Philadelphia 76ers point guard Ben Simmons figures to have a rumor mill all his own this offseason. Following a disappointing playoff run punctuated by an average of 6.3 points over his final three games, it's fair to wonder about his future alongside Joel Embiid (who also singled out a Simmons play as the turning point of Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks).
The trade rumors regarding Simmons started long before then, but they got much louder in the aftermath of the team's exit from the postseason. And a recent report in The Athletic by Shams Charania has turned the volume up even more.
"The 76ers have opened up trade conversations surrounding Simmons and have engaged with teams, sources told The Athletic," Charania wrote. "Those sources also say that teams that have engaged with the 76ers about Simmons have been met with a high price threshold for the three-time All-Star.
"'(The 76ers) want an All-Star-caliber player in return,' one source with knowledge of the ongoing talks said.
"Make no mistake: Interest across the league in Simmons remains robust. He's turning just 25 this month, was an All-NBA team member in 2019-20, is a two-time All-Defensive first-team member and a Rookie of the Year award winner. Simmons is under contract through 2025, making him the type of superstar talent that rarely becomes available at an attainable price at this juncture of his career."
The lofty asking price makes sense. Philly was never going to give up one of the game's most uniquely productive players for nothing (Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson are the only players in NBA history with at least as many points, rebounds and assists through their first 275 games).
76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey may still be in that "shoot for the moon and land among the stars" mode, though. According to NBA insider Marc Stein, he's hoping to add Damian Lillard:
"All teams covet the biggest stars, but Morey is especially obsessive about it. He will surely tune out the naysayers who suggest Simmons can no longer be the centerpiece for the acquisition of a Bradley Beal-type superstar. Portland's CJ McCollum has been mentioned often as a potential Sixers target in a Simmons deal; rest assured that Morey longs for Damian Lillard if he is targeting any Trail Blazer."
Unless Lillard demands a trade from the only NBA team he's ever played for (and there were rumblings reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports earlier in the summer that that could happen), talks centered around he and Simmons should be a non-starter for the Portland Trail Blazers.
All the previous praise for Simmons aside, it's clear his limitations as a scorer—particularly an outright refusal to shoot, at times—are a problem. In an NBA where shooting is as highly valued as it is now, building effective and malleable lineups with Simmons at the 1 isn't easy.
With Lillard, scoring is almost a given. Over the last three seasons, Portland's points per 100 possessions has ranked no lower than the 95th percentile when Lillard is on the floor.
He changes the geometry of the floor with 30-plus-foot range, has averaged 28.0 points and 3.7 threes since 2018-19 and is seventh in league history in career offensive box plus/minus (BPM is a "basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court, according to Basketball Reference).
Lillard may be 31, but he's been a loyal face of the franchise for nearly a decade and is still a borderline top-10 player. There are also far fewer questions about his game than there are with Simmons, who still feels like an unfinished product (which could be sold as a good or bad thing).
But even if Lillard doesn't ask out, Philadelphia shouldn't cut off communication with the Blazers. The McCollum-for-Simmons idea has persisted for months (this writer first suggested it over a year ago) because it makes so much sense for both sides.
It's always tough to predict the smaller pieces in trade puzzles, like draft compensation and salary filler, but if those two are the headliners, it feels like a win-win.
The Trade: CJ McCollum and a 2023 first-round pick for Ben Simmons
That may be too simple. Philadelphia could insist on additional draft compensation, and Portland probably shouldn't dig its heels in there (would a 2024 pick swap get it done?). Either team could have eyes on lower-value contracts from the other. But the fact that a straight-up swap of these two works under the collective bargaining agreement doesn't hurt the rumors.
If it is this easy, it helps both teams.
Portland is 11th in win percentage and third in points per 100 possessions since McCollum became a full-time starter in the 2015-16 season, but it's fair to think they may have plateaued following a first-round loss to a Denver Nuggets team that was without Jamal Murray.
The biggest problem is likely that, over the same stretch, the Blazers are 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions. And a small backcourt devoid of high-end defenders is the culprit there. Adding Simmons, a Defensive Player of the Year finalist this season, would instantly add credibility on that end.
With him at the point of attack, Jusuf Nurkic as the anchor and Robert Covington on the wing or roaming, Portland would at least have the skeleton of a good defense.
Offensively, Simmons could fill something of a light-years-era Draymond Green role. He could share the ball-handling responsibilities with Lillard while also being a weapon as a passer or finisher out of rim runs. And on the possessions Simmons would control, Lillard would obviously be a prime catch-and-shoot option (he had a 67.4 effective field-goal percentage on such looks in 2020-21).
For Philadelphia, this is a downgrade in terms of raw talent, defensive upside, age (Simmons is five years younger) and size (McCollum is eight inches shorter), hence, the addition of some draft compensation from Portland. An increase in cohesiveness can make up for a good portion (and possibly all) of that, though.
For years, Simmons and Embiid have been in each other's way on offense. When surrounded by enough shooting, it hasn't really mattered in the regular season. In fact, the Sixers have scored 2.5 more points per 100 possessions when those two are together than they do when Embiid plays without Simmons.
The issue of their clashing styles has reared its ugly head in huge moments, though. Simmons is a slasher who almost never scores outside of five feet from the rim. Embiid is a bruising, old-school 5 who can dominate most interior defenders. When both are on the floor, opponents have no fear of packing the paint.
With McCollum, who shot 40.2 percent from three and posted career highs in points (23.1), three-point attempts (8.9) and assists (4.7) per game in 2020-21, the spacing issue would almost certainly be solved.
Opposing guards would have to honor the perimeter more, which would reduce the number of double-teams faced by Embiid (or at least give him a bit more time before they arrive). And when the defensive attention is focused on the big man, McCollum would have an extra half-second or so on his catches for jumpers or closeout attacks.
You can almost see the synergy before the deal is even made.
Now, there may be some concern that McCollum isn't a true point guard, but he's had plenty of experience in that role as something of a part-time backup for Lillard. Over the last two seasons, when Lillard is off the floor, McCollum has averaged 26.4 points and 6.6 assists per 75 possessions. And in today's NBA, playing point guard no longer has to mean engineering every possession. Philly could still run plenty through Embiid or Tobias Harris.
Again, whatever drop-off in talent may result from this deal, it's hard to argue against the fit of McCollum with the Sixers.
They'll surely survey the trade market for other options. And there is no strong indication that McCollum is even available. But this swap makes almost too much sense not to happen.