Why Detroit Pistons are an unlikely trade destination for Sixers star Ben Simmons

Detroit Free Press

When the Philadelphia 76ers visit Little Caesars Arena to face the Detroit Pistons on Thursday, they will be without one of their best players. And it isn’t clear when — or if — that player will play again for the franchise.

Ben Simmons, a three-time All-Star and two-time All-Defensive first team selection, has been involved in a public feud with the Sixers since they were eliminated from the playoffs in June. It was a rough playoffs for Simmons, who shot 34.2% from the free-throw line in 12 games and took just three fourth-quarter shots during the entire seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. After the series, Simmons didn’t get a vote of confidence from head coach Doc Rivers, and was indirectly held responsible for the Game 7 loss by Joel Embiid. 

It was enough to fracture the relationship between Simmons and the franchise, possibly for good. The Sixers are actively looking to trade Simmons, who requested a trade during the offseason, initially refused to report to the team and missed training camp and all four preseason games. Simmons did eventually report to the Sixers on Oct. 11, and was thrown out of practice a little more than a week later for being a “distraction,” Rivers said.

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The Sixers have set a high price for Simmons, and are willing to play the long game.

“Right now, any sort of trade, which obviously Ben Simmons wants, the best thing we can do is get role players back,” Sixers president Daryl Morey said two weeks ago. “That makes no sense. That will give us no better chance to win the title if we were to move Ben Simmons for role players. So, people better buckle in. This is going to go a long time because our only path, my only job is to help us to the best chance to win the title. Ben Simmons is a difference maker so to get him back, he will help us win the title. If we can trade Ben Simmons for a difference maker, we will do it. I think that’s best for everyone in this situation.

The Pistons are among several teams who have reached out about Simmons’ availability, according to a report from the Philadelphia Inquirer. No other player on the Pistons’ roster has his accolades. Simmons is an elite defender who can push and move the ball in transition, and is still only 25 years old.

But it’s tough to see a trade between the Pistons and Sixers materializing. While Simmons is too talented for the Pistons to ignore, the past few months have given the organization some pause. And the Pistons likely can’t muster a package grand enough to satisfy the Sixers’ desire to strengthen their championship bid.

Red flags

Simmons, an undeniably talented player who would make the Pistons better, has averaged 15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.7 steals during his four-year career and is one of the NBA’s most versatile and effective defenders. It’s not often that a player as young and as good as Simmons is available. The Pistons, like most NBA teams, have done their homework on him.

But there are legitimate questions about how Simmons would fit into a new locker room after his public spat with Philadelphia. It lessens the likelihood that the Pistons will make a serious push for Simmons, given general manager Troy Weaver and coach Dwane Casey have both preached the importance of building around high-character, hard-working players.

Simmons’ character and work ethic have been questioned throughout his career. ESPN draft guru Jonathan Givony noted Simmons’ lack of competitiveness in college at LSU, and those concerns have followed the 2016 No. 1 overall pick to the NBA.

During Game 7 against the Hawks, Simmons passed up an open layup to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and made one of two free throws. Philadelphia needed two points to tie the game with less than four minutes to play, and only got one.

“I’ll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we, I don’t know how to say it, but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw,” Embiid said after the game. 

In response to a question about whether or not Simmons could be a championship-level player, Rivers said he didn’t know. Simmons didn’t attempt a fourth-quarter shot in four of the seven games of the Hawks series. Though he has officially rejoined the Sixers, there’s no sign he will resume full team activities as he works on his mental health, according to a report from ESPN.

The Pistons want to win games, but it’s tough to see them making a risky trade. They’re fully invested in developing their roster after drafting Cade Cunningham first overall this summer. They will always survey the league for trades, but they don’t have a blockbuster trade-friendly roster after a bevy of moves during Weaver’s first year-and-a-half on the job.

The asking price for Simmons is more than the Pistons can realistically offer. Simmons is making $33 million this season. Any Simmons trade would have to include Jerami Grant, the Pistons’ best player who is making close to $20 million this season. Kelly Olynyk, or Cory Joseph and Josh Jackson, would get the Pistons to roughly $32 million in salary. A young player could be included as a sweetener.

For Detroit, that’s a significant investment in a player who hasn’t proven to be a reliable postseason option and will make more than $40 million in the final year of his deal in 2024-25. Grant has had a slow start to this season, but was a breakout player last season that received significant All-Star consideration. The Pistons view him as a core piece, and Grant chose to leave a contending Denver Nuggets team to sign with Detroit last fall. Grant is significantly cheaper than Simmons, and is on the books through 2023.

Olynyk, Joseph and Jackson are all role players, which Morey has stated that the Sixers aren’t looking for in a Simmons deal. If Grant doesn’t move the needle for Philadelphia, it’s tough to see who else on the roster could. It’s unlikely the Pistons want to part ways with either of their two best and most promising young players, Cunningham and Saddiq Bey, and both are on rookie contracts. Bey has diversified his offensive game after a promising rookie season that saw him start 53 games, and Cunningham is considered by many pundits to be a future star. And due to last year’s Isaiah Stewart trade with the Houston Rockets, the Pistons lack flexibility to trade a future first-round pick.

Simmons is an intriguing talent, and he can make a rebuilding team better. But unless something significant changes, it’s tough to see him resuming his career in Detroit.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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