It is time, once again, to talk about Ben Simmons. Last week, Shams Charania reported that the Sixers have “opened up trade conversations surrounding Simmons'' and that they “want an All-Star caliber player in return.” Of course they have and of course they do. Simmons is a brilliant player, but after Simmons and the rest of the 76ers collapsed like a neutron star under the weight of their own down-badness, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in Philadelphia where Simmons ever becomes up-good.
Just as people are unfairly saying that Coffin Flop is not a show, Ben Simmons is broadly and unfairly misunderstood. Simmons is the only person alive (and one of like three people ever) who can offer such a rare and special combination of elite passing and uber-elite defense—and people would rather eternally whine about how he misses some free throws sometimes. Without question, he’s one of the 20 best basketball players in the NBA. This shouldn’t be a controversial opinion, despite people liking to pretend it is: Simmons made the All-NBA Third Team in 2020 and contended for Defensive Player of the Year the last two years.
And for all the endless whining about Simmons being afraid to shoot or shooting with the wrong hand or whatever the take du jour happens to be, Simmons has a catalytic effect on the Sixers’ three-point shooting, even if he's never the one shooting them. When he’s on the court, the Sixers’ three-point rate goes up by 2.8 percentage points and their accuracy goes up by 4.3 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. For reference, his ability to facilitate both more and better three-point shots for his team dwarfs that of Trae Young.
Yet, somehow, the dominant narrative around Simmons has been hijacked by a strain of twisted logic that’s endemic to students stumbling through a proof on a geometry exam they didn’t study for—in 2021, it’s widely accepted that shooting is very important; good players are usually good shooters; Simmons is a bad shooter; ergo, Ben Simmons is a bad player because he’s a bad shooter. Worst of all, this brain rot spread to even Doc Rivers, who banished Simmons to the dunker’s spot, essentially putting a breathtakingly athletic passing-genius in time out. Busted jumper and all, Simmons is a superstar when he’s allowed to be.
The firmest rebuke of the braying Simmons’s haters aren’t the stats that support his goodness nor the eye-test that confirms it, but the widespread interest that other NBA teams have in trading for him. More than any other player, Simmons exposes the chasm between how games have traditionally been won versus how they’re currently won; he’s eschewed that Boomerized fantasy of wanting it more and killer instinct for more progressive ideas of versatility and team-oriented play. He’s not going to shoot and he’s probably never going to shoot, but he’s a one-man stimulus package, reinvigorating and reinforcing a team’s infrastructure around him. In this light, optimizing Simmons requires the imagination to focus on what he does rather than what he doesn’t. The Sixers don’t have this; it’s refreshing that other teams potentially do.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Cavs are also allegedly looking to offload one of their putative franchise centerpieces, offering Collin Sexton to any team that picks up the phone. Right now, the Knicks seem like the leaders to land him, thanks to a robust package of—uh, this can’t possibly be right—Kevin Knox, Obi Toppin, and a mediocre draft pick. Even if trading Sexton yields nothing more than the Knicks’ belly-button lint, the Cavs’ reasoning for excising Sexton is as obvious as it is scummy: they don’t want to pay Sexton the money he deserves.
In only his third season, the 22-year-old Sexton showed defenders how hard it is to run with the Young Bull, averaging more than 24 points per game on 57 percent true shooting. Michael Jordan, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and Trae Young are the only players in NBA history--other than Sexton--to reach those thresholds before their 23rd birthdays. His knack for bucketry is plainly evident from all angles: from a wonky statistical lens, Second Spectrum pegs him as one of the league’s most prolific penetrators—his 16.8 drives per game are the ninth most in the NBA and his 9.7 points from those drives are the eighth highest mark. According to Basketball Index, Sexton ranks in the top quintile as both a shooter and a driver. But really, Sexton is a hooper’s hooper. The way that Sexton scoots into pull-ups and floaters and darts to the rim with road-raging intensity is proof enough of his scoring bonafides.
Still, the upshot of all this production remains somewhat dubious— there’s a reason that the Cavs are so loath to commit to him, after all. For Sexton, passing is an act of surrender, a concession that he can’t produce a shot for himself; he’s purely a playmaker by necessity. At his worst, Sexton is plagued by a nasty case of main character syndrome, determinedly rummaging through his bag, oblivious to his surroundings. Unsurprisingly, extended exposure to Sexton crushed Kevin Love’s spirit. Every man has his limits: Love’s was Sexton’s hogginess. Notably, Sexton’s most memorable on-court moments have ultimately been valiant, impressive failures—40 points in a loss where his team played the final 10 minutes three-on-five; stunting to contest a made shot with so much vigor that his body vibrated on a molecular level.
Viewed in tandem, Simmons and Sexton can be seen as inverted reflections of each other. They’re both the victims of unmet expectations: Simmons elicits backlash because he’s a star who refuses to conform to stardom while Sexton is a non-star who refuses to acknowledge his non-stardom. Really, though, they represent two centrally different visions of basketball as a sport; Simmons’s scoring-agnostic success is a direct repudiation of the hero-ball, volume scoring lineage that Sexton fits within. When they get traded, it’ll be for reasons that exist beyond basketball. What they get traded for will be a referendum on how basketball will be played.