The Ben Simmons saga rolls on. Last week, Simmons reportedly told the Sixers that it’s not his job to fix his trade value. Then Shaquille O’Neal went off on his fellow LSU alum by bluntly telling Simmons, “You’re not that good.” With less than two weeks to go before the start of training camp, we still have no idea where Simmons ends up.
We can dream up various trade scenarios, pop up the trade machine or simulate via 2K21, but the ultimate question is this: what is Simmons’s actual trade value? Obviously, there’s a sizeable gap between what the Sixers think his value is and how the rest of the league values him, which is why he is yet to be dealt.
Let’s run some numbers:
- Age: 25 (entering 5th season)
- Contract: 4 years remaining, $33M in 2021-22 to $40M in 2024-25
- Awards: All-NBA Third Team (1x), All-Star (3x), All-Defense First Team (2x), Rookie of the Year (2018)
- 2020-21 Stats: 14.3 points/7.2 rebounds/6.9 assists/1.6 steals/55-30-61 shooting splits
Simmons’s age is like a double-edged sword. He is young enough that he’s just about to enter his prime as an NBA player. His contract runs until 2025, which means that the team who lands him will get the best version of Ben Simmons. But at 25, any team vying for him would have to accept that, more likely than not, he is what he is. His production will increase as he peaks but do not expect him to suddenly turn into Kevin Durant.
Teams interested in Simmons presumably know this and will be getting him primarily for his playmaking and defense. Let’s not beat around the bush here, he’s a terrible jump shooter. Despite that, he still generates plenty of transition offense, which matters given the pace of today’s game. His length, athleticism, rebounding, and ballhandling all converge in coast-to-coast Giannis-lite fastbreak moments. A whopping 28.3% of his points comes from these grab-and-go plays, which was 3rd in the league last season, and he does an equally good job of hitting teammates on the break.
One caveat about his playmaking is that while he is an excellent ballhandler and is generally regarded as a point guard, he doesn’t do certain “point guard” things. He’s doesn’t run ball screens in the halfcourt – he ranks in the bottom half as a pick-and-roll ball handler per NBA.com. Neither does he back it down against smaller guards at the top the way Luka Doncic does. The reason is simple: defenders would drop back because he’s not a threat to score outside five feet. That’s why in most Sixers’ halfcourt sets, Simmons actually plays a more traditional forward role, cutting and posting up smaller defenders.
Where Simmons excels most is on defense. In his four years in the league, he has already made two All-Defensive First Teams and finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season. He ranked 5th in defensive rating and 9th in defensive win shares in 2020-21. His best asset is his ability to guard all five positions and take on the opponents’ top players – from Trae Young to Doncic to KD. And he’s not modest about it:
To sum it up, Simmons is an elite defender and transition playmaker. He’s a below-average halfcourt player, primarily due to his poor jump shooting which hinders him from developing traditional point guard skills. He is just about to enter his peak and is locked in for the next 4 seasons, but his weakness is also something that cannot be fixed overnight.
Surprisingly, extrapolating his present value is pretty straightforward when looking at advanced stats. He is 39th in win shares and win shares per 48; 37th in VORP; 38th in box plus/minus; and 37th in RAPTOR WAR. These stats look at different aspects and there is a great deal of variance in their formulae, so to have Simmons place within +/- two places is eye-opening. The only guy with a more consistent ranking is the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic, who ranks first across the board.
He is a top-40 player right now, but the unknown variable is what player he will be from now until 2025. FiveThirtyEight’s 2021-22 Player Projections has him as a borderline All-Star, with high similarity scores to 1992 Danny Manning and 2015 Blake Griffin. Manning was an All-Star in 1993 and 1994, but his production dropped afterwards due to injuries. Griffin only made one other All-Star appearance after 2015 (in 2019 when he also made the All-NBA Third Team). Both Manning and Griffin didn’t exhibit anomalous jumps or dips in PER at any point between year 0 and year 4 (discounting injury-plagued seasons), which suggests that the best version of Simmons wouldn’t be too far off from what we’ve seen. Projecting a 20% increase in production from the best single-season outputs of his career (he averaged a career-low in points last season) seems reasonable, meaning he could be a 20-9-8 guy with All-League defense.
Of course, this is not to discount the possibility that he makes a historic leap, but value projections are driven by the more probable outcomes. Players can adapt their game and settle into roles, but they don’t suddenly add something to their arsenal from scratch, particularly if that something is a decent jumper. Jason Kidd never shot better than 45% for his entire career and only once shot better than league average (in the shortened 1998-99 season). He reincarnated as a three-point specialist in his waning years, but that’s precisely the definition of settling into a role. Rajon Rondo started to hit 35% from deep only in his 10th year when he was about enter the journeyman phase of his career. It’s not impossible to fix Simmons’s jump shot during his prime years, as the Spurs did with Tony Parker, but it requires the right personnel (Spurs hired the legendary shot doctor, Chip Engelland, to work with Parker), patience (when Chip joined in 2005, Parker was shooting 39.3% from midrange and gradually improved to 45.5% by 2008-09), and, most importantly, player buy-in. Getting better at shooting is one thing, and actually taking those shots when they’re presented to you is another.
According to David Aldridge, the Sixers’ asking price for Simmons is at least four future first rounders (via direct trade or pick swaps) plus an All-Star-level player. Is that fair value for a top-40 player with top-25 potential? The Lakers gave up Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the draft rights to De’Andre Hunter, two first-round draft picks, the rights to a first-round pick swap to get Anthony Davis. But AD was already a bona fide superstar and consensus top-5 player at the time. When the Clippers traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-rounders, and the rights to swap two other first-round picks for Paul George in 2019, PG had just finished third in both MVP and DPOY voting. As unique as Simmons is, he doesn’t have the two-way pedigree of AD and PG to justify giving up all those picks.
Any team willing to give up their draft chest must also have some confidence in their ability to contend after the deal. That’s why the Lakers and Clippers did it. That’s why the Nets did the same to land James Harden. But doing a similar deal for Simmons is a tough sell because of the elephant in the room: his postseason stink bomb. Even if you discount the Hawks series, his offensive skills don’t translate well in the playoffs when pace slows down and transition opportunities become scarcer. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for most contenders, perhaps other than the Warriors who see him as a Draymond Green upgrade, to go all-in on Simmons. No way, for instance, that Portland does any deal for Simmons if it means sending away Dame Lillard.
The Verdict: Ben Simmons is currently a top-40 player who projects to be a top-25 player in the next 4 years. Even taking into account Simmons’s age and contract term, the Sixers’ asking price is too steep because of his glaring limitations. Other than a straight-up trade for a fellow top-40 player in the same age group, Simmons’s trade value is closer to an All-Star level player who is close to 30 years old plus two future first rounders (or a future first rounder and a young prospect). Daryl Morey is likely just playing poker; it would be too ironic if he truly value Simmons that much given what the stats tell us.
I’ll be doing a mailbag next month right before the start of the NBA season. Send your questions via email at [email protected].