Ben Simmons could be the best player and still be the wrong pick


On Thursday night, the Philadelphia 76ers will almost certainly select LSU forward Ben Simmons with the first pack in the 2016 NBA Draft. The logic for why is simple: Most experts agree he is the best player. Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton of ESPN both say so, CSN's John GonzalezSam Venecie of CBS Sports and Aran Smith of concur — as do 11 of 12 Liberty Ballers writers. He's a 6-foot-11 power forward with the potential to be an elite rebounder and playmaker, a big man whose court vision draws comparisons to the guy who just won the Finals MVP. He's got enough questions about his shooting range, his defensive fundamentals, and his competitive drive to keep him from being a can't-miss prospect on the level of Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis, but in this class, he's the one player that draftniks aren't afraid to use the word "superstar" in conjunction with. 

I'm not convinced the Sixers should take him. 

Don't get me wrong: I will not be unhappy when Simmons' name is called by commissioner Adam Silver before anyone else's on Thursday. I look forward to watching him lead the fast break, take off from the perimeter, and maybe someday become the first Sixer since Reggie Evans to successfully complete a box-out. I even look forward to the years of annoying debates over whether he can develop a jumper, whether he passes too much, whether he really wants it bad enough. Sounds like fun, sign me up. I'll probably get a jersey. 

But I don't love the idea that the Sixers are beholden to Simmons just because he is considered to have the greatest potential to be a franchise-caliber talent. Over the past handful of years, the phrase "Best Player Available" has come to represent more than a draft strategy, but rather a dividing line among prospect-watchers and armchair GMs. It's a way to differentiate yourself from the masses of amateur NBA fans who think of roster-building as a simple puzzle, whose 12 pieces are collected one at a time until your set is complete. Preaching BPA is a way to show that you understand that winning at the highest level in the NBA takes the highest level of elite talent, and that a team with one transcendent player is further ahead of the game than a team with five very good ones. It was, not coincidentally, one of the core tenets of The Process. 

And to deny the over-arching logic of Best Player Available would be foolish. The playoffs just finished bearing out this principle in something close to its purest forms, with the last three players to win the league MVP (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James) leading the three final teams standing. With exceedingly few exceptions, in the NBA, the best teams have the best players. And the best players will never be more readily and inexpensively available to fledgling NBA teams than at the top of the draft. 

For better or worse, though, not all Best Players Available are created equal, and neither are the teams gearing to select them. Context is everything in the Association, which is a large part of the reason why the Warriors and Spurs can mint superstars out of non-lottery picks Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard while the Kings have picked in the top 10 each of the last seven years and still have only one true building-block player to show for it. Another three-word phrase — "Drafting for Fit" — has become the obverse of "Best Player Available," the strategy by which one reveals themselves as a short-cutter who doesn't have the patience or fortitude to build long-term, as is needed to be truly competitive. But there is a wide gulf between drafting specifically for fit and merely choosing not to ignore the realities of "fit" in a team sport that requires five players to play both ends of the court at the same time. 

A common mode of thought for Sixers fans in the leadup to this draft has gone along the lines of: Of course we should take the best player available — why would a 10-win team possibly care about drafting for fit? This team isn't good enough to worry about anything except infusing its roster with as much talent as possible. And there's truth to that, of course — there has to be, since the team indeed only won 10 friggin' games last year. But it's an argument built on a number of fallacies: 

1. The number of wins this team had last year is not totally indicative of the level of talent on the roster — just the level of talent on the active, healthy roster. Lest we forget, no matter who we take in the draft, the player on the Sixers with the highest superstar potential is still our long-dormant center Joel Embiid, who looks physically scarier than ever, and who — knock on an entire goddamn forest — should actually be playing as a rookie for the Sixers next season. Not to mention that combo forward Dario Saric, another of the  lottery picks taken by Sam Hinkie during Our Once and Always Dark Lord's reign, is also still out there, (supposedly) with a 99 posto chance of actually joining the team for '16-'17. And that's not to mention the top-10 picks who actually floundered on the roster last year — Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, even Nik Stauskas — at least one or two of whom could still be important pieces for the Sixers moving forward.

Which is hardly to say that the Sixers have an entrenched rotation that no rookie will be able to get minutes in next year — just that this isn't your average super-crappy team, bottoming out for one year in the hopes of getting the superstar to quickly turn things around. This is a team that's already undergone an aggressive three-year rebuild. Just because they haven't fit together yet doesn't mean they're not real pieces. 

2. You know what the fastest path to a ten-win season is? Drafting entirely for talent and upside while disregarding all potential concerns about on-court fit and lineup balance. And we know this, because it's exactly what the Sixers did last June, and exactly what happened to them the following season. With "center" being their only position occupied by a player of plus-talent (Noel, as well as a not-yet-totally-ruled-out Embiid), the Sixers used the No. 3 pick to select another center — Okafor, who draft boards rated as (at least) the class's third-best prospect for his elite post scoring. But forced attempts to pair Noel and Okafor in the starting frontcourt proved entirely fruitless, while the holes the Sixers failed to fill continued to gape. 

Now, it's entirely possible that Okafor was just the abjectly wrong pick — more a case of prospect mis-evaluation than ill-conceived ideas of roster construction. But it's hard to argue against the decision to draft Jah and hold on to both him and Nerlens actively detracting from the team's on-court product, a year after a bountiful-by-comparison 18-win campaign. The Sixers wouldn't have made the playoffs if they had drafted Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja, or Emmanuel Mudiay — all much more coherent fits with the Sixers' style and lineup — instead of Okafor, but I can't believe they would have won just ten games, either. At a certain point, "This team isn't good enough to worry about roster fit" becomes a self-perpetuating philosophy. 

3. The quality of a BPA is never a fixed, absolute thing. Part of the strategy behind Hinkie picking Okafor wasn't just that he was the Best Player Available, but that he was perceived as the best player available. Therefore, Hinkie could take Big Jah with the No. 3 pick, and either try to fleece a desperate team selecting farther down on draft night, or see if it worked with him and Nerlens (and Joel), and then shop him around and get more for him on the open market than any player taken after him if it didn't. Not a terrible thought, but a flawed one, as the unspooling of Jah's rookie season — including a bottom-ten showing in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus rankings and a camera-captured fistfight in Boston, among other frustration-sewn transgressions — has understandably damaged his trade value. Now, the No. 3 pick in last year's draft might not even fetch us a selection in the top five this year. 

Was Jahlil Okafor the best player when we selected him on draft night 2015? Maybe, maybe not. Does he look it a year later? Certainlynein, and the ill-fitting season he spent on the Sixers has a lot to do with that — as does Nerlens Noel's sophomore stagnation alongside him. Sometimes, selecting the best players available actively obstructs them from earning that status. 

As you can probably guess, I mention all this to explain why I'd probably prefer it if the Sixers took Duke forward Brandon Ingram on draft night. I wouldn't argue that Ingram is a better prospect, or even a "safe" pick — no such thing, truly — but I do think his fit is superior: not just for Philly, but for the 2016 NBA. I'm hardly the first writer to point this out, but it's true that Simmons is a risky proposition largely for the same reason that Jahlil was — you just don't see that many successful rosters being built these days around big men who don't stretch the floor or protect the paint, neither of which has Simmons yet shown any aptitude for doing. (Cleveland's Tristan Thompson would certainly be a notable exception, but he's proven a sufficient helper and post defender to play center for the Cavs, which few are anticipating Simmons to be able to do much of.) 

And, of course, there it is: Another big man, on this roster? Can he play with Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, or Joel Embiid, none of whom are likely to do anything right away but exacerbate his spacing woes as a frontcourt partner? Will he make Dario Saric, another four-man with exceptional court vision (and an improving three-point stroke), redundant if he ever comes over? And if Simmons has to have the ball in his hands to be successful, how does that impact our search for a starting backcourt? How long do we have to wait to trust Simmons' skills in that department, before we even start making some of those decisions?

Ingram doesn't yet have the NBA body or elite-level skills of Simmons. But he fits everywhere. A long wing who can hit threes, play small-ball four, handle a little, and defend multiple positions — there's no team that couldn't use a player like that, and be instantly better for them. On the Sixers, who haven't had a two-way wing of any degree of reliability since Andre Iguodala, he'd be a particular godsend. He won't hinder anyone else's progress. He won't lock the Sixers into playing a certain style, or building a certain kind of roster. His presence should merely make life easier for everyone. He is Extra Cheese. 

That sounds like I'm calling Ingram a safe pick, and in a way, I guess I am. But it's also true that even "safe" picks carry an inherent degree of risk in the form of opportunity cost — no one, not even the Sixers, gets infinite shots at top-flight draft selections, and squandering a rare opportunity to get a franchise player in the draft by merely taking a very good player could be nearly as destructive to a team's long-term outlook as drafting the next Darko. And I agree, that if you have the choice between grabbing a player you're convinced is going to be contending for the MVP in a half-decade's time and one who's never even going to threaten an All-Star team, you're pretty close to obligated to taking the former with the No. 1 pick every time. 

I don't believe the gulf is that wide this time, though. Simmons most likely has a higher potential to be transformative than Ingram, but his game still seems pretty flawed and incomplete to me, and while his disappointing lost season at LSU shouldn't be a death sentence for him as a prospect or person, the stories about him aren't necessarily the type you like to hear about a dude who still has a ton of work to do to become the player he can be. Ingram has just as much work to do, on his game and particularly on his body, but he's also a full year younger than Simmons, he's renowned for his mentality and work ethic, and he actually played pretty well in the NCAA tournament. And a versatile wing player who can shoot, drive, and (hopefully) defend is a precious enough commodity in the NBA that Jerry West refused to trade Klay Thompson for Kevin Love when the latter was considered a top-ten player and the former had never posted a league-average PER — and was proven right to do so. I keep coming back to this point made by Kyle Neubeck when discussing Simmons v. Ingram back in March — "I'll take the guy who can shapeshift rather than the guy who may need the roster shapeshifted around him. " 

Of course, even Neubeck has since been converted to Team Simmons, so clearly the argument in the other direction is a persuasive one. But my ultimate point is this: When there's a John-Wall-to-Evan-Turner sized gap in talent between the top two players, it makes sense to close your eyes and just pick the top dude overall, roster be damned. However, when the gap is more negotiable and arguable, as I perceive it to be between Simmons and Ingram — and for the record, both Draft Express and professional scout Elan Vinokurov have Ingram ranked No. 1 overall — I think it's acceptable, and downright prudent, to reach for the second-best talent, if that player is going to put the rest of your team in a better position to succeed not only now, but in the future. 

The primary goal of picking high in the draft is to land a MVP-caliber player, but it's hardly the only goal. If your mentality with the draft is superstar-or-bust, then there are gonna be some drafts where you're invariably gonna bust — not every draft has that player that single-handedly turns your franchise around, and it might just be tough noogies for the Sixers this year in that respect. It might also depend on how much the Sixers believe that Embiid will be able to finally take the floor next year, and if his ceiling is still as high after repeated surgeries and seasons away from basketball as it appeared two years ago, when he drew comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. If so, you'd have to think a wing who can stretch the floor around him, play the pick-and-roll with him a little, and potentially lock things down in front of him on the perimeter would help him to grow into that core player. 

But even if not, the Sixers are equipped to get other chances at landing a franchise player down the road. They'll almost certainly have another high pick next year in a supposedly loaded draft, maybe two if the Lakers (who still owe us a pick, top-three protected this year and unprotected next) don't hit a homer in free agency, and the perpetually house-on-fire Kings owe them an unprotected first-rounder in 2019. They have the picks and the young players to put together a trade package for a disgruntled superstar if one becomes available. They'll have max cap space virtually forever if the team should improve enough to look attractive to free agents. The No. 1 pick this year might be their best chance at a franchise player, but it won't be their only chance.

And all that said, if the Sixers are still more certain than not that Ben Simmons is That Guy, they should probably draft him. If you believe a player on the level of Griffin, Davis, or 2015 No. 1 overall pick Karl Anthony-Towns is available, then yeah, you grab him and figure out the rest later — even if that means shuffling your entire roster and setting back your team's timeline a year or two to do so. But if he's not That Guy, or there's only a small chance of him becoming That Guy if absolutely everything breaks right for him, maybe they should draft Ingram, and leave this particular principle of the the Process with the rest of the Hinkie era in the rearview. I'll love Simmons and root for him unequivocally, but I'd rather go Best Choice Available than Best Player Available this time out.

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