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Point/counterpoint: Should the Knicks trade for 76er wantaway Ben Simmons?

Is “wantaway” a word?

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

‘Tis the season for trade talk. The New York Knicks have already been floated in rumors regarding Myles Turner and Eric Gordon. There’s another player the Knicks have been linked to as interested in: banished Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons. People are many and different, and thus so are people’s opinions. Here are two about the Knicks and Simmons.

Miranda: Ben Simmons is 25, two years younger than the Knicks’ current best player, Julius Randle. He’s a three-time All-Star, an All-Defensive First Team selection the past two seasons. He’s not even in his prime and has averaged as many as 17 points, nine rebounds and eight assists over a full season; he’s also led the league in steals. No one on the Knicks can rival that CV in 2021. People argue Simmons is a tricky fit because of his lack of perimeter shooting, but the Knicks are at best a mediocre work-in-progress. Simmons is also smart enough to know his weaknesses: he’s a career 56% shooter from the field, so he knows how to maximize his strengths. Doesn’t a team like the Knicks jump at this guy and figure the rest out after he’s in the fold?

Escobedo: I agree with all of the descriptors you proclaimed upon Ben Simmons. It’s the ones you omitted I have issues with as a Knicks fit. Just about every flaw Simmons has as a player matches an issue plaguing this current Knicks team. So let's break down the flaws you conveniently left off: he’s a 60% career free throw shooter, a staggering 15% career 3-point shooter and gives you 3.4 turnovers a game on a measly 19.8 PER, on par with Kristaps Porziņģis. I use this analogy because Porziņģis has never, at any point of his career, been a first option player, as his PER proves. And to make a massive trade for someone of Simmons’ caliber, the Knicks better receive a first-option caliber player in return. That’s not even getting into the basketball-related mental issues Simmons clearly has, which I will save for now.

Miranda: Not that I trust PER all that much, but if 19.8 is measly...

I imagine this is where you’ll cite Simmons making about $110M the next three years as another strike against trading for him. So let’s try to get our loggerheads all in a row by speaking the same language: is Ben Simmons a foundation piece? Is anyone on the Knicks? Depending on those answers, at what price would a trade be worth considering?

First things first: can a multi-dimensional defensive maestro/transition demon/passing savant with the shooting range of an eight-year-old be one of the best or most valuable players on a contender? In that definitional vacuum, I say yes. When Draymond Green was Simmons’ age, he was a multi-dimensional defensive maestro who averaged 7.4 assists a game while making 39% of his 3s. Since then, here are Green’s yearly percentages from deep: 31%, 30%, 29%, 28%, 27%, and 28% this year. In Dennis Rodman’s three years with the Bulls, he averaged 5.2 points a game and was worse from deep than Simmons. Different worlds in each case, sure, and I can’t say Simmons ends up at their level. I can say it’s possible to win a title with lousy shooters who excel at other facets of the game.

Are any other Knicks foundational? That seems like too strong a word. People are injuring themselves flying off the Julius Randle bandwagon. It’s year three for RJ Barrett and I’m not ready to declare him Big 3 material. New York has more intriguing young talent, particularly Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, but I’d bet the mortgage right no one on the current Knicks roster ends up with as many All-Star selections (3) as Simmons already has. Tweak the question from “Does adding Simmons to the mix make sense?” to “Does re-building around Simmons make sense?” — maybe thinking more concretely about what you’d send out for him makes sense. I’m not saying Philadelphia wants Randle, but if they wanted a deal centered on him, are you any more interested?

Escobedo: Those Rodman and Green comparisons work because of the generational talent each played alongside. Simmons would be entering a completely different situation with the Knicks. The Knicks aren’t just lacking a Hall of Fame first option, they are missing a championship-caliber coach as well. Which is another issues the Knicks will have when they inevitably trade for an All-Star to pair with Randle. So sure, you can win a chip with lousy shooters, as long as you have Michael Jordan or Steph Curry on the roster as well.

I’ve sat many sleepless nights pondering what the hell the Knicks should do next. And I have more answers for what they shouldn't: albatross contracts like Simmons, who comes with lengthy, cap-depleting price tags without elevating us past the second-round. If we add Simmons, by either swapping him for Randle or gorging our cache of young studs, are we in the Eastern Conference finals? No, we are not.

Like you, I am not convinced Barrett can be part of a big three. But I will hold out hope he continues to improve. He is only 21 years old. If we keep him, I think Randle can move into a secondary role like Pau Gasol had in L.A. in an eventual big three. It still leaves us with a hole for someone who can hit a game-winner, thrive under pressure, and make his teammates better. Does that sound like Ben Simmons?

Miranda: Isn’t it easier to secure the higher-end talent first and fill in around it then building a foundation in the hope you get lucky later? Unless you’re a puffer fish?

There are countless ways to build a winner. In the case of these Knicks, I think the question of Ben Simmons is really the question of Julius Randle. I cannot imagine the Knicks moving forward with both. So is Randle someone other great players would rather pair with? Or Simmons?

Randle would pro’ly be a better fit with Embiid than Simmons. For starters, he can shoot, which would improve the floor-spacing around Philadelphia’s top player. He’s a better rebounder, which might save Embiid some energy on the glass. The Sixers would pro’ly be unlocking a better Julius, too, as this year seems to suggest his best fit is alongside a center who can shoot and make plays. In 519 minutes this year Randle and Mitchell Robinson have a rating of -11.6; In half as many minutes, he and Nerlens Noel are -6.9; in 141 minutes, he and Taj Gibson are -12. In 90 minutes, he and Obi Toppin are +8. At this point in his career Toppin can’t shoot, but tries; Mitch and Noel, in particular, can’t and won’t. So maybe he’d make a difference for Philadelphia.

Do you think acquiring Simmons would mess up what the Knicks have built up so far? Or is your opposition to him a general one, regardless of the roster? Where do you view Simmons at this stage of his career? And does his staredown with the 76ers leave an negative taste in your mouth?

Escobedo: Those are very generous predictions around a Randle/Embiid pairing. I think saying Randle can shoot is a stretch. He has only shot above 34% from 3 once in eight seasons. That was last season, when he shot 41%. The year before, his first with the Knicks, he hit 27%. This season he is at 34%. And that’s with him almost doubling his attempts once he became the focal point in New York. We’ve never seen him play as a second option to a frontcourt star. Both are big bodies who clog the paint and need a lot of shots to get hot. I think Philly looks elsewhere for better value for Simmons.

To focus on Simmons, his strengths are as pronounced as his flaws. I think the Knicks accelerated the rebuild a season too quickly. They are still one young piece away from really having a dynamic and complementary core built for success. I would not trade a package of these young pieces for anything short of a top-five player. I say that fully knowing none of the top seven players are even available, so I don't have to worry about that happening. What is possible, and concerns me greatly, is the Knicks trading for a player who does not make the young guys better, has significant issues of his own, and can’t be depended on to hit game-winners in the clutch. Even if Randle were swapped with Simmons, we would still have the same fourth-quarter issues that have plagued us all season. But now we have fewer draft picks, less exciting young dudes, and more salary.

Simmons is a great talent but needs to be in a situation where he can be coddled and given room to grow. He is a younger Russell Westbrook, without the heart, who doesn't make others better or impact winning as a team player. It’s just stat-stuffing at this point. Plus, Thibs isn’t the coddling type. And rightly so. It’s one of the few attributes I like about him. I don’t see, or want, Simmons’ malcontent nature on this roster influencing our young guys. It would be great to have Simmons’ elite defensive talents, but it’s the cost that turns me off. I would consider it if we could sign him outright without giving up picks and players. But take on more salary and give up the guys who are fun to watch? Hell no.

Miranda: We have seen Randle slotted behind a star big man. The year before he signed with the Knicks, he featured behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans, posting what was at the time a career year, including a higher 3-point percentage than AD and Holiday. Those Pelicans never went anywhere because 23rd in defensive rating. I agree that the Sixers are probably dreaming more of players at the level of Damian Lillard than Randle.

I respect your position of not trading any of the youngsters for a non-top five talent, though I’m not sure that gets you anywhere. If a top-five player were itching to move, nobody on the Knicks is moving the needle. None of the draft picks they hold in excess project to be in the lottery, unless you expect Dallas to absolutely crater next year. None of the young Knicks project to be All-Stars, much less top-five players. This isn’t the Thunder moving off Paul George for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or AD moving in a deal centered on Brandon Ingram. So given the Knicks aren’t tanking and have exactly zero history of attracting top-five talents via free agency, I’m not sure where you’re getting that stud.

In Simmons’ defense — was he ever described as a malcontent before his head coach and co-star threw him under the bus? I’m not remotely opposed to teams wanting their max-salaried players to work hard, improve and maybe even be able to shoot. But there are times and places to offer constructive criticism, and Doc RIvers and Joel Embiid are both media savvy enough to know they were sending a stronger message than “please shoot 3s.” You said Simmons needs an environment to have room to grow. Are the Knicks in such a good place that they can’t afford to try and develop Simmons, a player younger than Randle and likely considered better across the league? If Simmons can’t shoot and Randle has never been a consistent shooter outside of his walk years, but one is a plus-level passer and defender while the other is not, wouldn’t you rather pay Simmons on average $36M for his prime years than Randle $26M for his?

Escobedo: Randle came off the bench for a significant portion of his single season in New Orleans — almost a third of the season as a reserve. It’s easy to post stats against scrubs. He didn’t get much burn next to Anthony Davis due to his injuries, not enough of a sample size to tell us anything substantial. And I agree, no superstar is coming to the Knicks any time soon. I do think if Luka Dončić or Zion Williamson decided to want out, a package of IQ, Toppin, Mitch, Randlet and our cache of picks would be a top-two trade package.

It looks very possible our future picks could be lottery selections. Pair that with the Mavs’ or Hornets’ protected pick and you have options. I am totally fine with trying things differently this time around and holding on to our youngsters, letting them grow and develop. Maybe a Toppin or Barrett become an All-Star. Maybe we tank this year and go after a lead guard in next year’s draft. But swinging for the fences on a name player with glaring consequential cons is what we’ve done the last 20 years. I am more in favor of moving Randle and slotting in Toppin at the four. Randle can net you a few picks or a nice young piece like De’Aaron Fox.

And no, I do not recall character speculation on the part of Simmons early in his career. But there were always complaints about his inability to shoot, put in the work to get better offensively, and his fit next to Embiid. Those were issues since his rookie year. However, his coach and co-star didn’t just throw him under the bus. He also threw himself under the bus by absolutely collapsing under pressure in the playoffs. Randle choked almost as badly in last year’s Hawks series, and look at how it's affected him since. Would you want to swap choke artist for choke artist? Or even worse, combine them on the same team? I sure wouldn't. Simmons has dragged this melodrama out in novella-length ways. It’s a whole damn mess. He has refused mental health help from the Sixers. He’s cut off his teammates when they have tried to visit. Add these facts to his refusal to ever work on his game, develop a jump shot, or challenge himself as a ballplayer, and it sounds like the next great Knicks disaster. I’ll pass. Hopefully, Leon Rose feels the same.