This Is Why You Wait
We're officially getting to the Crisis Season portion of the NBA schedule.
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We're officially getting to the Crisis Season portion of the NBA schedule. Bad teams are officially bad, mediocre teams only have so long left to talk themselves into being anything more, and good-but-not-great teams with closing contention windows have some real tough questions to start bracing. Dec. 15 -- the date you know as being important for trade shit from NBA Twitter, even if you'd start stammering like Randy Bachman if anyone asked you to explain why -- is right around the corner. If you're going to panic, now would probably be a good time to start.
This will not be news to fans of the Portland Trail Blazers or the Indiana Pacers. The Blazers basically announced their flopsweating to the world on Tuesday via Athletic reports about CJ McCollum bracing himself for a post-Portland future and WojSPN reports about Damian Lillard lusting after Ben Simmons (hey we know him! Want his cell number?) and a supermax extension (uhhh can we check with our money guy and get back to you on that one?) — a wary press deluge befitting a team of their pricey veteran roster and 11-14 record. Meanwhile, the Pacers basically put up a "Cash or Interesting Trades Considered" line on their front lawn, with Shams reporting they're listening to offers for Caris LeVert, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, among others. And that was just within like an hour yesterday, by the time this article goes up, Vivek Ranadivé might be posting Comic Sans letters about the Kings players' lack of heart to his personal blog.
This shouldn't be news to fans of the Philadelphia 76ers, either. Basically, it's been our plan all along.
Daryl Morey's handling of the Ben Simmons situation has basically been him betting on the likelihood of convenient chaos emerging from one or multiple teams around this point in the season -- which, in a zero-sum sport, is generally a smart bet to make. Not enough teams can be good every year for everyone who came into the season expecting to win to actually live up to expectation; it's close to inevitable that at least a handful will be bitterly disappointed. Morey believed they'd get desperate well before he did, the evidence there thus far seems to suggest that he was right.
Some folks -- particularly on Sixers Twitter during and following the Celtics loss -- would argue that we belong in that desperate camp. The team's going nowhere, they're too slow, they're too limited, they can't execute down the stretch, they're a chore to watch on a regular basis. I wouldn't call any of those assertions wrong, necessarily -- though the chore one is dependent on Joel Embiid not being transcendently awesome, which he's starting to be somewhat routinely again -- but I think they're mostly irrelevant concerns at this point. The Sixers are better than they've looked recently, and not as good as they need to be to contend a championship: This is what it's always been for this team, basically, and if we get a great season out of Joel and development from Tyrese Maxey and one or two of the other guys and play .600 ball while waiting for a real SImmons trade to materialize, that seems totally reasonable to me.
And while it sucks to get nothing out of $33 million's worth of Ben Simmons' empty silhouette... I can't say I've missed him this season? At all? Even once? I don't mean that in the chest-beating YEAH FUCK OFF SIMMONS NOT REAL PHILLY ANYWAY sense, and I don't mean that to suggest that we're better without him, or that we wouldn't be better right now with him available and fully committed-by-his-standards. I just mean that, very literally, there has not been a single situation this year when I have said to myself, out loud or in my heart of hearts, "Man could've used Simmons there." There's things he could contribute, but of all the many faults that most frustrate me about this Sixers team -- their reluctance to shoot open threes, their weakness on the boards, their tendency to fold late -- there's none that Simmons really addresses in a meaningful way. His athleticism, playmaking and perimeter defense would be useful, but he doesn't wield them in the ways we're most lacking right now. I'm not even sure who I'd replace with him in the starting lineup at the moment.
That current Simmons assessment is a combination of recency bias and absence making the heart grow colder, no doubt -- but point is, this team without Simmons right now is eminently acceptable to me. I understand concerns about wasting Joel's prime, and acting like you have all the time in the world with a team built around a player of such fine China as Joel is of course patently absurd. But Daryl seems to know (or at least to believe) that the real waste of Embiid's golden years would be to not take advantage of our best remaining opportunity to find a true star running mate for him on the perimeter, which this almost certainly is. As I've written before, with all of Simmons, Maxey, our tradeable contracts and our decent stock of secondary prospects and draft picks at our disposal, there should be basically no star player we can't seriously get in the mix for once they want out and/or the team wants them gone. And as this week is demonstrating, time will always be inexorably moving towards that happening with at least of NBA couple players and teams at any given point in time.
Are the Pacers or Blazers those teams? Maybe not. The Pacers don't really have that no-question star to offer -- I have a healthy amount of respect and fear for Caris LeVert but the fact that he's never seemed to spend a full season healthy, effective and winning feels like something not to be disregarded at this point -- and Malcolm Brogdon, the player who'd fit the Sixers' needs best, won't be available for trade until after the season. The Blazers apparently turned down some form of offer sending CJ McCollum and four first-round picks for Simmons; we'd probably take that from Portland and try to use the picks on another megadeal down the road, but McCollum on his own hasn't particularly looked like the answer this season. (He's also out with a collapsed lung now -- I don't know how meaningful that is in an on-court sense but I can imagine few medical prognoses more terrifying-sounding, so I wish him well because no one deserves that shit and he seems like a cool and nice man.)
Lillard? Eh, yeah. If the team -- Portland's or his own management -- can convince him to stop being corny for five seconds and just ask for a trade already, I guess that would be close enough to a best-case scenario for us. Have to imagine neither Lillard and the Blazers will want to reach for a deal until it's truly the only half-decent option available, but with Portland already below water, CJ out indefinitely now, and Lillard already sidelined with an ab injury, it's going to be pretty tough for Portland to keep from drowning. If the Allens don't want to pay Lillard all the money in the world and there's no shortcut to improving the roster around him anyway... I mean, it's been time, but now it may really be time. Whether his statistical downturn this season is meaningful, whether Philly can afford to pay him over $50 million a season, whether his instantaneous rebranding as a Philly Guy will make him even more insufferable -- I doubt these are questions Daryl Morey is terribly concerned with. He's always been a Get Them in the Building Guy when it comes to star talent, and if Lillard ends up being the guy who comes available, gotta figure Morey'll be willing to do what it takes to get him and leave the rest of it for Future Daryl.
But if not Dame, it'll be someone else. And then someone else. And then some dude after that. They might not all shake loose before this year's trade deadline, but at least one probably will -- and the later it gets at the party, the more attractive the Sixers' assets start looking. Waiting stinks, especially when the pitchforks are out again for Tobias Harris, our backup center situation is as untenable as ever, and Furkan Korkmaz hasn't seen water in months -- but the team has avoided total collapse, and there's reason for optimism if they can mostly stay on the court for the immediate future. Other teams have it way worse than we do, just as Daryl predicted they would. All we need for them to do now is act accordingly.