2021–22 NBA season roundtable: Debating futures of Simmons, Irving

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons wipes his face after missing a pair of free-throws during Game 5 against the Atlanta Hawks. (Matt Slocum/AP)

The 2021-22 NBA season will kick off Tuesday night with a pair of games including a marquee Western Conference matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers at 10:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 360.

With the season upon us, Sportsnet assembled a group of its basketball experts to answer six big league-wide questions.

Will Ben Simmons be traded this season?

Donnovan Bennett, staff writer and digital host: Yes. He’s in Philadelphia physically but not mentally. For basketball reasons I think trading him to Brooklyn for Kyrie Irving makes sense for all parties involved assuming Kyrie doesn’t threaten to retire as soon as the trade is approved by the league office.

Michael Grange, senior basketball insider: I think he does get traded, just because this is the NBA and the player who so badly wants to be traded always gets traded. Also, once a team and a fan base loses faith in a player it’s almost impossible to get the toothpaste back in the tube.

I see him in Sacramento, given their depth in good guards who can shoot, and Philly will just have to make the best of it.

William Lou, Raptors Show host on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: Yes, he will. It’s an untenable situation with Simmons and the Sixers. The trade market will open up at the deadline on a year where so many teams have a semi-realistic shot at contention, and there will be a surprise suitor that arises.

One wild scenario that I would love to see happen just for the sheer chaos: Simmons to the Clippers for Paul George.

Steven Loung, NBA section editor: Yes, Simmons will be traded because he has to be traded.

It’s clear that both sides don’t much to do with one another and, for both Simmons and the Sixers’ sake, they need to find the mercurial point centre a new home – even if it’s not exactly the place Simmons wants to land in and/or the return isn’t what Philadelphia wants to get back.

Perhaps Sacramento, with Buddy Hield’s big contract, could get the deal done?

Blake Murphy, co-host of the FAN Morning Show on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: I think so. There’s a good argument to be made that he stays put, because making a star-level trade in-season is difficult and the Simmons-Embiid pairing has historically destroyed competition.

They say winning can fix a lot of off-court issues, and the 76ers will probably be really good when those two play together. The writing is on the wall longer-term, though, and some team is going to under- or over-perform early and think a Simmons gambit is worthwhile. The big swing factor is if Daryl Morey lowers his asking price – reportedly quite substantial to date – which could obviously speed things up.

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: No. I think the asking price – from Philly – is too high. Plus, given the turmoil, they're not dealing from a position of strength now either, and opposing general managers around the league know that.

How much of a factor will Kyrie Irving be in Brooklyn's season?

Bennett: Zero factor other than being a distraction. The NBA Finals are in June. Sorry to be the bearer of bas news but we’ll still be dealing with COVID-19 in the summer of 2022. By then, taking a booster shot might be mandatory. Unless Irving is going to get vaccinated or Brooklyn backs off its stance of wanting him to be a full-time participant, he’ll play no role in the Nets season. Irving will spend more time playing pickup football then he will playing professional basketball.

Grange: He’ll be a factor, but it’s hard to see it being on the floor. The longer this goes on the harder it is to see this being resolved.

The challenge is where could Irving be traded? Would the Nets be willing to consider Ben Simmons? Does John Wall have any gas left? Irving’s a brilliant player at the peak of his power, but his record of destabilizing teams and organizations is nearly perfect, so it’s hard to imagine the Nets getting proper value.

But moving him before he picks up his player option might be a win. Then again, he doesn’t still believe the world is flat anymore (I don’t think) so maybe he’ll come to his around on the vaccine.

Lou: A huge factor. Irving won’t hold out all year, and he will be supported by Kevin Durant who truly calls the shots in Brooklyn (no pun intended).

Even with all the uncertainties that Irving brings, the simple fact is that he’s an elite basketball player who can decide the championship. He averaged 27 points per game on 50 per cent shooting from the field, 40 per cent from three, and 92 per cent from the line, which is one of the most efficient scoring seasons ever for a point guard.

Loung: Irving will try to be a big factor, but it would be in the Nets’ best interest to try to ignore the noise he’s bound to make until he’s ready (or grows bored) of this particular polarizing crusade he’s on at the moment.

Until Irving decides he actually wants to play basketball with his team again, he won’t play much of a factor into Brooklyn’s season at all – and the Nets will still be winning a ton of games regardless if he’s there or not.

Murphy: None. It wouldn’t shock me if Irving eventually relents, feeling his point has been made and he can return to the fold with his message out there. It similarly wouldn’t shock me if Irving opted to retire altogether. Anything in between those poles feels on the table, too. It’s Kyrie.

I do wonder how his relationship with Durant factors in, as Durant has some real legacy at stake with this Big Three and a legitimate chance to add another ring. I think the Nets are still the title favourites, they’re just poorly insulated against injury and a little less dynamic on the ball without Irving.

Smith: The answer should be “huge” no matter which angle you're tackling this question from. If he sits the entire season or, ultimately, plays only in road games his absence from home games will be massive. If he gets vaccinated and is eligible to play in home games/the entire season, then that impact will be monumental. And the intangible of the “distraction” factor – whether he intends to be or not – is significant, too.

There’s always a ton of trade buzz around the league. Is there a name that isn't being talked about much right now that you think might be dealt mid-season?

Bennett: Deandre Ayton. This is a first-overall pick that Suns owner Robert Sarver refuses to reward with a max contract. Extension talks have ended, which means both sides are entrenched. The only resolution to break the stalemate might be a move.

Grange: It’s a long shot, but maybe Zach Lavine? Only because he’s on an expiring contract and will be the most highly-coveted player in free agency.

If Chicago’s strategy to spend like a contender without having made the playoffs flops again before the trade deadline and LaVine gives the Bulls no assurances about returning, then he would command a healthy return for a team trying that LaVine sees as a good fit determined to get his Bird Rights before he hits the market.

Lou: Is John Wall still a big name? I could see some team taking a flyer on him if the money works out. Granted, it’s a lot of money but maybe Wall does what Blake Griffin did last season. Wall can definitely help a contender.

Loung: John Wall is the only name I can think of right now. Yes, that contract looks immovable, but he could really use a fresh start somewhere to try to reignite is career, so maybe he should look to take a buyout and begin anew elsewhere at a more heavily discounted rate?

Murphy: It’s not really a star-level deal anymore, but I’m curious if we’re deep enough into the Kevin Love contract for a team to talk themselves into it.

The likelier case is the league freezing on a Cavs trade and hoping for a Blake Griffin-style mega-buyout, then racing to see what Love has left on a minimum. Other sub-star names I could see hitting the block are Kristaps Porzingis, Andrew Wiggins and D’Angelo Russell.

Smith: There isn't a name I can think of that hasn't already been connected to the rumor mill over the last few weeks or months. So I'll twist the answer a little bit. There's a team that I expect to be active: Minnesota. With new ownership in place, I think the Timberwolves need/want to make a splash. Plus, they’ve been spinning their tires for such a long time, they're due to make a splash and ignite their upward trajectory.

Kyle Lowry is a member of the Miami Heat now. How much of an impact will he have on his new team? How much does it raise the ceiling of the Heat?

Bennett: Kyle Lowry is a culture setter going to a team that prides itself on its own culture.

Miami now boasts an all-star and Olympic Gold medalist in the backcourt (Lowry), wing (Jimmy Butler) and in the paint (Adebayo). When you add one of the toughest and smartest players in the league to a team that’s already tough and smart, the ceiling goes from good to great.

Grange: Lowry will make sure he has an impact, even if his stats likely fall off a bit. His pre-existing relationship with Butler will ensure a seamless transition; his IQ probably helps a good veteran team even more than a young group and he’ll figure out how to bring the best out of Adebayo, Robinson and Herro. In that context I think Miami will be a legit threat in the East if Brooklyn or Milwaukee falter.

Lou: Lowry will absolutely raise the ceiling for the Heat, considering they were swept in the first round.

Lowry brings two elements that were missing: Elite playmaking from the point guard position, and a threat to pull-up from three off pick-and-rolls, which will open the paint for Bam Adebayo to roll freely to the hoop.

Will that be enough to beat the Bucks? Maybe. The Nets? That’s where it could get really dicey because Lowry guarding Irving was an issue six years ago, let alone now.

Loung: Just like he did with the Raptors, Lowry’s killer combination of smarts, toughness, competitive drive and just plain all-around skill on both ends of the floor is bound to make the Heat a better team and could turn them into a true powerhouse in the East.

He relieves ball-handling duties for Butler, will be the perfect pick-and-roll partner for Adebayo and will perfect hit players like Robinson and Herro right in there shooting pockets as they come off screens.

This is a perfect match between Lowry and the Heat.

Murphy: Lowry’s entire legacy in Toronto was defined by his ability to make life easier for others. That’s going to be his calling card in Miami, too.

Bam Adebayo will have a path to easier baskets, Jimmy Butler can share the ball-handling duties in crunch time, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro can feast off of well-timed passes right in the shooting pocket, and through all of this is a versatility that makes Lowry so easy to add to a new environment – he can hold up defensively moving around more than his size would suggest, he can bring up the play of second units, and he can handle, spot up, cut, or screen to open up even more offensive options for the ever-excellent Erik Spoelstra.

Smith: He's a playmaker, a scorer, a defender, a leader. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and an unbreakable confidence and focus. He will be a massive contributor to the Heat's success this season and could very well catapult them into a top-four spot in the East.

How likely do you think it is that the Milwaukee Bucks repeat as champions?

Bennett: Not likely. They were a Kevin Durant toenail from being bounced well before the Finals last season.

A healthy Brooklyn Nets team with or without Kyrie, the aging all-stars on the Los Angeles Lakers, the revamped Golden State Warriors with Klay Thompson returning and the Miami Heat with Lowry all are as good, if not better, on paper than Milwaukee is.

Grange: The NBA title is coming out of the East, I feel sure of that, barring a miracle recovery by Jamal Murray in Denver. I think it’s the Nets’ title to lose, assuming good health for both Harden and Durant. And if Irving plays? I can’t see them losing.

A wild card here, though, is if Giannis Antetokounmpo builds on his Finals dominance. As great as he’s been already in his career – if becomes a monster who makes 15 free throws a night when the Bucks need him to – maybe no one stops Milwaukee.

Lou: About as likely as any other team because they have the healthiest and most indestructible superstar.

Durant has an injury history, LeBron James has missed time in two of the last three seasons, and Kawhi Leonard might miss the entire year. Giannis Antetokounmpo is made of titanium, so much so that a twisted knee didn’t keep him from catching alley-oops and scoring 50 in the Finals last season.

Loung: As spectacular as Antetokounmpo is, it’s hard to bank against the likes of the Lakers and the Nets this season, especially because had just one of Irving or James Harden had been healthy and more available in that second-round series with Milwaukee, it’s not entirely clear that the Bucks would’ve advanced.

Murphy: Not particularly likely. Giannis Antetokounmpo remains one of the small handful of best players in the world, with a core around him that has proven to be effective enough to reach those heights.

There’s not a ton of turnover, and the swap-outs of P.J. Tucker, Bryn Forbes and Jeff Teague for Grayson Allen, George Hill and Rodney Hood should be a net positive. Still, winning is extremely hard! It always makes sense to pick the field, especially so with two of Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Miami likely in their path in the East and no pushovers coming from out West. Like last year, it feels like this could go four or five ways this season.

Smith: I think they're a very good team but the rest of the East – let alone the rest of the league – has gotten a lot better, too. There's a ton of parity in the NBA and, as a result, I don't see the Bucks repeating.

Is there an under-the-radar championship contender that you like?

Bennett: The Atlanta Hawks. Stay with me and just look at the roster. If that assembly of talent was on one squad you’d consider them a contender if they weren’t the Hawks. After Nate McMillan was put in charge they were one of the best teams in basketball.

The 2015 Warriors came out of nowhere and former Warriors executive and now Atlanta President Travis Schlenk has this group primed to do the same.

Grange: Is Miami under the radar? If so, then maybe the Heat, with Jimmy Butler as the nearest thing we’ve seen to Kawhi Leonard. But only if Lowry, Herro and Duncan Robinson are successfully spreading the floor for Butler and Bam.

Lou: The Clippers, if Leonard comes back healthy. But it’s very unlikely.

Loung: The Nuggets look really dangerous. They have the defending MVP in Nikola Jokic, a solid pick for Most Improved Player this season in Michael Porter Jr., and just plain outside shooting for days. If Jamal Murray can return in time for the playoffs healthy and his streaky self, then Denver could do some serious damage.

Murphy: The Denver Nuggets. Nikola Jokic is playing at an MVP level, Michael Porter Jr., and I love – love! – Bones Hyland. Add in Jeff Green to fill some of the Paul Millsap void and it’s been a solid off-season, even if they need to strike soon before entering salary cap hell.

The swing piece is, of course, Jamal Murray’s recovery from a torn ACL. He’ll need to be back and functioning for Denver to have the weapons for a deep run. They probably would have done just that if he stayed healthy last year. Bring the Larry O’Brien to Morty’s.

Smith: Unless the Warriors count as under-the-radar, then I don't really see one. Most of the true contenders are known/talked about, but the list of possible champs is at least five or six deep, in my opinion.

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