Since 2019, 11 reigning All-Stars have changed teams within a year. More than half of them (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden) went to either New York or Los Angeles. Nine of the 11 landed in bigger media markets than they left, and the two who didn’t (D’Angelo Russell and Russell Westbrook the second time) remained in top-10 markets. All 11 players ended up in top-11 media markets.
This isn’t rocket science. Players move around for a variety of reasons, but the end result is typically the same: they land in a bigger or more glamorous city than they started in. It isn’t always by design. There are geographically agnostic players who genuinely wouldn’t mind playing in small cities if it meant winning … but in 2021’s NBA, winning usually means pairing up with other star players who are pickier. The last reigning All-NBA free agent to sign with a new team outside of the top 11 or Miami was LaMarcus Aldridge. He signed with the San Antonio Spurs in 2015, and his reward for doing so was the departure of Leonard for a more desirable market three years later.
Big-market sovereignty does not need to be re-litigated, nor does small-market ambition. The status quo is accepted. Small-market teams can win championships. The Milwaukee Bucks just did it. They just have fewer paths to doing so than big-market teams tend to because the sort of disgruntled superstars that so often lift eventual champions rarely view them as welcoming destinations. Kevin Durant probably isn’t coming to save Detroit.
The few chances these teams do get tend to come with strings attached. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers could have outbid the Toronto Raptors for Kawhi Leonard in 2018. They chose not to because of his health and expiring contract. The Raptors seized their rare opportunity and turned it into a championship. They took a risk their more glamorous competitors wouldn’t.
And make no mistake, trading for Ben Simmons carries an enormous amount of risk. The basketball drawbacks are well known. Forget about his outside shooting. Paying a considerable price for a player unwilling to attempt an open dunk late in a Game 7 is the sort of move that could derail any franchise. Paying that much for such a player when he might not even want to play for you is another matter entirely.
A Western Conference executive told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer that Simmons prefers to be traded to one of three California teams. There are only four teams in the state, so at least two of them have to play in Los Angeles or San Francisco, and given agent Rich Paul’s track record, it’s likely the executive is referring to all three. Simmons may still be fixated on a big market. None are presently available to him.
The Golden State Warriors have reportedly rejected Philadelphia’s offer for Simmons, according to Pompey. The Los Angeles Lakers literally cannot match salary in a Simmons deal without including one of their three stars. The Los Angeles Clippers have one tradable first-round pick and very little in the way of young talent. None of them, at this time, appear willing to give Daryl Morey the “Harden-esque” package he is reportedly seeking, and a quick run through the NBA’s other biggest markets cements that idea that no glamour teams will. The Brooklyn Nets have spent their assets. No reports have indicated that the New York Knicks are interested, and their roster isn’t conducive to Simmons’ unique playing style in any case. Ditto the Miami Heat. If the Chicago Bulls were ever willing to swap Zach LaVine for Simmons, that time has likely passed. If Simmons wants out of Philadelphia badly enough to skip training camp, he’s probably going to have to compromise on destination. Frankly, he doesn’t have much choice in the matter either way. He has four more guaranteed years under contract.
Russell Westbrook was still on the Oklahoma City Thunder four years ago. That’s an eternity in NBA time and even longer in small-market years. Simmons, for all of his flaws and dangerous desires, is a 25-year-old three-time All-Star with four remaining years of team control. That sort of player is practically never available to the majority of NBA teams. He’s more than available right now. His current team is practically desperate to move him. The last team outside of a glamour market to take advantage of such an opportunity got a championship out of it.
Now is the time for some other flyover team to take a similar swing, and with four years of team control left, virtually any of them can talk themselves into a viable contention window. The Minnesota Timberwolves have made the postseason once in the past 18 years. The Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t gotten there since LeBron James left. But stick Simmons on either roster and, assuming expected growth from the incumbent youth, they should be able to grow into winners before he’s close enough to free agency to force another exit.
Minnesota’s interest has been thoroughly reported. Karl-Anthony Towns is the sort of shooting big man Simmons needs, and the presence of fellow Klutch Sports client Anthony Edwards as a budding star guard can’t hurt. Cleveland’s path isn’t as clear. Evan Mobley is a theoretical Simmons fit, but hasn’t played an NBA game. Neither Collin Sexton nor Darius Garland have Edwards’ apparent upside, but both could serve as the traditional backcourt partner Simmons likely needs if the other is dealt. Philadelphia likely wouldn’t have considered an offer built around Sexton or Russell and a heap of draft picks two months ago. Recent developments might have changed that. Teams like the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets and San Antonio Spurs are in the same boat, though their post-Simmons roster pictures aren’t quite as clear.
Here’s what is clear: Most of these teams could go half a decade before even sniffing another established talent like Simmons. That is through no fault of their own. It’s the reality of the modern NBA. Most teams don’t get to be picky. The ones that do seem to be out of the picture for the time being, and if the field doesn’t capitalize on that, they might not get another chance for a long, long time.