There was much rejoicing in the city of Philadelphia yesterday when news broke that former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey will be taking over basketball operations of the 76ers. Coming only a few weeks after the hiring of Doc Rivers, Philly will now be led by two historically successful basketball men, and a team that seemed hopeless for much of this year now has an abundance of hope.
With Morey's hiring came the assumption that an extreme makeover would be occurring despite the Sixers' woeful cap situation. Morey pulled off several blockbuster deals with big money involved in his 12 years with the Rockets, and is widely recognized as one of the smartest basketball decision-makers in the league. Despite the fact that there are four players on the team who will make more than $27 million next season (and two of them in Al Horford and Tobias Harris are massively overpaid), Morey's transaction history suggests that he'll be making moves between now and the start of next season, and nobody is safe just because of their big contract numbers.
This has accelerated discussions about which of the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid duo will be traded. The tandem's lack of playoff success, combined with their overlapping skillsets, means it's always going to be a discussion until they win a championship, fair or not. Simmons and his inability (or refusal) to shoot three-pointers appears to be a walking antithesis to what we've come to recognize as Moreyball, an analytics-driven offensive mindset that values threes and shots in the paint above literally everything else. With Morey now in charge, does that mean Simmons' time as a Sixer is coming to an end?
I don't think so. Simmons is indeed the polar opposite of Morey's last superstar, James Harden. But Moreyball isn't specifically about shooting three-pointers as the end game. It's about exploiting statistical anomalies in the game of basketball. Whatever your opinion might be on Harden, he is a game-breaker for his ability to create points all by himself on nearly every possession. Morey knew that and brought in Mike D'Antoni to push that ability to its logical extreme. If Harden can create points for himself or others with a high degree of success in isolation, why not do it on every single possession? It worked to an extent, as Harden won an MVP, broke several records, and will be remembered as a singular offensive force without a peer at his peak.
Simmons is a similar statistical anomaly, if for completely different reasons. He doesn't really make sense as a player. He's an elite athlete who can't shoot. We've seen that combination plenty of times in the NBA. Nowadays, players like that struggle to carve out a bench role, much less a starting job. Yet Simmons, despite the fact that he will take no three-pointers in a season, is not only a starting-caliber player, but a very good one at that. He posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 20 last season, around the same as players like Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, and Jayson Tatum. He had the same Value Over Replacement Player number as Kyle Lowry, and was better than Bradley Beal and Paul George in that department. The Sixers' net rating was 1.7 points better when Simmons was on the floor last year.
Those numbers alone are good, but not exactly great. Yet Simmons is doing all of this while opponents completely ignore him above the free-throw line. There is no one skill more valuable in the modern NBA than shooting, and Simmons' ability to ignore that while still contributing at the same level as much better shooters borders on the absurd. He may not fit the box of what an effective NBA player should be in 2020, but he's still a damn good player.
And you're telling me Morey, a man who loves his numbers and stats, is going to trade him? No way. I would imagine Simmons is a big reason Morey took the job in the first place. He's a unique talent in the truest sense of the word. Morey had to work to find that kind of unique talent in Houston when he traded for Harden. Now he's gotten not one, but two of those with Simmons next to Embiid. He will be in no rush to trade anyone. In fact, if someone were to get moved this offseason, it would probably be Embiid and not Simmons. Embiid is the second-best center in the league behind Nikola Jokic, but the value of a center who can't move like Anthony Davis has been trending south for years.
Simmons, for all the criticism he takes about his three-point shooting, is the perfect modern player in every other way. He's bigger and faster and stronger than nearly every one of his opponents. He's an amazing passer and impossible to stop in transition. Admittedly, great in every way except the most popular way to get points right now is a pretty big caveat. But as far as truly, legitimately unique skillsets go, Simmons is in a class of his own. Morey isn't going to give that up until he knows for sure he can't make it work. So don't hold your breath for this offseason, at least.