How much does Ben Simmons look like the next LeBron? Do the Sixers or another Eastern Conference team have the brightest future? And which young player will eventually unseat James as the king of the East?
Our NBA Insiders go 5-on-5.
1. Rate the accuracy of this statement from 0 to 10: Ben Simmons is the next LeBron.
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN.com: 4. Don’t do this! It’s like searching for the next MJ — fruitless and humiliating. Simmons is versatile and fearless, but LeBron is a freight train and Ben’s a mini cargo car. If he can develop a perimeter jumper like LeBron did, though, look out.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight.com: Maybe a 3? It’s simply not accurate yet. Being the next LeBron would mean that Simmons is on track to be the best player in the world for a decade or longer at some point. He’s been incredible so far and is obviously the real deal. But (1) I’m not even totally convinced he’ll be the best player on his team, and (2) his defense and his shooting struggles — or even figuring out which hand he wants to shoot with — aren’t on par with LeBron’s. But: He may someday get there.
Bobby Marks, ESPN Insider: Zero. Now, if you replace LeBron James with Magic Johnson, the number might increase. Take a snapshot of Johnson’s rookie season (18 points per game, 7.3 assists per game, 7.7 rebounds per game and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center) and compare that to Simmons (18 PPG, 9.2 APG, 7.7 RPG and Joel Embiid at center) and we could be witnessing the next great big point guard of this generation.
Jeremias Engelmann, ESPN Insider: 7. Looking at historic similars, it’s clear Simmons is not only in elite company — Bird and Scottie Pippen show up as having similar careers — but also has a statline that comes very close to LeBron’s.
But part of what makes LeBron so great is career longevity. Until we see Simmons show the same kind of durability, we won’t know whether he can stay on the same path.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: 5. Few players have been a closer match for James in terms of size and skill, and Simmons will make plays — particularly his cross-court passes — that are reminiscent of James’. Still, a couple of things worth remembering: James has developed into a decent and sometimes good 3-point shooter, but that may never be part of Simmons’ game. And as impressive as Simmons’ rookie season has been, at the same age, James finished as the runner-up for MVP and probably should have won the award. That’s a high bar.
2. After LeBron, which player will be the king of the East?
Herring: It looks like this will be a future four-man race between Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Embiid and Simmons. I’d put my money on Simmons or Embiid given that — for now — they play for the team that has the highest ceiling and will get a chance to make a far bigger impact than players who are less likely to reach the Finals. Now if only we could assure their health, all this would be much easier.
Engelmann: I think it’ll be a close race between Giannis, Irving, Simmons and Embiid, depending on who wins the Eastern Conference title first, which probably puts Irving in the lead. How soon depends on when — if ever — LeBron leaves Cleveland again. If he stays and Cavaliers management can avoid grave mistakes (e.g. when they signed Derrick Rose), I’m expecting the Cavs to come out of the East for another 2-3 years.
Pelton: In terms of matching the way James and his teams have dominated the East for years? Nobody. As far as being the best player in the conference, I’d make Antetokounmpo the favorite over Simmons and Embiid because he’s playing at a higher level and has proved more durable during his NBA career.
Marks: The people in Cleveland won’t want to hear this, but I’m choosing the best finisher in the league, Kyrie Irving. Yes, Philadelphia has Simmons and Embiid, New York has Porzingis and Milwaukee has the Greek Freak, but don’t forget that Irving is still only 25, has not entered the prime of his career and will only get better in Boston, as the first six weeks of the season has proved.
MacMullan: Antetokounmpo is already a legitimate MVP candidate at age 22 who seemingly adds something new to his game each week. Once he adds the 16-footer — and a killer shoe deal for the Freak Sneak — he will own this league. It could happen as soon as two to three years from now.
3. Which East team has the brightest future?
Pelton: I’ll take the Celtics for a similar reason to taking Giannis for the last question: They’re already much closer to realizing their ceiling and aren’t reliant on continued development. But the Sixers are certainly a reasonable choice, particularly if during free agency they can add to their core another quality wing player in his prime.
Herring: It’s the Sixers, who could begin realizing their potential much sooner than a lot of us realize. Steve Kerr, in trying to give the Celtics their due ahead of a game against them, said Boston was the team of the future. The Celtics have a ton of youth that has impressed and will continue to grow. Yet we have a sense of what their best player is and what he can be. We simply don’t know what the healthy Sixers can be yet. Especially without seeing more of Markelle Fultz.
Engelmann: This is between Boston and Philadelphia, with no other team coming close. Both teams already play winning basketball now, are stacked full of promising young players and have future first-round picks from other teams coming their way. They’re both in a beautiful situation.
MacMullan: The Celtics. They will contend next year with a healthy Gordon Hayward while simultaneously building for the future with a young nucleus of Irving, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And we haven’t even mentioned the lottery pick to be named later in their clutches. Anything is possible in Boston right now.
Marks: Sorry, Philadelphia, an 11-7 start to the season doesn’t camouflage the past four seasons and win you the title of team of the future. That honor right now goes to the Celtics, and not because of the team’s recent 16-game win streak. Boston has the more accomplished product of players who have played in big games (Irving, Al Horford, Hayward) along with a young nucleus (fifth-youngest team in the NBA) and draft assets to improve. While the 76ers have cap space in July to add an impact player, free agency often proves to be fool’s gold.
4. Would you rather buy stock in Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid?
Engelmann: I think this is very close. In a vacuum you probably take the taller player that appears to fit modern basketball — though Embiid needs to improve his 26 percent 3-point shooting. On the other hand, Embiid’s elite shot-blocking skills are somewhat diminished in importance in this era because of the large number of 3-pointers taken. Also, Simmons’ injury history sounds a lot less scary. So I’ll take Simmons.
MacMullan: Good thing I don’t gamble, or I’d be broke — I actually thought New Coke was gonna make it. I pick Embiid. I understand the health risks, but he has all the tools to be the next great big man, and the Sixers have wisely stamped his forehead with “Proceed with Caution.” It doesn’t hurt that the big fella’s the most entertaining guy since Shaq.
Marks: It’s hard not to buy stock in a 6-foot-10 point guard. The intangibles that Simmons possesses — unselfishness, making his teammates better, the ability to play multiple positions — give him a slight edge.
Pelton: Simmons because I think there’s less chance of his injury recurring or limiting his career than there is with Embiid given his litany of injury issues. Fortunately, Philadelphia doesn’t have to choose.
Herring: If I had to choose? Simmons. We’re hardwired to worry about big men having more troubling injury concerns (although at 6-10, it’s not as if Simmons is a traditional guard). The ultimate hope is that both of these guys avoid significant injuries going forward. But at this point, it seems easier to write off Simmons’ injury last season as more of an anomaly than Embiid’s issues. The sky’s the limit for both of them, though, which is why Philly will be a force soon.
5. Whom would you rather have for the next three years?
A) LeBron James
B) Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid
Marks: There is no slowing down the LeBron James train even if the future Hall of Famer will turn 33 in December. Yes, Embiid and Simmons give you an All-Star-level point guard and center when healthy. However, an 11-time All-Star who does not miss games and has an immediate impact on every team he has played for versus two players who have played a combined 64 games in three seasons is too hard to pass on.
MacMullan: I learned a long time ago not to bet against LeBron. He’s an immovable force both on and off the court that seems impervious to the usual wear and tear of his counterparts. He also controls his own future and will choose wisely on the next stop of his championship tour. The kids are alright, but they need time.
Herring: I think I’d gamble on the young duo. This would’ve been an easier call before Embiid’s extension a few weeks ago. But truthfully, if Embiid and Simmons are even remotely healthy, there’s more value in having two star or superstar players — who basically play what are widely seen as the two most important positions — than there is in just one. It also assumes that both of them will continue to ascend as they develop and jell, whereas LeBron, superhuman as he is, should finally begin to slow down as goes into his mid-to-late 30s.
Engelmann: In the regular season I am not sure, as there are definitely signs that LeBron is coasting during that time of the year. But for the playoffs I’d take LeBron, as that’s where he — again and again — turns into the best player on the planet. Also, given how few signs of age he’s shown so far, I’m expecting him to stay great for at least another couple of years.
Pelton: LeBron, although you can make a case for either option here. From the perspective of winning championships, player value increases exponentially. So James is easily the better bet to help a team win a championship this season, and while I’d probably give the Embiid-Simmons combination the edge there by 2019-20 — when James will be 35 — I don’t expect their advantage to be as large as James’ is now.