by Paul West
The matter of who ‘won’ last week’s blockbuster trade between the Nets and Sixers has largely hinged on fit and perceived value; but neither team has accomplished much besides getting rid of irksome stars who’d become more trouble than anything else. Otherwise, this seems like a classic example of owners playing fantasy ball instead of focusing on their team’s ecosystems. It’s also an example of teams opting to ‘chase their money’ due to the drastically altered real and perceived value of their player.
The Nets’ new problem
The Nets’ highly touted ‘big three’ barely played together, and the team never got to properly explore how they would fit into its roster writ large–or how to build said roster around them. Legitimate injury concerns aside, there’s still much room for speculation about the underlying reasons the experiment never quite took flight; but it was pretty clearly time to retool. Unfortunately, Ben Simmons might be even more of a gamble than James Harden was.
Simmons, granted, is still a very unseasoned player with years to improve; it also could help that the Nets have Patty Mills, a mature & seasoned veteran who was reportedly a mentor of his in Australia. But it remains to be seen how he’ll fit with whatever the Nets are planning.
Simmons has always been known for elite floor vision and passing ability, as well as the ability to get to the rim. Unfortunately, he’s also a woeful shooter from anywhere outside the paint, including the free throw line. The problem of being a point guard who can’t shoot, who’ll be an easy target for take fouls late in games, won’t go away with a change of scenery. Moreover, his greatest virtues as a PG–the aforementioned vision, handle, and passing ability–are all things at which their current point guard, Kyrie Irving, is an all-time great. What does this say for Simmons’ role with the team? No amount of effort will improve his shooting significantly enough to matter before this season’s over, which would make him a long-term project; and in the meantime, does this make him an off-the-ball rebounder & defender who happens to have handles and vision? How will he adapt to that role? Meanwhile, the acquisition of Seth Curry only gives the Nets a redundancy problem, as Mills was doing fine as a sharp-shooting starting 2 guard & auxiliary playmaker. Curry or Mills will be relegated to second-unit duty; and while a strong second unit is something a championship team certainly could use, it doesn’t exactly fill a glaring need. You could argue that the Nets’ backups have, as a collective, played quite admirably already. Even the addition of glass-clearing big man Andre Drummond, while nothing to sneeze at, also somewhat adds to their frontcourt’s crowding problem. The best thing about this trade for the Nets is the two first-round picks that came in the deal…but this was supposed to be their window, not a transitional period. The coming year will be very interesting for the franchise.
The Sixers’ new problem
Like the Nets, the Sixers got rid of a once-prized player who no longer seemed to want to be there on top of no longer exactly being welcome. But they, too, now have to work in a player who might not align so well with their flow.
Joel Embiid is having one of the great statistical seasons in the history of NBA big men; this is largely on account of his ability to handle the ball, spread the floor, and set up his teammates. Harden is a ball-dominant player whose tendency toward prolonged dribbling might have suited his game and even many former teammates–but will also effectively take the ball out of Embiid’s bands. With Harden on the floor, will the Sixers ask Embiid to become a floor-running, cut & slash rim rocker who waits to be set up? Embiid’s physical skill set, as well as his physical limitations, don’t bode well for that kind of role; that role is more befitting a player like Mason Plumlee or Amare Stoudemire (which is by no means a knock against either), or even an Aaron Gordon (interestingly, the Nets could arguably need Simmons to adopt a similar role to fit with their current roster). Moreover, it might not be long before he’s frustrated by that role. Stars learning to accept complementary roles has lots of precedent in all sports, but Embiid’s temperament doesn’t seem as well suited to that sort of thing as that of, say, Khris Middleton or Jrue Holiday. Embiid is a self-anointed ‘troll’ who, while his basketball knowledge is undeniable, has thus far been a ‘squeaky wheel’ kind of player. Moreover, the Sixers gave away their best sharpshooter and secondary ball handler in the woefully underrated Seth Curry; and the similarly undervalued Tobias Harris will be squeezed into a tertiary role, diminishing his variety of strengths as well as the Sixers’ variety of threat potential. Last but not least, what happens to the newly flourishing Tyrese Maxey?
Basically, the Nets have made their roster more redundant and their front court more crowded, while adding a point guard whose strengths are eclipsed by their actual point guard and whose weaknesses could make him a liability in crunch time. At least they’re setting up for the future, but that might be small solace to a fan base who’d been pumped up with win-now expectations. Meanwhile, the Sixers have lost their best perimeter shooter; brought in a point guard who could overshadow both their emerging young point guard and their most dominant player and biggest personality; potentially set up said dominant player to shoehorn his skill-driven big man game into the role of a hyper-athletic complementary player who crashes the boards, shoots occasionally, and waits to be set up.
The biggest winner of this trade might be Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.