The Whiteboard: How many draft picks would you trade for Ben Simmons?

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Matt Moore’s reporting on a potential Ben Simmons deal between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors threw a definite wrinkle into the mix yesterday. The details in Moore’s report — Simmons to Toronto for Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and the No. 4 pick elicited a knee-jerk “no effin’ way” reaction from pretty much everyone but giddy 76ers’ fans. As an outsider, a deal with Anunoby and VanVleet cut out makes at least some sense, especially since the Raptors risk losing Lowry for nothing this offseason. But the big question comes down to how you weigh Simmons’ value against the generic value of the No. 4 pick.

The consensus on this draft class seems to be that Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley will go No. 1 and No. 2, barring some sort of trade. That likely leaves Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs for the No. 3 and No. 4 slots, with the Raptors (or 76ers) ending up with whoever the Cavs don’t want at No. 3. This becomes increasingly messy because the No. 4 pick has zero leverage in what seems to be a two-player second tier of prospects, and because the question is obviously heavily influenced by how each team views the long-term potential of Green and Suggs, specifically. But what about in a vacuum?

Is Ben Simmons worth more than the No. 4 pick?

Measuring the expected value of each slot in the NBA Draft depends on what all-in-one metric you prefer, but every metric creates a similar curve. The difference in expected value between the No. 1 and No. 2 picks is larger than the difference between No. 2 and No. 3 and the curve rapidly flattens as you move towards the end of the first round. Using Win Shares and the curve created in analysis by 538, we would expect the typical No. 4 pick to produce between 20 and 25 Win Shares in their first five seasons. Even if you include the rookie season Simmons’ missed, he’s still well ahead of that mark — producing a total of 30.4 Win Shares in the four seasons he’s actually played. Another way of looking at it — about a third of No. 4 picks ever make an All-Star team, Simmons has already made three.

So, Simmons has already produced far more than you would expect from a generic No. 4 draft pick (which makes sense since he was taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 Draft). But he’s also just 25 and would be expected to produce far more over the next five seasons of his career — it’s a quick metric switch but 538 projects him to produce about 43.2 Wins Above Replacement over the next five seasons, which is way more than any team could reasonable expect in concurrent production from the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft. So, yes, in a vacuum, Ben Simmons is worth way more than the No. 4 pick.

Is Ben Simmons better than Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs?

The question then becomes whether there is something specific about Green or Suggs (or any of the other handful of players who could conceivably be taken at No. 4) that makes them better than the average No. 4 prospect, likely to outperform typical expectations for the draft slot in a meaningful way. There are far fewer publicly available NBA Draft projection models than in previous seasons but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for that argument.

You could talk yourself into Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs being more productive than Simmons over the next decade, but over the next five years Simmons is likely to be vastly more impactful as he plays out his prime and Green or Suggs slowly ramp up their growth curves towards the beginning of theirs. But there’s still one more layer of granularity here…

Does Ben Simmons get a team closer to a title than the No. 4 pick?

Now you have to take into account a team’s finances, the rest of their roster construction and the way Simmons’ specific strengths and weaknesses fit together with those variables and a team’s style of play. The two previous questions can be answered fairly generically but for this last one, each team might come to a different answer.

For the 76ers, it certainly seems to be a no. If the 76ers were hypothetically able to trade Simmons for Lowry and the No. 4 pick, they might be getting slightly less value in the short-term but Lowry’s skills could be a better fit for a championship run next season and long-term value of the No. 4 pick as a player or trade asset gives them additional flexibility.

For the Raptors, Simmons would certainly seem to put them closer to contention over the next five years — adding an All-NBA defender whose ball-handling skills would work well with Fred VanVleet and allow them to focus more simplistically on chasing 3-and-D-plus players at other positions. However, he might not get them close enough to contention for it to be worth the risk, and looking for other short-term options or planning for another iteration of this team built around Green or Suggs in the back-half of this decade might be a better choice.

For the Cavaliers, Simmons could make a lot of sense. Collin Sexton and the No. 3 pick would work for the 76ers (or Kevin Love, No. 3 and Isaac Okoro?), accomplishing many of the same things they’d be after in a Kyle Lowry trade. For the Cavaliers, they’d be giving up the chance to have their choice between Green or Suggs to get an upgrade in production for the next five years and a defensive star who can share ball-handling with Darius Garland.

For the Magic, this would be an absolute no-brainer with the No. 5 pick. They’d have to send Gary Harris and Terrence Ross to make it worth it for Philadelphia and even that might not be enough. But Simmons is more productive than Harris and Ross combined and, as we’ve already established, way more valuable in a vacuum than the No. 5 pick.

Moving lower in the draft, the math just becomes more obvious. Unless a team has a tight cap sheet or an intact roster structure that makes Simmons’ redundant or counterproductive, trading picks for him seems like a clear plus. Even trading multiple picks — Oklahoma has No. 6, No. 16 and No. 18 — probably makes sense. The tricky thing is that the 76ers are much more interested in shooting and players who can help them win now, with the picks as sweeteners. But for any team considering pushing their chips to the middle of the table in a Simmons trade, protecting your picks probably shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

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