As regular readers know, I am a huge fan of adjusted plus-minus statistics. Like all stats they have their flaws, so I appreciate sincere efforts to create what we might call “adjusted” adjusted plus-minus statistics, AAPM (or would AA+/- be better?). And of these I think the current best is 538’s RAPTOR.
Here’s a trivia question: taking RAPTOR as our measure of quality just for the sake of discussion, what current Sixers player added the most value last season? Go ahead, think about it, I’ll wait. Cue “Jeopardy!” theme, written by the legendary Merv Griffin, whose estate gets paid every time it is played even though it is an obvious direct steal from “I’m a Little Teapot.” The vagaries of copyright law....
OK, pencils down. Everyone who answered “Danny Green,” move to the head of the class. Partial credit to those who wrote Joel’s name — Joel beat Green in value per minute but because he missed so many games, Green added more in aggregate. Recall that adjusted +/- adjusts for the players on the floor with you, so Green is not just getting strong RAPTOR by playing with LeBron and AD. Let’s list some key Sixers and their RAPTOR per 36 minutes (538 lists per 48 but I find per 36 more convenient so I have converted).
Projected Sixers Starters
Joel Embiid: 3.0
Danny Green: 2.3
Ben Simmons: 1.7
Tobias Harris: 0.2
Seth Curry: 0.1
Key Bench Players
Matisse Thybulle: 1.3
Furkan Korkmaz: 0.2
Mike Scott: -0.6
Shake Milton: -2.0
The Dearly Departed
Al Horford: 0.7
Josh Richardson: 0.5
James Harden: 7.9
PJ Tucker: 0.2
Notes from Underground
Again, this is not a perfect stat, no stat is! But let’s just take it at face value for a moment and see what stands out about our past and future team based on this metric.
1) Ben Simmons may be a superstar, but he does not yet play like even a star. He plays like a defensive star who is ordinary offensively due to the well-known hole in his game. That combination makes him a very good player. Plus he is only 24. And since his flaw as a player is known and he has virtually no ceiling athletically, it is possible that he could become a huge superstar. I am not eager to see him traded! But the simple fact is that the way he played last year was not a top-15 player or even a top-30 player. He was closer to Matisse in quality than he was to a real star like Joel.
2) Joel really did have a down year. Whether it was lack of spacing, him being bummed out, nagging injuries, or who knows what, Joel played at the star level (+3 per 36) but not at the superstar (~+5) level he had achieved the year before. We need Joel to get back on the career trajectory he was on prior to last year if we want to be contenders with this roster.
3) I didn’t list Terence Ferguson because he was terrible last year and most people expect him to be used as filler in a trade. But he is two years younger than the similarly-terrible-by-RAPTOR Shake Milton, and I, like all right-thinking Sixer fans, have super-high expectations for Shake! This is not just bias towards a guy we watched, it’s pro-offense bias — Shake was a +1.2 on offense, which is really good, and a horrifying -3.3 at the defensive end. I am as susceptible as the next guy to “we can coach him up defensively” thinking, and, damn, let’s hope so because if Shake can become a +0 defender while inching up to +2 offensively, he’s a star, +2 per 36 gets you close to the All-Star game. But his D has a long way to go from where it was last year.
4) Al and Josh were big disappointments, but really weren’t bad, e.g. the gap between those guys and Ben Simmons was not enormous. On the other hand the gap between them and Furkan wasn’t that large either, so I’m not going to fling myself wailing into their empty lockers....
5) Actually Furk deserves a bullet point of his own. 40% shooting from three and RAPTOR says he was a near-average defender. Still only 22! Also worth noting that former Sixer TLC is considered by some a promising young player as well — these players get drafted really young and need time to develop!
6) Although I have been and still am a defender of Tobias Harris from the very harsh attacks he receives from the fandom, he really did not help us last year the way we’d hoped. I do think he’s a +1 or +2 player in reality, but he needs to show that this season or I’ll have to admit I was wrong.
7) After being appallingly bad early in the season, Mike Scott recovered and was merely bad, an average backup, for the season as a whole. He’s nothing special but he’s probably not a disaster as the backup PF on a team that has both Tobi and Ben getting big minutes guarding PFs.
8) Lest we forget, Matisse Thybulle had an astonishing rookie season. Take a look at the top perimeter players in defensive RAPTOR. It’s basically a handful of defensive gods like Kawhi and Patrick Beverley, plus Matisse and two other impressive young players, Alex Caruso and Donte DiVincenzo. Matisse’s D was so good that despite his offensive weakness he was a stud player as a rookie, at least as far as RAPTOR is concerned. The league will continue its effort to adjust to his defensive strategems, while he attempts to add strength, shooting, and perhaps a bit of ballhandling to his game. But he’s a fine player already, and I’m betting on him to be better next year, as the officials finally start giving him some respect.
9) Danny Green had another awesome year, once again ending in a championship. He’s old so obviously we can’t count on him to avoid decline. But players do seem to last longer now, what with modern medical techniques and all; it’s been three years since I argued the team should obtain Kyle Lowry and folks said I was crazy because he was too old, but as far as I can tell he’s still terrific. It would be a mistake to see Green as merely the guy we needed to take to match cap in the Al Horford deal. He’s an excellent player who fits in this or any lineup. And please don’t lecture me about how he missed some shots in the Finals! There’s just enormous randomness in these small samples.
10) I am happy to have Seth Curry, who is a solid player and a strong fit. But let’s not get too, too excited about a +0 player in his 30s!
And so, that’s it, right? What’s that? There was another number that jumped out at people? James Harden? +7.9? The equivalent of two Joels and a Ben?! That’s a typo, right?
No it isn’t. Harden’s per-48 RAPTOR was +10.5, a stunning figure. I think that many people are falling into a common trap I’ve written about before, I call it the “Drexler Error.” Back in my youth I foolishly predicted that the Portland team featuring Clyde Drexler would defeat Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals. My thinking was simple: Jordan and Drexler were both Hall of Famers, but Portland had a stronger supporting cast. The problem is, as wonderful a player as Clyde the Glide was, he was not remotely on the level of Michael Jordan. He was probably worth less than half of Jordan in a game where each was giving 100%.
Of course I’m not saying that Harden is as good as Jordan was, but then again Ben Simmons has never played at remotely the level of peak Clyde Drexler. What I’m saying is, to win a title you want to be up around 10 points better than a typical team. You may not win by that much on average, +10 is rare because teams that are far ahead send in the scrubs, because of injuries and load management, etc. But that’s the quality of team to have to be a serious contender, rather than just a team with a puncher’s chance. To be +8 or +10 overall you’ll want to have a starting lineup that’s more like +15/36 minutes, since they can’t play the whole game, and since the backups are probably net negative compared to a typical NBA squad; almost every team those backups face has a couple of excellent players on it!
And it is just hard as hell to get to +15/36 without someone giving you +6 or more. If your best guy is +5 per 36 and your next-best is +4, you need to get 6 more positive points out of the other three spots, i.e. three more borderline All-Stars after your two stars. I’ve written before about the stealth superteam of our era, the 2019 Toronto Raptors. People think of them as a team that won a fluke title because Golden State’s stars got hurt. And we will indeed never know how they’d have done against a full-strength Warriors squad. But, doing this from memory, that Raptor team is the only team I can recall with a top 6 players all of whom were +3 or better per 48 minutes (using RPM here as RAPTOR did not yet exist). My recollection is that the numbers were something like this (apologies, it’s really hard to look this stuff up while blind!):
Kawhi Leonard: +8
Pascal Siakam: +4
Marc Gasol: +4
Kyle Lowry: +4
Danny Green: +3
Fred Van Vleet: +3
That’s a starting lineup that’s +23 per 48, so +17 per 36, holy crap! And then first guy off the bench a big positive as well. They also had OG, but he was hurt by the time we faced them in the playoffs. People didn’t realize how great they were because their record didn’t reflect it, and their record didn’t reflect it because Gasol joined them late and Kawhi skipped a ton of games. Plus Siakam didn’t start the season at that level. They were awesome and they also peaked at the right time. And by the way the with-Jimmy Sixers almost beat them! [Grinds teeth in frustration.]
So let’s say that’s the goal, if you want to have a real title shot, rather than just a “if we get lucky in the playoff draw, and then LeBron has a nagging injury come the Finals, we could win it”, you’d like to have a +15, or better, starting lineup, per 36. The Sixers that year had Joel +5, Jimmy who at 100% effort was probably a +7, Ben +2, Tobi +1, JJ +0, total +15. It’s an inexact science but you can see how we stayed on the floor with the Raps. It’s a little surprising we came as close as we did given that Joel missed games and was not at his healthiest when playing, Kawhi is better than +6/36 when giving 100%, we didn’t have a FVV-quality player on the bench, we had no usable backup center, etc. Slag Brett Brown all you want for his time here, but I don’t see any way not to tip our hat to him for coming as close as he did to beating one of the most impressive collections of NBA talent this century.
So now let’s go back to the team we have, and perhaps could have:
Projected Sixer Starters
That is a long, long way from +15! We can modify it for age- and fit-related improvements and declines, and add a dash of hope, to get:
Projected Sixers Starters with hope in our hearts!
Still only +12, and I think most will agree that asking Joel or any of the others to take a much bigger leap than this is probably asking too much. Meanwhile LeBron and AD are probably above +12 with just the two of them, they only need to play with mildly positive guys to be significantly better than this, and they have those and more. Or look at the Bucks, Heat, Celtics. +12 puts us in the East mix but it makes us an underdog in at least two East playoff series, and perhaps all three.
Is there anyone out there who could help? Hey, how about that guy who was +8 per 36 last year?! Let’s say that at 31 he dips to +7. And let’s say we had to give up Ben Simmons to get a James Harden deal done, but let’s say it was just Ben, to keep it simple. Then we have:
Projected Sixers Starters after the Ben-Beard deal
+16! And note that this is not nearly as much hope-based as the +12, which assumed major leaps for Ben and Joel despite them still playing together. Here we assume a decline for Harden, nothing assumed for Ben of course, and Joel improving in a way that seems pretty likely given the probably-superior fit achieved by taking non-shooting Ben off the floor. Indeed there’s plausible headroom for Joel to be better than this. I do believe this trade would make the Sixers very serious title contenders. Of course there’s the fact that James Harden has never won a title. Spare me. Jordan didn’t win until he was, what, 28? Remember all those years they said LeBron was a loser who lacked belly-fire? How about Kyle Lowry, he was a playoff choker until he played great in the playoffs and won the title. There was a year when Harden had the right team to win it all, and he was going to do so, and then Chris Paul got hurt just a few minutes too soon and they lost it. It must have been very painful for Harden and his fans, but, hey, we may now be the beneficiaries!
Look, I think everyone knows that Harden is an improvement on Ben, but there are two things I think people may not be appreciating. First, it’s an absolutely huge improvement; even after we assumed Ben would double his contribution from last year and Harden would get worse, nevertheless adding Harden, all by itself, puts us in a different category as a team. And second, going with the roster we have, plus minor tweaks, makes us a real contender only if Ben becomes a completely new and better player, which is not impossible at his age, but is very far from a sure thing.
Against all that, Ben is 24 to Harden’s 31, and is signed for 5 years vs. 2 for the Beard. Those are huge differences. And Harden can be difficult to deal with, which of course is the only reason we have a shot at him but which still might be costly for team chemistry. Additionally there’s this: what if we could get Harden without trading Ben?
Basically there are three types of packages under discussion for Philly to give for Harden. One is Tobi + players + picks. The second is Ben + filler. And the third is Ben + players + picks. LB had a nice discussion with a writer from Houston’s equivalent, and they think it will take Ben + players + picks, say Ben + Maxey + Matisse + 2 firsts and 2 pick swaps. I certainly wouldn’t trade that much and I suspect Morey wouldn’t either. I mention it because when I convince myself that we can get Harden for Tobi-Maxey-Matisse-Shake-Furk-firsts-swaps, I am engaging, I fear, in the same sort of magical thinking as the Houstonians. Of course I hope I’m wrong and Daryl can make all my dreams come true with a deal of this sort. Well, for all my dreams to come true we’d keep my man Matisse as well, but even in dreams I tend to be a realist. For fun that would give us a starting lineup of Joel-Ben-Green-Curry-Harden, +18 in my hope calculus above. That team might be a title co-favorite with LA, and would be a big favorite to win the East.
But, again, it’s unrealistic. I’d say the best we can hope for is that they do us a solid by throwing in PJ so that it’s Ben and filler for Harden and Tucker. Maybe structured as two deals, Ben-Ferguson-Pourier-Scott for Harden and a second-round pick and cash for Tucker, using our trade exception. Capologists in comments can say whether this has problematic cap/tax/apron implications. And, look, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we have to add more, perhaps future picks or Shake or even Maxey to close the deal. On the plus side, I do think it’s possible that harden will sign an extension as part of the trade, he gets to go to a team he’s excited to join and also locks in another hundred or two million in guaranteed money. A slightly weaker pro-trade position that I’ve suggested would be: be willing to give up Simmons if necessary, but only if Harden signs an extension. Or do it for Tobi+ even without an extension.
A lot of pixels have been spilled on the notion that the Sixers are in the driver’s seat here because Harden is a declining asset; the longer he makes trouble in Houston, the less his value, a la Jimmy Butler in Minnesota. So, it is argued, why not wait and see how the current roster performs under Doc? It would indeed be great to wait if we could, see how our guys play, see if Harden makes the situation in Houston even more untenable, see if the Rockets cave and settle for a Tobi-based package.
That would be ideal in a world where only Daryl Morey has noticed that James Harden is good at basketball. But that is not the world we live in! Lots of teams would like to add Harden to their roster. Miami has many good young players, players who actually contributed to a Finals team, not hypothetically-good players like -2 Shake Milton or never-played-yet Tyrese Maxey or better-on-RAPTOR-than-the-eye-test Furkan. What if they offer Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, plus some picks (which would require them incentivizing OKC to adjust some pick protections). Or what if they offer Herro and Bam?
Or what if Boston steps up with Jaylen Brown plus a couple of recent first-rounders plus future picks, is Houston going to turn that down for Tobias Harris?! What if Toronto offers OG, FVV, and a pile of picks? What if MIL offers Middleton plus Donte and others? If we wake up Wednesday and see that Milwaukee is rolling out a lineup of Harden-Jrue-Tucker-Giannis-Lopez, where are our Finals chances then? Not in a good place, I’d say!
And then there’s Brooklyn. Thankfully HOU seems to be uninterested in taking a pile of mediocrity from BKN (though if they want to take our pile of mediocrity that would be lovely!). But what if Brooklyn wakes up to a fact I have been pointing out for years, which is that Kyrie Irving is a star not a superstar? And now an oft-injured star? What if the Nets offer Kyrie plus picks and swaps, thus keeping their core except with the upgrade from +2 Kyrie to +8 (or whatever) Harden? In that case I’d say that if Durant is healthy, the rest of the East is in big trouble.
And so that’s why we can’t just sit around waiting for the price of the Beard to fall to Tobi + youth + picks. Because any minute between now and then could be the minute Houston pulls the trigger with one of our rivals. Now, Daryl knows the folks in Houston, and maybe that relationship is so tight that he can tell them “call me last.” Maybe there’s a conversation where they say Harden can be had for Simmons and Maxey and Daryl says “I’m not willing to do that now, but reach out if you’re close to something and maybe I’ll do that deal at that time.” Or, you know, maybe not, maybe they’ll feel they need to negotiate in good faith with others and that means not giving someone else like Morey right of first refusal. NBA GMing is a repeated game.
What Is to Be Done?
Like most of us, I have great faith in Daryl Morey. If he gets Harden at a great price, I’ll be thrilled. If he gets him and pays a ton, I’ll assume he got the best deal possible while delivering the goods. And if Harden goes elsewhere I’ll assume the price was just too high to make sense.
But in the end, I’ll say this: almost every NBA player can be replaced at a manageable cost except for one category: players like James Harden and Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. If you can get one you should do it, and not worry overly about the price. Of course Ben Simmons could turn into such a player, and be that for many years, and that’s why parting with him would be so painful. But if we are honest with ourselves and ask, what are the odds Ben Simmons is ever at +5/36, up at the Butler/Jokic level if not the Harden/Kawhi level, the answer is it’s well below 50-50. There are two ways it could happen. One is if he learns to shoot. The only way I see him doing that is if he switches hands, and to be honest I sort of think the only way he will switch is if he plays on LeBron’s team; I think LeBron is probably the only person in the world Ben respects enough to switch hands for. The other way is for his talent to be so colossal that he can dominate without shooting, and that also seems unlikely to me.
So, yeah, Ben is younger with a longer contract. But the way I see it is, with Harden you get two megastar years, plus a 50% chance to resign him and get, let’s say in expectation two more, so 2 + half of 2 more is 3; 4 if we assume an extension is part of the trade. I don’t think Ben gives us an expectation of even 3 top-15 years, let alone 3 top-5 years. Heck, if we lose in the second round again this year, or sooner, how sure are we that Ben and Joel play out their contracts? And as noted above, top-5 years are worth like triple what top-15 years are. And so if there’s a chance to do a trade in the ballpark of Ben-for-Beard straight up, I say [extreme Law and Order grizzled old District Attorney Adam Schiff voice]: take the deal.