Finals tomorrow. Trade talk today


It is the biggest stage in the sport and, at the same time, one last hurdle for the basketball masses to the next frenzied offseason.

The dirty secret about these (and every) NBA Finals: 28 fan bases have largely moved on. They want to laser in on the draft, free agency and, yes, where Ben Simmons is getting traded.

So in that spirit, on the first Newsletter Tuesday of a new era at Stein Line HQ, let's prepare for Wednesday's pivotal Game 4 of the NBA Finals with a cheeky detour to Philadelphia for a pulse-take on Simmons' status.

Some key angles:

Simmons has to brace for the very real possibility that he winds up with a team he doesn't choose.

The 76ers have insisted they will not be rushed or pressured into trading Simmons no matter how many outsiders declare his partnership with Joel Embiid irreparable. Debate about Simmons' trade value and how much it has cratered in the wake of his miserable postseason has nonetheless bubbled all over the league since the buzzer sounded on Philadelphia's Game 7 home loss to Atlanta.

The reality: It’s not clear yet how much it suffered after Simmons shot 34.2 percent from the free-throw line and, worse, attempted three measly three fourth-quarter shots in those seven games against the Hawks.

Numerous teams want him. The natural question: Will any of them assemble an offer that win-now Philadelphia and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey find palatable? Draft picks can help Morey only so much.

The length of Simmons’ contract, if not the dollars, only adds to his appeal to teams that do not typically attract free agents. He has four seasons left on his contract at nearly $150 million — and the team control that comes with that status, in most cases, is bound to outweigh any trepidation teams might feel about the pressure Simmons' agent Rich Paul can apply to dissuade them from pursuing him.

Just scan through the teams that have been linked to a Simmons trade already: Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota and Sacramento are known suitors. Toronto is also said to have expressed interest. More will emerge. 

Simmons, who turns 25 in a week, remains too tantalizing a target to discourage hopeful trade partners from shooting their shot. He’s too good defensively, too versatile and too dangerous in full fast-break flow. He also must prepare for the idea that the Morey-led Sixers will ultimately do what’s best for the Sixers.

As he has shown since arriving in Philadelphia, Morey is not afraid to be patient.

While it’s true that Morey already tried to trade Simmons in January, his motivation six months ago was the opportunity to acquire a certifiable franchise player: James Harden. And even then Morey was only willing to go so far in the Harden chase, as well as Philadelphia’s March talks with Toronto on a Kyle Lowry swap.

After Harden wound up in Brooklyn, rather than Philly, it emerged that the 76ers had placed rookie guard Tyrese Maxey off limits in trade talks rather than Simmons. In Lowry’s case, Morey played it even safer, settling for the cheaper (but unsuccessful) acquisition of George Hill rather than surrendering a haul for Lowry when he turned 35 on trade deadline day.

Perhaps Philadelphia regrets those stances now. Even if you agree with the Sixers’ privately held contention that Houston owner Tilman Fertitta ultimately had no intention of allowing Harden and Morey to reunite, it will remain a nagging what-if for Sixers fans — in such a wide-open, anything-goes postseason — to wonder whether Lowry could have been the missing piece to secure a spot in the NBA Finals against Phoenix.

Yet even if Morey, deep down, wishes he had a do-over on his January or March dealings, he has shown little inclination to rush into shedding Simmons, which is undoubtedly a nod to one of the most complex situations he has ever faced.

All teams covet the biggest stars, but Morey is especially obsessive about it. He will surely tune out the naysayers who suggest Simmons can no longer be the centerpiece for the acquisition of a Bradley Beal-type superstar. Portland’s CJ McCollum has been mentioned often as a potential Sixers target in a Simmons deal; rest assured that Morey longs for Damian Lillard if he is targeting any Trail Blazer.

If he can’t get a true headliner back for Simmons in connection with the draft, or when free agency hits in August, some rivals believe Morey is as willing as any executive in his position to let Simmons and Embiid start a fifth season together if necessary – even if that means some tension or awkwardness seeps into the locker room when training camp starts in late September.

Scratch the Los Angeles Lakers from the list of feasible Simmons destinations.

The Lakers, remember, face such severe financial restrictions that re-signing Dennis Schröder might be the splashiest move they can make this offseason. If they prove willing to trade Kyle Kuzma or even Talen Horton-Tucker to push those limits, that's still not going to get them into Simmons territory.

To be clear: I don't see Lakerland as a good landing spot for Simmons even if they had the means to make it happen. Although Simmons and the Sixers both badly need a fresh start because of all the swirling angst from this season's unhappy ending and years of frustration building up to it, asking Simmons try to rebuild his game and self-confidence in the league's most withering spotlight seems particularly unwise.

Yet it's worth noting that inevitable rumbles of Lakers interest would not merely emanate from Simmons’ status as a Paul client like LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Word is that the Lakers, on top of their well-chronicled need for more shooting, covet one more difference-making playmaker who would allow James and Davis to spend more time at power forward and center.

Expect to eventually hear of them searching for potential pathways, however obstacle-strewn they would be, to reacquiring restricted free agent-to-be Lonzo Ball for that reason.

Simmons is under intense scrutiny on two continents after opting out of Australia's Olympic roster.

I feel some sympathy for Simmons, who was hardly the lone Sixer to underperform after Philadelphia’s best regular season since the days of Allen Iverson and Larry Brown in 2000-01. Coach Doc Rivers, most of all, has dodged the sort of roasting he normally would have faced after such a meek playoff exit for the East's No. 1 seed, thanks to all the vitriol directed at Simmons.

Even after conceding during the Atlanta series that some of his struggles are "mental," Simmons continues to be crushed to such a degree that it makes the heat Paul George took after the LA Clippers' second-round flameout in the Walt Disney World bubble seem pleasant.

Yet I'm also convinced that Simmons forfeited an opportunity to change the conversation and gain some meaningful distance from his Philly woe by backing out of his plans to finally join the Australian Olympic team for the Tokyo Games. The close-knit Aussie vets chasing their first medal in men's basketball appeared eager to welcome him in and try to lift him out of his funk. Choosing not to play added yet another chapter to a saga many in Australia regard as Simmons’ years-long tease of the national team and its fans.

To get some local perspective, I reached out to the recently retired Andrew Bogut, who will be working the Tokyo Games as a television broadcaster, in addition to his frequent Rogue Bogues podcasting, after a long national-team career.

"I think we are proud of Ben and his accomplishments and most Australians would love to see him win a medal for his country," Bogut said. “If you can't and won't play, just let it be known and we will all move on. That's my big issue."


Corner Three

You will not find the usual three questions and answers here because — BREAKING! — I am retiring Corner Three.

In the name of freshness and evolution we're going to do some things differently on this Substack. Prime among them is coming up with a new category to run between the lede and Numbers Game and (if interest, as I hope, demands it) save questions for longer monthly mailbags.

This, remember, is an interactive operation, so nominations are now welcome for what should fill this space going forward. Send suggestions, or questions for future mailbags, to marcstein@substack.com.


Numbers Game

4
A gem from my newslettering colleague Kendall Baker at Axios: Four titles for Phoenix franchises represent the fewest among the seven cities that have a team in the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, NHL and WNBA. The other cities with active franchises in all five leagues: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, New York and Washington.

3
Three of those Phoenix championships were won by the WNBA's Mercury, with baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks delivering the other. The Suns, with a 2-1 lead over Milwaukee in the Finals, remain two wins away from their first NBA championship and Phoenix's fifth crown.

13-0
Dallas' Luka Dončić has never lost a senior national team game with Slovenia. Dončić combined with Miami's Goran Dragić to lead his country to a 9-0 record and the championship at the 2017 EuroBasket tournament, then led Slovenia to a 4-0 mark at the recent Olympic qualifying tournament in Lithuania as one of only two NBA players on the roster alongside Denver's Vlatko Cančar.

7
The Tokyo Olympics will mark the first in men's basketball without Lithuania since NBA pros were granted permission to participate starting with the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Lithuania qualified for the Summer Games seven consecutive times before its recent home loss to Slovenia in a game for one spot in Tokyo.

183
Your humble curator published 183 Tuesday newsletters for The New York Times from January 2018 through June 2021, as confirmed by New York Times sports editor Randy Archibold. Today's Tuesday newsletter is collector's item No. 1 via Substack.