Ben Simmons wants to be a Laker; should the Sixers pick him anyway?

He could be the savior of the franchise. He could also be its biggest problem.

The Sixers knew they would be in this spot at some point. It’s a good spot to be in, all things considered. But a spot nonetheless.

The first pick in the draft comes with all the perks the basketball universe can offer to a moribund franchise looking to rebuild. Or, in the Sixers’ case, reboot. And yet, the first pick can come with its own unique set of problems. Like what if the best player doesn’t want to play for you?

Ben Simmons could be the savior of the Sixers franchise. He could also be its biggest problem.

Should where a player wants to play matter to teams in line to draft him? Should the Sixers care if a player wants to play for them?

With Simmons on record in the past saying he wants to be a Laker and reports cooking up this week that his handlers are trying to get him to LA for the increased marketing exposure — LeBron has played in Cleveland and Miami and KD has been in Seattle and Oklahoma City and they’ve both done just fine with the marketing opportunities, for what that’s worth — should the Sixers look to invest more time vetting Brandon Ingram, a player who (perhaps) would be more interested in being the face of the Sixers, because Simmons would rather be somewhere else?

Sixers president of basketball operations and general manager Bryan Colangelo was asked about this by NBA reporter Howard Beck on SiriusXM this weekend. Colangelo doesn’t seem concerned.

The key pullout from that comment is this: “we’re going to pick the player that we think is the best fit for our team and the best piece for us to build around, and with.”

Is it possible, then, for the best piece to build around, and with, to be a guy who doesn’t want to be here? (None of this, for what it’s worth, is to suggest Ingram would rather be a Sixer than a Laker, but the issue with Simmons, presently, is the bigger concern.)

This leaves the Sixers with three options:

  • Draft Simmons because he is the most talented player available. If he doesn’t want to stay in Philly, he can leave after his rookie contract is up.
  • Draft Ingram because your trusted scouts believe he has the best chance of becoming a franchise-changing superstar.
  • Draft Simmons and hold him hostage over the Lakers for another pick.

Really, unless the Sixers know Ingram is the right guy, the smart play is to draft Simmons. Then they can either keep him or immediately trade him to the Lakers for Ingram and a pick. Simply not picking Simmons because “he doesn’t want to come here” is ridiculous. There is no way Colangelo is entertaining that idea, so for the next month, neither should any of us.

It might make sense for the Sixers to draft Simmons even if the team would prefer Ingram, just to trade him to the Lakers for something in addition to the swap. Sure, that move runs the risk of blowing up if the Lakers are happy with Ingram at No. 2, but if it does the end result for the Sixers would merely be keeping the best player in the draft. Oh. Darn.

This isn’t anything new for the Sixers. In the last two seasons, the worst team in basketball — if not by record both years, then certainly by reputation — was forced to settle for the third pick in the draft, taking injured Joel Embiid, presumably just happy to go when he did, then nabbing Jahlil Okafor last season.

We remember how that introduction went.

Really, Okafor and the Sixers deserved each other last season. A dynamically talented offensive big man, Okafor was, at times during his one season at Duke, thought of as the best player in the draft. Until he wasn’t.

The Sixers thought they were going to tank their way into the top pick, until they didn’t.

Okafor may not have wanted to come to Philly — and who could blame him — but he thrived in his rookie season, as best as a player can on a team that won 10 games, earning a spot on the NBA All-Rookie team. Now, predictably, most in Philly want the Sixers to trade him.

It hasn’t just been Okafor. Part of the reason the Sixers were moving on from Sam Hinkie was his inability to attract free agents. Nobody wanted to play for the Sixers the last three years, something Colangelo has been on record he hopes to change.

“I don’t know we’ve got the story to sell one of the key free agents this year in terms of what we want to do. But another year of taking a step forward…I think we’ll have a compelling story to sell to not just one free agent but possibly two and maybe even three—to say ‘Do you want to come in a double-max situation? Or a triple-max situation?’

The fact is, despite Philly being a major market and historically a great basketball city, it hasn’t been a destination for talented professionals since before any of these players were born. Even the Iverson-era Sixers weren’t a destination for young talent given how little they would see the ball when AI was on the floor. Since then, the team has gone from good to bad to worse, making any other team in the league seem more desirable by comparison.

And in a way, doesn’t this whole Simmons predicament seem familiar? Didn’t we, Philly fans, just go through this with Sam Bradford?

Look, let’s all hope that Simmons is better at basketball than Bradford is at quarterbacking the Eagles, but the visceral reaction fans in Philly had toward the idea that Bradford didn’t want to compete in (read: for) Philadelphia turned this city wholly against its own.

What will the masses do if the Sixers take a guy in Simmons who would rather be in Los Angeles?

Can you embrace a player who doesn’t want to be here? What if he’s averaging 20 and 10? What if he’s leading a team back to the playoffs, back to the Finals, back down Broad St?

The Sixers need to figure out which player can do that. Whether he wants to be here or not almost doesn’t even matter.

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