We are now a little over a week removed from the James Harden blockbuster deal that sent him to the Brooklyn Nets to join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Before that deal was agreed to, there was some serious buzz that the Philadelphia 76ers were major players in a James Harden trade, and were engaged with the Rockets in numerous trade deals and offers. In the end, the 76ers felt like the Rockets were asking for too much.
According to multiple sources, Houston’s best offer to the 76ers was James Harden for Ben Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, and 2-3 first-round draft picks. Many people, including Daryl Morey, thought including Maxey in this deal felt like a little too much, and would rather keep Ben Simmons and continue to help him develop with the rest of the currently constructed lineup. There was also another huge group of 76ers fans that felt like the team should’ve done whatever it took to acquire a superstar like Harden. By the end of the week, it was the Nets who gave away a big portion of their future to completely go all in the next 2-3 seasons. Who knows if Kyrie, KD, and Harden will all resign with the Nets, but it’s very clear that the Nets have completely committed to this group, with little concern about how the rest of the decade will turn out.
Now that the Nets have their guy, and the 76ers stayed right where they were, I asked myself this question: Are the Philadelphia 76ers real title contenders, or are they still one piece away? With the way that the East is currently structured, I tend to lean on the assumption that the 76ers need a ball-handling scoring guard to help fill the void that Ben Simmons has left in this offense.
Through 15 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are standing tall at the top of the Eastern Conference with a record of 10-5. This is particularly impressive because of the COVID problems the 76ers have had this season, including a game where they had to field a team of 7 players against the Denver Nuggets on January 9th. In 13 games played, Ben Simmons is averaging a career-low in points per game (12.4) and field goal percentage (49.6%).
There are some serious signs of offensive regression so far this season, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear easy answer to the problem. The regression is surprising considering the 76ers’ number one priority this offseason was to get smaller and put more shooters around Simmons. And they did exactly that, by acquiring Seth Curry, Danny Green, and others. The addition of these sharpshooters has helped Philadelphia rise from no. 20 in the league in pace last season, all the way to no. 4. This expanded freedom and space on the court has not translated to easier baskets and opportunities for Simmons. His field goal and free throw attempts continue to decline from last season, and his unwillingness to score anywhere outside 3 feet from the basket. Simmons is shooting 33.3 percent from 3-10 feet from the basket and 0 percent from 10 feet and beyond.
The lack of three-point shooting is the issue that most people point to when talking about Ben Simmons’ weaknesses. But the truth is that so far this season, his inability to create any kind of shot that isn’t a rim running dunk or layup has been disappointing, to say the least. Simmons is still an elite passer, along with being one of the league’s best defenders, so his value everywhere else on the court still outweighs his offensive woes, but for this team to reach its ceiling and compete for a championship, they will need him to figure it out sooner than later.
On the flip side, his teammate Joel Embiid looks like he has finally put it all together. Embiid is averaging 26.4 PPG, 11.3 RPG, and is currently sitting behind only Nikola Jokic for the lead in PER at 29.8. Embiid is finally unlocking the full potential of his ridiculously strong and athletic frame, and putting the rumors of him being “out of shape” or “unmotivated” to bed. Embiid is an MVP candidate, and with the team playing better overall, it’s disappointing that Simmons has not been able to keep up to speed.
So the question still remains: Can this roster win an NBA championship? Are Simmons and Embiid a duo that can lead a team to the Finals, or should Philly finally make the change and split them up? My personal opinion is that this team still is one trade away from being on the level of the Nets or the Celtics. When it comes playoff time, this team will need someone to take the weight off of Embiid and take over games when necessary. As of right now, it just doesn’t seem like Ben Simmons can create his own shot, and his inability to do that will really show itself during the playoffs. I think someone like Harden next to Embiid would’ve been fascinating to watch. Harden is one of the best offensive players in the game, and putting him with Embiid could’ve unlocked a lot in both players. I think the 76ers failing to get that deal done will come back to haunt them if the Nets make a deep title run.
At this point, it’s abundantly clear that Simmons would be the one to go if the team decided to go another direction. But the 76ers don’t necessarily have to trade Simmons in order to acquire a scoring guard like Zach Lavine, or Bradley Beal. Those are the two names that continue to come up as guys that will be available in the next few months or so. Of course, there will be tons of contending teams that will be hungry to get their hands on one of these guys. When it comes to assets, Ben Simmons in any deal will essentially beat any deal that other teams have to offer. But the prospect of putting a scorer like Zach Lavine next to Simmons and Embiid is one that would put fear in the hearts of the Eastern Conference. The Sixers could still put together a package that would most likely include Maxey, Thybulle, and possibly others with picks included.
The 76ers have a lot of options when it comes to potential trade packages, and should definitely be in the market for someone like Lavine or Beal. It’s still unclear if either of those guys will become available, but most signs are pointing to that they will be. So will the 76ers learn from the Harden situation and be aggressive enough to acquire a superstar when the time comes again? Or will they stand by and continue to hope that Simmons and Embiid will work out? From what we’ve seen so far this season, it appears that the Embiid Simmons experiment now has a timer on it. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how it plays out, and whether or not this team can win a championship as is.