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In the dying seconds of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, there was a strange but familiar aura emanating within the walls of Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
This was supposed to be the year that everything changed for the 76ers. Joel Embiid was finally healthy and enjoying his best season to date. Tobias Harris had a resurgent year in his reunion with head coach Doc Rivers. The depth, which had plagued them in years past, appeared to be resolved.
The Sixers finished the season as the top seed in the East, and facing the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks whom most on the roster had yet to appear in a playoff game prior to this year, it looked as though the path was clear for them to make a deep postseason run. Yet, they continuously faltered late in games, they blew enormous leads multiple times, and squandered their opportunity, losing to the Hawks in seven games. As the players left the court to a smattering of boos and objects being thrown onto the court, what once seemed like a dream suddenly turned into the same nightmare they’ve been reliving for four years.
Instead of walking away from this season having answered the big questions that surrounded them, they begin their off-season with even more questions than before. Much of the concerns and criticisms have fallen to six-foot-11 point guard Ben Simmons, who was blasted for his seemingly unwillingness to assert himself on the court and dominate the game, taking a grand total of three field goal attempts in all seven fourth quarters of the series.
Simmons had a strong regular season, posting 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game, all while shooting an efficient 55.7 percent from the field. He made his third All-Star game in four seasons and finished second in the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year voting. He was excellent in the Sixers’ first-round series against the Washington Wizards too.
However, when the Hawks slowed down the game, Simmons just couldn’t get anything going for himself on the offensive end, scoring only 19 points total in the final three games of the series and constantly deferring. His 34.2 percent free throw mark for the playoffs as a whole is the worst in NBA playoff history. Simmons alone missed more free throws (48) than the entire Brooklyn Nets team did in their two-round playoff run (45).
It is a combination of all these factors that lead many to speculate that Simmons will be put on the trading block this summer. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Simmons’ agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, engaged the team about possibly exploring trade options this past week, and his immediate future with the organization is uncertain. Fair or not, it is a very real possibility that his tenure with the Sixers could be over.
If there’s one thing to know about Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, it’s that he is not gun-shy in the least. When he sees an opportunity to become a more talented team, or to move closer to a championship, he will make the move regardless of all other factors. After all, when he was with the Houston Rockets, he traded for Chris Paul to pair him with James Harden, signed him to a four-year deal, and then traded him after the first year of his new contract when Russell Westbrook came onto the market.
Knowing what a talent Simmons is, there are going to be plenty of opportunistic teams lining up to make a trade offer.
Enter the Toronto Raptors.
The ping pong balls were on their side Tuesday night, as they managed to move up in the draft lottery and will hold the fourth overall pick after finishing with the seventh-worst record. The team is continuing to look for ways to add top-end talent to the team, and with Simmons potentially available, it could be an answer as the team looks to transition out of the Kyle Lowry era at point guard sooner or later.
The Raptors could have just the asset package that Philadelphia is looking for, a combination of both players that can win now, and some key pieces for the future as well. For a team that struggled offensively in the half court at times and is looking to play with more pace, Simmons could represent a potential fit in Nick Nurse’s schemes, and the Raptors may look at the 24-year old Australian as a solution if they go into the summer with Lowry’s future uncertain.
So the question is, of course, should the Raptors trade for Ben Simmons? Based on what the team’s outlook is, and the cost, would it make sense for them to throw their hat in the ring?
There is much to consider here, and a lot to unpack with Simmons’ game, potential issues, and just how the Raptors could swing this hypothetical blockbuster:
An Ideal Fit For Defensive Tools & Playmaking
Ben Simmons is a physical specimen the likes of which the NBA has seldom seen. He stands at six-foot-11 and 240 pounds with a nearly seven-foot wingspan. Having the lateral quickness of a point guard and the brute strength of a big man is such a rare combination, and combined with his elite athleticism make for a pretty impressive defensive profile.
Simmons’ size makes him a menace on the defensive end, able to disrupt passing lanes and contest shots. He reads plays well, rotates hard, and uses his length well to make a strong impact. It’s on this end of the court that intrigues teams most, as he’s proven he can practically anchor a team’s defence. There is a reason he’s made two All-Defensive teams in four years: he’s that good on this end of the floor.
Nurse would salivate at the opportunity to add a defender like Simmons into his lineup. The prospect of pairing Simmons with Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby would perhaps form the NBA’s strongest perimeter defence. It would play to Nurse’s aggressive schemes that heavily emphasize forcing turnovers and leaking out in transition the other way, with all three consistently able to swipe the ball from their opponent.
Conversely, on the offensive end, Simmons should theoretically flourish in a faster pace, something he was not able to do often with Harris and Embiid on the floor. His playmaking ability is some of the best in the league, and he has finished top ten in the league in assists in three of his four seasons. He has an uncanny court vision and ability to find cutters frequently, which make him an ideal fit in Nurse’s motion-heavy schemes.
With the way the Raptors like to play, Simmons actually represents a somewhat ideal fit at the point guard position as someone who can facilitate, defend, and play with speed. From a roster construction standpoint, he slots in next to two formidable shooters and a speedster in Pascal Siakam, who is capable of hitting shots at a league-average clip, and would benefit with higher efficiency off’ Simmons’ play.
The Jump Shot Conundrum
The biggest topic that surrounds Simmons, and largely has dominated the conversation around him for the better part of the last three years, has been his lack of a shot, and playing with zero confidence in his offensive abilities at times.
It’s not incorrect. There is a lot of work to be done, and for any team trading for Simmons, it’s a big risk. That being said, there is lots of context around it to unpack as well.
With so many players needing the ball to score on the Sixers, Simmons has unfortunately been largely forgotten in the team’s schemes. He is typically scoring off of cuts, catching the ball in the deep post, or offensive putbacks. It’s relegated him to essentially being a garbage man on the offensive end, which should not be his style whatsoever.
It’s simply a product of the way the Sixers play; the rest of the team is not fast enough to run a transition-heavy offence, and with Doc Rivers coming in this season, they slowed down even further to align with how Embiid wants to play, rather than Simmons. As CBS’ James Herbert noted, Simmons registered career lows in touches, time of possession, seconds per touch, dribbles per touch and post touches this past season.
Publicly calling out Simmons for not being involved enough on the offensive end, only to then run an offence that basically ignores him entirely is contradictory. There has been plenty of chatter that maybe he is perhaps not a true point guard, but he is at his best when the ball is in his hands.
It’s also important to remember that the Raptors are renowned around the league for their player development. While expecting Simmons to ever develop a three-point shot is possibly unrealistic, the Raptors’ coaching staff would likely incorporate Simmons offensively working at the elbows or in the paint. He would need to, at the bare minimum, develop a post-up jump hook or further refine the running floater he’s flashed at times.
All of this said, it by no means absolves Simmons of his woeful free throw shooting, or the lack of assertiveness late in games. He needs to be better, and he himself admitted that in his post-game press conference. However, he needs an organization and fanbase that is willing to back him and not constantly throw him under the bus at the first sign of adversity.
The answer is not simply to attempt to “change” or “fix” Ben Simmons. While working on the free throws is a must, the team that trades for him should help him lean into his strengths and properly utilize his physical tools, and in turn his confidence will grow. The Toronto Raptors stand as good a chance as any organization in the league to help him get there.
Making the Trade Work
While Simmons has four years and 147 million dollars left on his deal, the way the Raptors’ salary situation is set up actually gives them a multitude of routes to make this trade. Philadelphia’s asking price is going to be rightfully high, and they are going to look for a combination of salary relief as well as players that can immediately contribute and fit the team as they look to build solely around Embiid.
The Raptors have a few large contracts they can combine with role players and draft assets to create a unique package that will entice the Sixers. If you’re the Raptors, Anunoby is immediately off the table, and Siakam wouldn’t be moved in a one-for-one swap.
FVanVleet would be an intriguing player for Philadelphia in a package, as he provides the two-way play the Sixers need at the point guard position, and as the NBA learned during the Raptors’ championship run, he is not afraid of the big moments in the playoffs. However, VanVleet has thrived as an off-ball guard next to Lowry and complements Simmons’ game well, and the Raptors would likely make a trade in mind that pairs the two together.
The most appealing option, and perhaps a realistic one, is the prospect of a sign-and-trade involving Kyle Lowry, whom the Sixers coveted at the trade deadline. Lowry is less of a long-term solution due to age, but he fits their roster extremely well and arguably could have made a deep run beside Simmons had they pulled the trigger on a move.
A sign-and-trade scenario where Lowry gets a deal in the range of three years and 65 million dollars could work, and the Raptors could throw in additional players and assets into the trade exception that Philadelphia would create in a separate deal if it were necessary.
The Sixers would risk being less talented by putting Simmons in any trade talks, but the Raptors can offer them a variety of ways in which they can improve overall and perhaps add some financial flexibility going forward to further add to their team. It gives them a solid bridge trade of winning now and yielding a good future return on Simmons as well. If the Raptors wanted to, they would be able to put one of the better offers Philadelphia could receive on the table.
The Verdict: Should They Do It?
This is going to be a controversial statement, but here goes anyway:
For the right price, they absolutely should.
Regardless of the issues with confidence or shooting, there is simply no denying that Ben Simmons is a franchise-altering talent that will immediately raise the ceiling of any team he lands on. He is only a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday, and he would be the best player in almost any trade he is involved in, with the receiving franchise locking up their cornerstone point guard for up to four years.
The Raptors actually represent one of the more ideal landing spots for Simmons simply because of the organizational culture that can foster his development.
The one scenario in which the Raptors absolutely would not make a trade offer is in the event that they draft combo guard Jalen Suggs from Gonzaga with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Drafting a point guard and then trading for another would simply not be using common sense when it comes to asset management.
That being said, should the draft shake out differently and the Raptors end up with a wing or big man, Simmons instantly becomes an excellent fit in the lineup, with a multitude of shot creators at every position that he can set up for easy buckets. At that point, he would be able to play with the high pace he wants to, and the team’s scoring would offset his need for shot creation and allow him to play comfortably within himself.
The tools are certainly there, and the Raptors are a team that can not only utilize him how he wants to play basketball, but help him grow his game in the right ways. A core of Simmons, VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam would be nightmarish defensively, with the ability to play a speedy, pace-oriented game with a heavy emphasis on transition scoring.
Bobby Webster wouldn’t trade for Ben Simmons to be THE answer, but in the right scenario, he could drastically raise this team’s ceiling and make an excellent addition to the team’s core. It feels as though a change of scenery is needed for the young Aussie, and that he requires a strong foundation around him in order to succeed. The Raptors are certainly capable of being that team for him.
It will be extremely interesting to see how the off-season plays out for Philadelphia and Simmons, and the Raptors could put themselves in a position to land a serious talent this summer.