Should the Bulls trade for Ben Simmons?
In the wake of the 24-year-old’s Game 7 embarrassment at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night, it’s a question of particular intrigue — and, no doubt, polarization.
On the one hand, Simmons is a three-time All-Star and two-time All-Defensive team selectee that is one season removed from making third team All-NBA. At 6-foot-11, he’s one of precious few players that can credibly guard all five positions on the court — and does it while providing plus playmaking on the other end, especially in transition.
On the other hand, Simmons’ offensive game has shown no signs of developing in four professional seasons. He’s a career 59.7 percent free-throw shooter with little to no utility as a scorer outside of the paint. Year after year, these limitations are thrust on display in the playoffs. And this season especially, tentativeness (even around the basket) appeared to take hold as the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers flamed out in the early rounds once again.
Across seven games against the Hawks, Simmons averaged 9.9 points, 8.6 assists and 6.3 rebounds, taking just 6.4 field goal attempts per game and shooting 33.3 percent from the free-throw line. In the final three contests, he scored 19 points on 14 shots — total.
“Offensively, I wasn’t there,” Simmons told reporters after Game 7.
No doubt that’s true, and that Simmons has a lot of work to do this offseason whether he ends up being dealt or not. But there’s also no doubt he’d make the Bulls better if acquired before the start of 2021-22.
Defensively, Simmons can inhabit any role asked of him, a needed quality on a team that lacked in that department on the perimeter this season. And offensively, there’s a chance he would thrive in a more specialized role playing off of a floor-spacing, slick-passing center in Nikola Vučević and dynamic screen-and-roll ball-handler in Zach LaVine. All the better if the Bulls continued to surround those three with shooting.
The problem, of course, is that trades in the NBA don’t happen in a vacuum. For a few reasons, the Bulls and Sixers aren’t a tidy negotiating match.
Philadelphia’s priorities should be clear as it enters Joel Embiid’s age-27 season in 2021-22: Contend for a championship now, and hold no punches. That’s how you operate when you have a generational talent and incumbent MVP finalist on the roster, especially when that player’s injury history is as dubious as Embiid’s.
One would think that removes the possibility of a Bulls offer based around, say, a sign-and-trade of Lauri Markkanen that includes Coby White and/or Patrick Williams and/or salary filler. No combination of those players is likely to better position the Sixers to win a title next season than Simmons, nor would a pick-based package — a department in which the Bulls are severely limited after the Vučević trade, regardless — unless done with the intention of moving those picks for another star.
To recap the Bulls’ pick-trading situation:
- If the Bulls retain their 2021 first-round pick at Tuesday’s lottery, they can trade it, but only after the draft, and they would not be able to trade their first-round picks from 2022-2026. The first future first-rounder they could trade in that scenario would be in 2027, though they could offer pick swaps in 2026 and 2028.
- If the Bulls do not retain their 2021 first-round pick, they (obviously) won’t be able to trade it. The first future first-rounder they could trade in that scenario would be in 2026, and they could offer pick swaps in 2022, 2025 and 2027.
Plus, while matters look bleak for Simmons fresh off the worst night of his NBA career, there will undoubtedly be a more robust market for him than the offer enumerated above.
The Sixers could counter with an offer based around LaVine, a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s roster who would raise its championship ceiling. The Bulls’ side of that equation would boil down to whether they view Simmons as a viable “reset” option, as The Athletic’s John Hollinger laid out Monday morning. Simmons is under contract through 2025 on a deal that pays out $146.7 million over the next four seasons, the value of which probably depends on your opinion of Simmons.
But the Bulls just invested a ton of resources to pair LaVine with Vučević amid breakout seasons for both, leaving reason for skepticism that they would entertain such a proposition — even as a potential contract year for LaVine looms. LaVine, after all, is just 16 months older than Simmons and has a track record of consistent improvement, with his near-historic scoring season in 2020-21 that featured notable playmaking strides the latest example.
Speculation around Simmons isn’t going anywhere, especially with a lead decision-maker in Daryl Morey who is as creative as he is aggressive when he sets his mind to it. The Bulls legitimately getting into the fold would surprise, but, as they say, never say never.