to help Embiid and the solid but unspecial team around him rise into the upper tier of title contenders. Surely some of this is posturing, and there’s a non-zero chance Morey and Brand will swallow hard at the deadline, take the best offer on the table, and end this whole strange saga. But I, for one, am getting sick of this shit. This season has a lost, haunted feeling to it, in some ways worse than the two pandemic-shortened and -interrupted seasons before it. We can’t just have a potential contender shrug and drop out over hurt feelings and stubbornness. I demand a resolution!
The 76ers are a good basketball team, and they have an opportunity to trade a player who does not play for them for one or several good players who will. Imagine being able shore up your rotation at the deadline with good players, and all it costs is some guy who is already not part of the rotation. That’s not a chance that comes along real often. Consider that a victory, and make a damn trade!