There are few NBA players that have had such a negative dip in public perception than Ben Simmons in the last year.
The 2020-21 runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year had a really bad playoff run for the Philadelphia 76ers, a franchise that has been marred by gruesome disappoint during the Process era. Simmons, the former first overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, averaged just 11.9 points per game in 12 playoff games this year. His inability and unwillingness to shoot the basketball have hampered his own personal development along with that of his team. He has been stuck in the short corner in fourth quarters dating back to his second season, Philly’s first major playoff run where they added Jimmy Butler to handle the ball in the clutch.
Things have gotten so bad with Simmons as a free throw shooter (34.2% free throw shooting in the 2020-21 playoffs) that Simmons was so timid and passive that he passed up an open dunk in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks where the nearest contesting defender was...quite literally...Trae Young.
Simmons was memed, bullied, and called out for it by fans, opponents, and teammates alike. Things have grown so toxic in Philly that Simmons and his agency, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, have demanded a trade. This could be seen from a mile away, and both sides are clearly at fault. The Sixers franchise turned their second best player into an enemy of the state, and Simmons hasn’t helped avoid that label by not being willing to grow his game and shore up his own weaknesses. He isn’t good enough to plateau at this level when he has perennial All-NBA talent.
For all parties, it clearly is time for a change of scenery. The Sixers are up against the clock with Joel Embiid’s health, as he has already had several injury scares with his lower body. Despite being just 27 years old, there’s no way of knowing whether Embiid will continue playing at an MVP caliber level for multiple years going forward, and the Sixers want to put the best team around as soon as they can. They’re in the market to trade Simmons for someone who can make Embiid’s job easier. That’s why they’ve long been considered a destination for Damian Lillard if he wants out, or Bradley Beal, or James Harden before them, though they botched that.
The problem is the timing.
Simmons wants to be traded now. He wants to get out, and the reports are that he won’t attend Sixers training camp and will accept the league fines. The pressure will be on the Sixers to right the situation. If they go into the season with Simmons in a lame duck situation, that helps nobody, least of all the Sixers. They need the help. They need the players (and any potential draft picks) as soon as possible to re-tool around Embiid quickly. Those other stars have already been traded (Harden) or are yet to ask out and thus unlikely to be be moved (Lillard and Beal). Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey wants to hold out for the best deal possible, but he may not get the chance to act on it.
Which...leaves other options for the Sixers. Less desirable ones for them than acquiring a current superstar.
It doesn’t look like other teams are willing to budge on their top prospects in a Simmons deal. He’s a unique player with a unique skill set that probably isn’t best suited to be a top two player on a championship team just yet. Teams looking to acquire him know that, and their trade offers have been paltry (at least according to the Sixers) as a result. The T’Wolves, Raptors, and Kings are three teams that are reportedly showing interest, as are the Cavaliers. The Sixers aren’t exactly thrilled about those scenarios.
Enter the Denver Nuggets.
Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon both remain on one-year contracts. Both of them (or at least sources with knowledge) have relayed through the grapevine to Mike Singer of the Denver Post that contract extension talks are progressing well and could get done before the 2021-22 season starts. And yet, both remain unsigned. These things take time, and there are obviously layers to every contract that have to be ironed out, but they aren’t done. If they are signed, neither Porter nor Gordon can be traded for six months after the extension, which would effectively mean until the next offseason.
You might be thinking “Why are you talking about trading them, Ryan? Why would the Nuggets want to do that? Why are you putting it out into the world that they might be traded?”
Let me be clear: as someone who has a rooting interest, I don’t personally want the Nuggets to do this deal. I believe that, as currently constructed and fully healthy, they can compete for a title. I don’t believe this trade would give them a better chance to do so.
My job is to analyze the situation and what’s going on with the Nuggets, to consider every option, every angle, any possibility that might crop up. This Ben Simmons situation is weird, but it’s also weird that the Nuggets haven’t signed Porter and Gordon yet if they truly and fully believe they are the ticket to the Nuggets winning a title for the first time in franchise history. It’s very possible that the Nuggets are just taking their time, being cautious, and avoiding missteps.
It’s also possible that they are monitoring the Simmons situation. At least from afar.
The idea behind a hypothetical trade is obvious too. Denver isn’t trading Nikola Jokić. They aren’t trading Jamal Murray either, even though he’s hurt. They wouldn’t want to trade Porter, but you have to give something to get something when considering trades, and the Sixers would be getting quite an interesting something. Porter is one of the most lethal shooters in the entire NBA already. At 23 years old, Porter has already proven he can score from anywhere on the court. He isn’t a great ball handler, and his defense needs work, but the fact is, he can shoot the heck out of the ball, and the most important factor in an offensive system with Joel Embiid at its center is floor spacing.
Porter could give the Sixers something they’ve never before had with Simmons on the roster: an elite offensive fit for Embiid. They would still need ball handling guards, but Tyrese Maxey and Jaden Springer are on the roster as young options that could pop, and they could always make another trade. In addition, the Sixers have the defensive infrastructure to surround Porter and make his life easier, from Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green as on-ball defenders to Embiid as an elite deterrent at the rim.
For the Nuggets, the idea is good in theory also. The Nuggets have an elite offensive tandem in Jokić and Murray. When the two of them are at their best, and the spacing surrounding them is good, zero teams in the NBA can stop them. Zero. None. Zilch. Porter, for as talented as he is, can be a bit superfluous with Denver’s offensive talent. The Nuggets have players on their roster that can help out Murray and Jokić offensively like Will Barton and Monte Morris. Where the Nuggets core can struggle is with the defensive side of the ball, especially at the highest levels.
Ben Simmons just happens to be the best defender in the NBA, non-Rudy Gobert category. Simmons’ ability to guard any position at a high level allows for so much wiggle room and flexibility for the Sixers defensively. He guards LeBron James. He guards Damian Lillard. He guards Jayson Tatum. He guards every perimeter star and does so at an incredibly high level. The Nuggets don’t have a guy like that. Not a transcendent defender. They need help in that regard, and Simmons might be the very best defensive player to add to a core that includes Jokić and Murray.
All of that sounds good in theory. So, what’s the problem?
The biggest question on the Sixers side is Aaron Gordon. He would need to be in the deal as well to make the salaries match for both sides, and the Sixers would be gaining a solid starter that they could plug right in...where? They already have Tobias Harris at the other forward spot, and it probably isn’t the best use of their resources to tie up so much of their money to Porter, Gordon, and Harris long term when they still need guard help offensively. That would mean rerouting Gordon to a third team most likely, and that’s where a deal gets really difficult. Given that Gordon is on a one-year deal, teams likely wouldn’t be interested in giving up a significant return for him unless he agreed to a contract extension with a new team.
Identifying a third team in a trade is usually where deals go to die, and it’s difficult finding a solution for not only the Sixers and Nuggets, but a third team as well. In addition, Porter and Gordon will earn roughly $21.7 million combined next season. Simmons will earn over $33 million, meaning the Nuggets couldn’t legally trade their two starting forwards for Simmons anyways. They’d have to include multiple smaller salaries or perhaps even Monte Morris, something they’d probably like to avoid given his current role replacing Murray in the starting unit while Murray recovers.
In short, it’s unlikely the Nuggets seriously consider this, let alone try to get something done.
It goes against everything Michael Malone and Tim Connelly have built to consider trading for Ben Simmons. The Nuggets have been patient, building from the ground up with Jokić, Murray, and Porter drafted in 2014, 2016, and 2018 respectively. The Nuggets just added Aaron Gordon to the fold. For a brief moment in time, they believed they could be the team in beat in the NBA, and they had the games in late March and early April to back up that notion. Murray tore his ACL, and that brief golden moment flickered and died. It doesn’t change that it was there, and assuming the Nuggets can keep the group together, there’s no reason to doubt that they can recapture that magic once Murray returns to full health.
And yet, the idea is extremely tempting in theory. Pairing Ben Simmons and Nikola Jokić together, perhaps the best defensive player and the best offensive player in the NBA, would be an interesting yin-yang combination in theory. Add a healthy Jamal Murray to the mix to be the ball handler and scoring playmaker than Simmons has yet to ever show, and the Nuggets would have one of the most interesting Big Three’s in the entire NBA, marked by their versatility. Adding to the fringes of that group would be a unique challenge, but not impossible. Will Barton and Monte Morris already being in the fold would make things easier, as would having both Jeff Green and JaMychal Green for different situations.
Given the talent of Porter and the versatility of Gordon, such a move would be extremely dangerous though. The Nuggets have spent years developing the right environment and culture for their group. They’re a group of basketball lovers. They’re about the game. They’re about being in the gym. They’re about getting better every single day. Jokić has set the bar for that culture himself.
Do the Nuggets believe in Simmons’ talent and work ethic to become the player he needs to be for the Nuggets to win a title? 34% free throw shooting won’t get it done, nor will avoiding the three-point line like the plague in all likelihood. Would Simmons play the role the Nuggets need him to play if it meant winning? Would Denver’s offense be good enough to win a title if they traded one of the most efficient volume three-point shooters in the league for a player so revolted by shooting at the end that he avoided Trae Young in the paint?
It doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards, and that’s probably a good thing.