The Sixers' No. 25 turns 25 years old on Tuesday.
At the moment, Ben Simmons seems to be among the dominant storylines in the NBA, even with a champion not yet decided and the NBA draft under 10 days away.
Damian Lillard is in the same boat. The possibility of a high-drama deal in which the Blazers superstar and Simmons swap teams is fascinating to consider, and it doesn’t appear out of the question.
On Tuesday, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported that the “Heat, Kings, Knicks, Rockets, and Sixers have recently been the most aggressive suitors” for Lillard. However, O’Connor notes “few team executives expect a Dame deal to happen this offseason.”
A brief summary of the latest with Lillard is that he’s not thrilled with the state of the Blazers franchise and Portland's prospects at title contention, though he called a TrueHoop report last week that he was expected to request a trade in the coming days “not true.”
O’Connor posits a CJ McCollum-for-Simmons deal as one that could benefit both the Sixers and Blazers. It’s a reasonable idea, especially if one buys the idea that McCollum, who will celebrate his 30th birthday in September, is about to hit his prime. Though McCollum would assume a more prominent offensive role if he headed to the Sixers, that line of thinking might be a tad optimistic.
He’s a very good player, one who’s exceeded 20 points per game in six consecutive seasons, but is he poised to make mid-career strides as a defender and passer like Tobias Harris this past season? If one is searching for positive signs, McCollum’s 0.80 assist-to-usage ratio in the 2020-21 campaign was a career high, per Cleaning the Glass. His excellent 6.4 turnover percentage was also a career best.
However, Portland’s defense has mostly ranged from mediocre to among the NBA’s worst in recent years, and the Lillard-McCollum backcourt is a big reason why that’s the case. The defensive decline of replacing Simmons with McCollum would be difficult to overstate.
All-Star selections aren’t everything but, barring some magic from president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, the Sixers’ starting lineup would have one All-Star after a McCollum-for-Simmons trade. Of course that All-Star, Joel Embiid, was just the MVP runner-up, and Harris and McCollum are two of the NBA's top players that have yet to play in an All-Star Game.
Still, the fundamental (and logical) objective for the Sixers is to give Embiid the best chance at a championship in his best years. A patient approach that lands a true star likely accomplishes that goal better than anything else, even if it temporarily depletes the Sixers’ depth. Plus, playing with Lillard and Embiid sounds rather enjoyable for veterans pondering their next team.
Superstar trades don’t spontaneously come to be. There’s usually extensive planning involved, and often a lot of waiting.
To land Lillard, the Sixers might need to enter the 2021-22 season with Simmons still on the roster and hope he’s a better player in half-court offense and a less woeful foul shooter. No guarantees, but it’s not at all an impossible bar to clear. If he does, perhaps that boosts his trade value a tad, although Simmons’ improving as a shooter might not be very persuasive in light of the league recognizing his weaknesses were most troublesome in the postseason.
Morey’s options aren’t limitless, but he’s got a few important decisions on his plate. None of it’s a no-brainer.