Most NBA offseasons are defined by change. Trades and free-agent signings. Hirings and firings. Draft picks and retirements. All of these developments result in teams looking different heading into the next season than they did at the end of the year before. And there’s been plenty of change this offseason. Seven teams have new head coaches;1 more than 80 players have changed teams in free agency; teams have completed at least 24 post-draft trades, and there are more that have been agreed to but not yet executed due to various quirks of the league rules.
But perhaps the most notable transaction of the 2021 offseason is one that has not been made: Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons is still, well, on the 76ers.
In the wake of Simmons’s disastrous performance against the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the 2021 playoffs — and especially in the wake of scathing comments made by co-star Joel Embiid and head coach Doc Rivers — there was a widespread expectation that Simmons would be dealt this offseason. Obviously, that has not yet happened. But it’s not for lack of trying.
On a recent Simmons-centric episode of ESPN Daily, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that Simmons requested a trade shortly after the conclusion of the season, and that the Sixers sought out trade offers for him but were unable to find an agreeable deal.
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With training camp set to open next week, it’s worth examining why the Sixers have yet to land on a Simmons swap that suits their preferences. In order to glean some insight into this situation, we took a dive into the nearly 1,100 trades that have been completed since the beginning of the 1999-2000 season, as recorded on Pro Sports Transactions, and identified 90 deals that involved at least one All-Star-caliber player — which we defined as a player who made at least one of the two most recent All-Star gamesAny player who made the game, including as an injury replacement, was included in this sample.">2 prior to being traded.
From there, we broke down the types of packages the trading team received in exchange for those players. The package types are:
- Pieces and Picks, like when the L.A. Clippers traded Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets for Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, cash and a first-round pick.
- Prospects Only, like when the Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
- Non-Star Veterans, like when the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the 76ers for Robert Covington, Dario ŠariÄ, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick.
- Star-for-Star, like when the Orlando Magic traded Tracy McGrady, Ty Lue, Reece Gaines and Juwan Howard to the Rockets for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato.
- Salary Dump, like when the Pacers traded Roy Hibbert to the L.A. Lakers for a future second-round pick.
- Sign-and-Trade, like when LeBron James moved from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat.
Sign-and-trades involve players who are not under contract and only re-sign with their current team in order to facilitate the trade. The return in those deals is generally far less than equal value. Nobody thinks, for example, that Amar’e Stoudemire was worth only a top-55 protected second-round pick when he left the Phoenix Suns for the New York Knicks in 2010. Removing those deals left us with a total of 73 trades involving at least one All-Star-caliber player:
|Pieces and Picks||Chris Paul (Clippers) to the Rockets in 2017||36|
|Salary Dump||Roy Hibbert (Pacers) to the Lakers in 2015||19|
|Star-for-Star||Tracy McGrady (Magic) for Steve Francis (Rockets) in 2004||10|
|Non-Star Vets||Jimmy Butler (Timberwolves) to the 76ers in 2018||6|
|Prospects Only||Paul George (Pacers) to the Thunder in 2017||2|
More than three-fourths of the trades yielded two types of packages: Pieces and Picks and Salary Dump. Given the 76ers’ situation, it’s easy to see why neither of those deal constructions would be all that appealing to them.3
The thing about Pieces and Picks packages is that they don’t necessarily make teams better on the floor right away. The team acquiring an All-Star-caliber player cobbles together multiple pieces to try to approximate the value of the star player being acquired, with the idea being that asset volume sent to the trading team will make up for asset quality in the long run.
That’s not ideal for the 76ers because they fancy themselves a title contender. And not just a title contender, but one with an uncertain shelf life. Embiid’s various medical issues throughout his career (and his height) make it unlikely that he’ll have an elongated prime; the time for Philly to win is right now, not a few years from now, when whichever prospects and draft picks the Sixers receive in a Simmons trade blossom into quality players.4
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What the Sixers presumably want is a Star-for-Star type of trade — and that’s reportedly what they’re holding out for.
“The ask that the Sixers were making for Ben Simmons was akin to some of the trade offers that the Houston Rockets got for James Harden,” Windhorst said on ESPN Daily. “They were asking a huge premium for him — so much so that teams really didn’t feel like they were in trade talks.”
In other words, there appears to be a rather large disconnect between the value the Sixers are seeking in exchange for Simmons and the value that potential trade partners are willing to provide.
Perhaps that’s unsurprising. Simmons is a terrific all-around player, a two-way talent who is both one of the league’s premier open-court playmakers and one of its most versatile and valuable defenders. But he’s also a player with very obvious weaknesses (namely, shooting and overall offensive aggressiveness) that were on very obvious display throughout a very disappointing playoff run. The wide disparity between his tantalizing upside and the glaring faults that limit it leads to even wider disparities in his valuation around the league. This perennial All-Star may be seen as on a lower tier.
To dig into that distinction, we broke down the list of 73 trades from above into trades involving “mere” All-Stars, meaning players who made at least one of the two most recent All-Star games prior to being dealt, and “perennial” All-Stars, meaning players who — like Simmons — made each of the three most recent All-Star games prior to the trade.
And that’s where things diverged quite a bit.
|“Mere” Star trades||“Perennial” Star trades|
|Pieces and Picks||25||47.2%||11||55.0%|
Here is the disconnect. Simmons is a perennial All-Star — at least by our definition. He’s been an All-Star in each of the last three seasons, and given his age (25), production (he carries career averages of just around 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game) and enviable defensive versatility, he seems likely to be in the All-Star mix for at least the next several seasons. And the Sixers are valuing him that way, seeking a perennial All-Star type of return. (Note that “mere” All-Stars have been involved in Salary Dumps considerably more often than their perennial All-Star counterparts, but it’s hard to see the Sixers acquiescing to a deal like that.)
There have been rumors of Morey’s interest in players like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal as part of a Simmons trade, but they just don’t seem to be available to Philadelphia — or anyone else. (At least, not at the moment.) Meanwhile, other teams don’t seem to want to trade their own star-caliber players for Simmons — the Sacramento Kings are reportedly unwilling to include either De’Aaron Fox or Tyrese Haliburton in a Simmons package, for example.
Further complicating matters is Simmons’s salary. He’s already on a max contract, and Philadelphia is well over the salary cap, so teams trading for him have to figure out a way to send out matching salary.5 But the Sixers presumably are not interested in taking on bloated contracts included in the trade solely for matching purposes. They need to get enough on-court value to justify sacrificing what they have in Simmons, so they can capitalize on the remainder of Embiid’s prime.
Simmons’s own contract status also makes trading for him a tougher decision for small-market teams (like the aforementioned Kings) that might be willing to take a risk on the caliber of player whose services they typically wouldn’t be able to secure in free agency. Sure, he has four years of team control left on his deal, but because he’s already on his second contract (as opposed to his rookie deal), he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in a few years’ time. It’s tough to justify giving up the farm for a star-but-not-quite-elite player when you won’t be able to ensure that he sticks around for the long term. That’s especially true because, with his high salary on the books, those teams would have less wiggle room under the cap to build their team around him — a proposition already made fairly tricky by his limitations as a player.
All of these factors combine to make a win-win Simmons trade incredibly hard to find. In that sense, perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s still in Philadelphia.