By Connor Thomas
On Monday, two of the stalwarts of Philadelphia sports talk radio came together to share our studio here at 97.5 for a show. Mike Missanelli and Anthony Gargano were together from 10am-2pm (you can hear the podcasted version of that show here) due to a Sixers afternoon game, and that pairing led to a very interesting debate about the Sixers’ view of their 2021-22 season. Mike and Anthony discussed whether or not the Sixers are punting on this season by not trading the idle Ben Simmons for assets that would actually play for and help the team. It’s a fair question, and I don’t believe that there’s a simple answer to it. At the end of the day, though, whether you call it punting or not, I do believe that what the Sixers are doing right now is the right strategy for this strange situation.
Currently, the Sixers sit at 6th in the Eastern Conference, but only 2.5 games out of the top seed in the East. That’s remarkable considering they have a huge chunk of their payroll and an all-star caliber player not contributing anything to the team. Even the Nets, who have been dealing with Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status affecting his availability, cannot say that they have been as hamstrung as the Sixers. So, the question is with a team this close to competing, aren’t the Sixers punting on the 2021-22 season by not just moving Ben Simmons for some usable pieces to help out Joel Embiid and company? The answer to that is yes, but with a caveat. Technically Daryl Morey, Elton Brand, and the rest of the Sixers brass are punting on this year so that they don’t punt on the next 5-10 years. Are the Sixers talented enough as is to win the NBA Finals this year? Despite Joel Embiid very possibly being the best basketball player on the planet (again), the answer to that question would be pretty close to unanimously no. Because of that, it’s hard to say that holding on to a tradeable asset like Simmons rather than trying to improve a team capable of being competitive now isn’t punting on this season. The issue is, though, if the Morey and Brand don’t get this trade right, they could set the franchise back for years.
Joel Embiid is the face of the Sixers, and has been for years now. The only downside to his game is that it is likely that his window of dominance isn’t as big as the average NBA player. At 7’0”, 280lbs and with numerous injuries already having occurred, it’s clear that Embiid is playing on a tighter schedule than a 6’6” guard would be. For that reason, the Sixers can’t afford to make a trade that takes 3+ years to pay off. That means draft picks, regardless of how attractive they seem, aren’t nearly as valuable a return as they would be to other teams. It also means that young players who need time to develop, who have high ceilings and need a year or two to get there, are less desired by the Sixers for the same reason. All of this has combined to create what the Sixers are asking for: a bona fide star NBA player in return. Without that, they would be selling low on a valuable asset that they simply can’t afford to sell low on. The Sixers have waited Simmons and Klutch Sports out this long, now is not the time to cave and take the cheaper return.
It may take until this offseason; it may take until the trade deadline next year. Only time will tell. But the only way that the Sixers can truly vault into the upper echelon of NBA teams again is with a super star player to put alongside Joel Embiid. Giannis has Middleton. LeBron has AD and Russ. Steph has Klay. KD has Harden and Kyrie (sometimes). Embiid needs a robin to his batman, and getting him anything less than that for a 25 year old 3 time all-star DPOY runner up would possibly cost the Sixers the window of one of the great players in franchise history. Sometimes you have to punt on one possession to give yourself the best chance to win the whole game.