Boston Celtics, NBA, Philadelphia 76ers

The Long Two: Ben Simmons, Dennis Schroder and the perception of player value

The biggest question of the 76ers’ offseason isn’t whether they’ll trade Ben Simmons, but how much he’s worth to the rest of the NBA.

In the summer of 2019, the Philadelphia 76ers signed Ben Simmons to a five-year, $170 million extension, likely with the expectation that he’d be worth the investment and then some. Two years later, that deal may now be the biggest obstacle preventing the Sixers from trading Simmons for someone more useful.

A potential Simmons trade is one of the biggest dominos yet to fall this offseason, though it feels almost inevitable that, at some point, it will. The 76ers have cycled through several iterations of the team constructed around Simmons and Joel Embiid, yet continue to run into similar issues each postseason. This year’s loss to the lower-seeded Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals finally made undeniable the doubts that had been creeping toward the surface for years — over Simmons’ offensive limitations, his fit with Embiid and his future as a Sixer.

Philadelphia’s repeated playoff failure and subsequent attempts to trade him could have come as a wake-up call for Simmons — a cue to reevaluate his standing on his team, acknowledge his own shortcomings and try to improve upon them in some way. Instead, the uncertainty over his future only seems to have made him more assured of his stardom.

Ben Simmons doesn’t seem to understand his perceived value matters more than his actual value

The former first overall pick reportedly has a list of preferred teams he’d like to be traded to and has apparently gone so far as to break off all lines of communication with the 76ers this summer. Simmons, however, doesn’t actually have the upper hand in the situation. The leverage belongs to the Sixers, who badly need an offensive upgrade at point guard, and the rest of the league, which has thus far been unwilling to take Philly up on an offer. It’s almost impressive, the audacity required for a player whose team has actively and publicly dangled him in trade talks for most of the offseason to act as if this were another mutual parting of the ways. It’s the NBA equivalent of quitting after your boss threatens to fire you, or revoking an invitation to the White House after being preemptively turned down; the feeling may be mutual now, but it was clearly initiated by one side.

The NBA’s best players drive on-court success more than anyone else, and thus wield an outsized degree of control over where they play, how much money they make and how their teams construct the rosters around them. James Harden could pout his way out of Houston because he’s one of the 10 best players in basketball; even Jrue Holiday, a lesser player than Harden in most respects, returned a massive haul of players and picks when he was traded because he was the piece the pushed the Bucks over the top; Damian Lillard, whose name has also swirled in trade rumors this offseason, is a bona fide MVP candidate who has earned the right to request a trade if he so chooses.

Simmons isn’t nearly that caliber of player. Despite being one of the best perimeter defenders and transition passers in the sport, the 25-year-old has made little substantive offensive improvement since he entered the league and his limitations have repeatedly hamstrung the 76ers in the playoffs. Simmons is a good NBA player, but fringe All-Stars on arguably negative-value contracts don’t get to control their own fates the way superstars do.

Any team acquiring Simmons at this point in his career would do so because it wants to build around him for the long term, not solidify a contender. There are few teams close enough to title contention with the kind of roster on which Simmons would meaningfully change their fortunes (maybe aside from the Nets, who don’t seem intent upon trading any of their three stars for Simmons), let alone actually having the assets to trade for him.

Yet for a team with a longer view of things, it’s probably worth taking a gamble on an elite four-position defender who reads the floor well and creates opportunities in transition. Simmons may look like a completely different player in a better situation, with more space and shooting around him, and the upside for whichever team makes that gamble may well be worth the risk. The challenge is how specific that situation must be to maximize him, and whether it’s worth jumping through the hoops required to construct that type of environment.

Simmons has become not just an ineffective off-ball player, but a liability at times when he doesn’t have the ball. He may never earn opponents’ respect outside the paint, and unlike fellow supersized playmakers Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo, hasn’t shown the ability to consistently take advantage of the space defenders give him when he’s left alone on the perimeter. A hypothetical team built around Simmons would require at least three quality shooters around him, but because he doesn’t protect the rim on defense, this theoretical team would also need a solid interior defender who doesn’t compromise its spacing. Centers who both space the floor and protect the rim are in short supply, and it’s unclear which of the league’s few 3-and-D bigs would be available to pair with Simmons on whatever team he winds up playing for (Embiid technically fits the bill, but here we are).

According to various reports, Daryl Morey has set a high asking price for Simmons, which both increases the likelihood that Philadelphia gets a solid return and buys time in case Lillard or Bradley Beal becomes available. But that approach also risks both Lillard and Beal staying put, the Sixers passing up other offers and Simmons getting stuck in Philadelphia. Given where things currently stand, though, it seems more than likely that Philly either nets a star or the asking price for Simmons gets low enough that some team jumps at the opportunity to add him. The biggest remaining question might not be whether the Sixers trade Simmons, but how much he’s worth to the rest of the NBA.

Dennis Schröder and the flipside of betting on yourself

While Simmons’ immediate fate has yet to be resolved, this week did provide a resolution on another mercurial point guard with an irascible temperament. Dennis Schröder signed a one-year, $5.9 million lifeline deal with the Celtics on Tuesday, a new low point in what has been a tumultuous year for the point guard. The last four months certainly could have gone better for Schröder, who reportedly turned down a four-year extension from the Lakers worth over $80 million in March, then chose not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, contracted the virus, missed seven games down the stretch of the season and played his way out of a potentially lucrative contract with a disappointing playoff series against the Suns.

If success stories like Fred Van Vleet’s are uplifting testaments to the value of hard work and self-belief — “betting on yourself,” as Van Vleet might say — situations like Schröder’s are cautionary reminders of the value in security and self-awareness. The Lakers were virtually the only team that could have offered Schröder a $20-million deal because they had his Bird Rights and could therefore exceed the salary cap to retain him. But when L.A. traded for Russell Westbrook, they no longer had reason to keep Schröder around and no other team with significant cap space made sense as a landing spot. That left Schröder out in the cold during a summer in which several point guards got paid, until Boston finally made a modest investment in the 27-year-old.

Schröder is a serviceable volume scorer, but the only season in which he’s provided that scoring efficiently was in 2020, when he played almost exclusively as a backup point guard or as a tertiary option in three-guard lineups with the Thunder. He doesn’t have quite the passing chops to be a primary pick-and-roll operator, nor does he shoot well enough to reliably space the floor around other playmakers.

The Celtics lack another true primary ball-handler but have several versatile playmaking wings, which could create a similar offensive ecosystem to the one he enjoyed in Oklahoma City. The best-case scenario for this season is that he recommits himself on defense and provides competent scoring and ball-handling, then hits the open market again in 2022 with more interest around the league. The bleaker — and perhaps more realistic — outcome is that he levels out as a backup point guard and never recoups the money he chose to turn down.

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