After months of hearing his name mentioned in James Harden trade related-rumors, Ben Simmons found out that he would be staying in Philadelphia after the Houston Rockets decided to to the Brooklyn Nets. There was probably a sigh of relief in the Simmons household on Wednesday afternoon as the deal materialized.
The Philadelphia 76ers included Simmons in a potential package for Harden, but ultimately talks between the two teams didn’t reach the finish line. Simmons is apparently “ecstatic” about that, according to ESPN’s Marc Spears. Sixers coach Doc Rivers continues to be a big fan of Simmons, as does president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, for that matter. If they weren’t, Simmons would likely be headed to Houston.
The fact that he’s still a Sixer shows that there is a lot of internal support for Simmons, but when you consider the fact that the Sixers were reportedly willing to part with him in the right deal shows that he’s not untouchable. So while Simmons deserves to breathe that sigh of relief, he shouldn’t inhale too deeply, because he’s still under some serious pressure in Philadelphia. Keep in mind there will be other attractive potential deals that arise — perhaps Washington’s Bradley Beal becomes available, or Portland’s C.J. McCollum — and it will be up to Simmons to continue to prove his worth to the Sixers if he doesn’t want to hear his name pop up in rumors again.
That doesn’t mean that Simmons should go out on the court and immediately start firing up 3-pointers — he’s an excellent player even without expanded shooting range. But it does mean that he can’t afford to have more performances like the one he turned in against the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, when he finished with just five points on two shot attempts (!) in nearly 32 minutes of action.
Despite finishing with 12 assists in the game, the Sixers simply can’t afford for their second-best player to have such a passive performance against anyone, let alone a depleted Miami roster. Philadelphia is at its best when Simmons is being aggressive, getting out in transition, playing downhill, and drawing defenders. That’s what they need from him. Given his sheer size, speed and athleticism, Simmons should be able to score 20 points a night, easily, even without an outside shot.
So far this season though, Simmons is averaging a career low in points (12.6 per game) and field-goal attempts (9.3). His free-throw attempts are also the lowest since his rookie season, and as a career 59 percent shooter from the foul line, he hasn’t made any meaningful improvement in that area. He’s also averaging a career high 3.8 turnovers per game. Too often, it seems like he’s not even looking to score:
That play above was like the exact opposite of a James Harden-esque play. And that’s not to say that the Sixers necessarily should have traded Simmons for Harden. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Simmons could be the more valuable player moving forward. Simmons is clearly the better defensive player. Then there’s the age difference. Harden is 31 while Simmons is still just 24. And as far as the contract comparison goes: Harden has just two more team-controlled years on his current deal while Simmons is under team control for the next five seasons.
Plus, as good as Harden is, he might have already hit his ceiling as a player, while Simmons’ vast skill set is still developing. In two or three years, he could be a much better player than he is today, and he’s already a two-time All-Star and a First Team All-Defensive player. There’s definitely an argument to be made that the Sixers made the right move by not pulling the trigger on a Harden trade, especially considering the astronomical asking price. But that argument will only hold up over time if Simmons continues to improve, both in the short term and the long term. And therein lies the pressure facing Simmons.
Joel Embiid has clearly established himself as Philadelphia’s franchise player. That fact was never more evident than during Philadelphia’s overtime win over the Heat when Embiid hit clutch shot after clutch shot down the stretch while Simmons sat on the sideline after he had fouled out. Embiid finished the game with 45 points, Simmons had five. Embiid looked like a player primed to lead a team to a title, and afterwards he made it clear that was his goal.
“I got a goal,” Embiid said. “I want to win a championship, and I can’t do it alone.”
Moving forward, it’s on Simmons to show Embiid that he doesn’t have to do it alone. If Simmons is unable to do so, those trade rumors will be back and next time the Sixers might be compelled to pull the trigger.