Sports

Losing Ben Simmons would make the 76ers more conventional

Our institutions are failing: personal bonds are fraying, trust has eroded, all progress has halted and succumbed to twin forces of atrophy and entropy. And that’s just the Philadelphia 76ers. 

In keeping with tradition, everyone is furious at Ben Simmons. As if it weren’t bad enough that he passed up on an open dunk in the playoffs or shot a paltry 34 percent from the free throw line or has pretty girlfriends, he’s now committed the ultimate sin of agreeing with Philly fans. For months, the 76ers faithful have stomped their feet and demanded that Simmons be traded; now, Simmons and the Klutch apparatchiks behind him share the same vision. 

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Trading Simmons is the simplest, most logical decision—the situation in Philadelphia has curdled into something so sour and toxic that it’d be mean to run it back like nothing happened. Trading Simmons, though, also makes the Sixers a worse and duller team, one that’s less likely to contend for championships and more likely to waste Embiid’s prime in the process.

Once you come to terms with Simmons’ very obvious flawshe’s objectively one of the best players in the NBA. And this isn’t just conjecture or vibe augury; it’s a statistical reality. When Simmons was on the court last season, the Sixers were better at just about every meaningful aspect of basketball than when he was on the bench: they defended more stingily; they scored more prolifically, they shot more accurately, they passed more readily. For all the hysterical doomerism about how Simmons’ offensive agoraphobia and stage-fright are a canker on the team, this thinking is not borne out in any empirical way. 

Even during Simmons’s infamous postseason meltdown against the Hawks, the Sixers were more than 10 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court than when he was on the bench, per PBP Stats. Clearly, Simmons’s presence gunked up the Sixers’ offense by, um, improving it by more than 13 points per 100 possessions during the series (the Sixers had an offensive rating of 102.2 during their 94 Simmons-less minutes in the series versus a 115.94 offensive rating during the 242 minutes Simmons played). He was the sole Sixer who could reliably inconvenience Trae Young or wobble the Hawks’ defense with shrewd passing. There’s an over-wrought tendency to position Ben Simmons as a stand-in for musings about post-post-modern basketball or meta-ruminations about the performative aesthetics of stardom, but that’s an over-intellectualization of a simple premise: Simmons is a star player because he has a star-level impact on the game.

Apologies to another maligned B. Simmons, but the Ewing Theory is silly—teams don’t inexplicably get better without one of their best players; in fact, they often get worse. As such, it’s difficult to imagine scenarios in which the Sixers can at once offload Simmons and improve the team; there are few players of Simmons’s caliber and there are even fewer who are available in a trade. Hypothetically, they could swap Simmons for Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal, two masterful scorers who offer a more conventional fit alongside Embiid, but neither Lillard nor Beal appear to be attainable at the moment.

If the Sixers trade Simmons for unremarkable but more naturally fitting cogs (i.e. Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Marvin Bagley), they’d commit to convention, hastily spackling together a reincarnation of Daryl Morey’s old Rockets squads that’s oriented around Embiid’s foul-drawing brilliance in the post rather than James Harden’s foul-drawing brilliance on the perimeter. To be sure, this would still be a pretty good team—after all, the only thing separating the Rockets from greatness was the existence of other mega-greatness—but it’s a clear downgrade from last year’s top-seeded iteration.

More, by satisfying their fanbase’s stupid bloodlust that spurred Simmons’s trade demand in the first place, the Sixers will sacrifice what has fueled their winningness. This has never been a tremendously talented team—they’ve had good players and lots of them, but they lack the same level of artillery that the Nets or Lakers or Bucks boast; Embiid, Simmons and Tobias Harris are certainly a Big Three, but they’re hardly the biggest.

Instead, the Sixers have succeeded because they moved counter to the NBA’s prevailing trends. Whereas other teams focused on optimizing their offense until it reached some analytically divined flow state, Philly yucked their opponents’ yum; by playing preferred jumbo lineups with Simmons, Embiid and Harris, Philly prevented other teams from deploying their own preferred downsized units. 

By filling the court with massive yet nimble players, the Sixers restored a primitive game logic: bigger equals better. Beyond the basic savagery of larger players bullying smaller ones, the Sixers thrived because of the ways that Simmons masked his teammates’ flaws and recontextualized their skills. His playmaking made it possible to fit dribbling-averse offensive guards like Danny Green into the lineup, while his defensive ubiquity allowed the Sixers to safely find minutes for a shooting specialist like Seth Curry. In this sense, the greatest skill Simmons has shown is his ability to expand, not limit, possibilities.

Unless Morey can somehow finesse a genuine All-Star in return for Simmons, any deal merely swaps one giant and admittedly funny question (why can’t Ben Simmons just be normal for once?) for a host of smaller and more destabilizing ones. Does Embiid have the gas to single-handedly carry a team through a playoff run? Can Doc Rivers scrounge enough two-way production from a stable of one-way wings? How will the team replace Simmons’s advantage-creation abilities? Why would you destroy something unique to build something commonplace?


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