By Pete Baxter
The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers are two teams facing some tough decisions during the 2021 NBA offseason.
The Raptors hit rock bottom during a turbulent 2020/21 season. They played zero games in their home city and faced an assortment of injuries and Covid-19 related challenges. They finished 27-45, good for 12th place in the Eastern Conference. They missed the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade. They had a major hole in their front court after losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in the previous offseason. They also saw their young centerpiece Pascal Siakam take a step back.
The 76ers, on the other hand, had a disappointing déjà vu. After finishing first in the Eastern Conference during the regular season with an impressive 49-23 record, they were shockingly upset by the fifth place Atlanta Hawks in their second-round series.
The biggest disappointment of all was the play of their star point guard Ben Simmons. Simmons disappeared completely on the offensive end. He finished an abysmal 33.3% from the free throw line during the series, becoming a major liability for the team, and averaged just 8.6 points.
For a regular season All-Star with a $30+ million per year salary, this was a shocking lack of productivity. Head coach Doc Rivers refused to commit to saying that Ben Simmons could be a starting point guard for a championship squad after the game seven loss. Based on Rivers’ telling statements along with the consistent playoff underachievement of the Embiid/Simmons-led squad, it seems that the writing is on the wall for Simmons’ career in Philadelphia.
It will not be an easy task for the 76ers to create a highly beneficial transaction built around Simmons. He is set to average $35+ million dollars per year over the next four seasons, and his productivity, particularly in the postseason this year, falls well short of earning that salary at this point.
However, Simmons still has some amazing upside. He is only 24 years old. He is a 6’10” point guard, a gifted passer, and elite defender who is consistently in the conversation for NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors. His one, glaring flaw is his lack of shooting touch from anywhere beyond five feet from the hoop (including the free throw line).
One team that, like the 76ers, will be actively trying to improve during the offseason is the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors under head coach Nick Nurse have developed an identity of strong defensive effort, team play, and three-point shooting. Ben Simmons fits the mold as an elite defender, and while he himself has a non-existent outside shot, he is a dynamic slasher, penetrator, and finisher around the basket who could potentially thrive in a lineup full of shooters. The Raptors could potentially have that perfect lineup to help Ben Simmons succeed.
The Toronto Raptors are also known for their ability to develop young players. Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet are all home-grown talents, as was Demar Derozan before them. Kyle Lowry took his game to an entirely different, All-Star level north of the border. Could the Raptors developmental staff take the 24-year-old point guard under their collective wing, rebuild his confidence, and help him acquire some level of confidence as a shooter? If any staff can do, it may just be Nick Nurse and company.
That said, let’s take a look at two specific trade scenarios that could give Ben Simmons the fresh start he so critically needs in Toronto.
The Raptors receive: Ben Simmons, 2022 First-Round Pick
The 76ers receive: Pascal Siakam
In this scenario, two All-Star caliber players get a chance for a fresh start.
Pascal Siakam took a step back this season and seemed to struggle as the go-to offensive threat for the team. Siakam saw his scoring, rebounding and three-point shooting all take a step back this season. After being a solid stretch-four over the past two seasons, shooting approximately 36% from three, he watched his percentage drop to 29% this past season. He was seen having visible clashes with head coach Nick Nurse. It became apparent that Siakam, who was an outstanding second option behind Kawhi Leonard on the 2018/19 championship squad, is not the number one option to lead this team back to title contention.
The combination of Tobias Harris, Pascal Siakam, and Joel Embiid would instantly become arguably the most talented front court in the league. The 76ers would need to determine a direction at point guard, but they already have some young talent in-house, including Tyrese Maxey. It would not be a surprise if the 76ers made an additional big move to acquire another starting point guard, however.
Most importantly, the 76ers get a true potential star and building block in return for Ben Simmons and his challenging salary. Giving up a first-round pick will likely be necessary to compensate the Raptors for taking a chance on a player who seems to be dealing with a crisis of confidence.
As previously described, Ben Simmons gets the chance to develop his offense and shooting touch under one of the greatest developmental coaching staffs in the NBA. He gets a fresh start in a new city that is hungry for a new superstar to lead them back to the playoffs.
A lineup featuring Ben Simmons, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Chris Boucher would be one of the best defensive squads in the league. The next step for the Raptors would be to find a stretch five to complete the starting lineup. They could consider retaining Khem Birch or pursuing a veteran free agent such as Daniel Theis or Serge Ibaka.
Scenario #2: The Sign-and-Trade
The Raptors receive: Ben Simmons
The 76ers receive: Kyle Lowry, Rodney Hood
In this scenario, the Philadelphia 76ers go all-in on a win-now strategy. They trade their struggling young All Star point guard for a tough veteran and champion in 35-year-old Kyle Lowry.
The Raptors would first have to convince Kyle Lowry to agree to a sign-and-trade to Philadelphia. This would seem like an simple task, as Lowry would be returning to his hometown to chase one more ring with a championship-winning head coach and arguably the best center in the league in Embiid. The Raptors should be able to achieve this with a deal in the range of two years for around $27 million annually. Rodney Hood would simply be added to this trade to match Ben Simmons’ salary.
The 76ers would suddenly have an extremely well-balanced lineup. Joel Embiid would finally find himself surrounded by shooters. He could thrive playing with a point guard who can both facilitate and create his own shot. A lineup of Lowry, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid would seem ready made for a deep playoff run.
The Raptors would have a well-balanced, defensively dominant lineup of their own. They would move away from the undersized backcourt of Lowry and VanVleet. They would instead add a 6’10” behemoth to pair with the scrappy VanVleet.
A lineup of Simmons, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher would be truly dynamic and terrifying on the defensive end. While Ben Simmons’ lack of shooting would still be a concern, he would find himself surrounded by shooters who don’t need to clog the lane as Embiid once did. This would allow Simmons to penetrate and dunk or drive and dish to his heart’s content.
This will be an intriguing, pivotal offseason for both the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. Both teams are flush with talent but have glaring weaknesses that are preventing them from truly contending for a championship. It would make a great deal of sense for these teams to work out a deal that could mutually solve these deficiencies.
More to come from the East.