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December 18, 2018

The Sixers' bench is killing them, and they may be stuck with it all season

The Sixers made a trade for Jimmy Butler in early November despite being a footnote in most conversations about the All-Star forward. There was Miami, coming close to a deal before things fell apart. There was Houston, reportedly offering a boatload of picks. Philadelphia, meanwhile, was always spoken of in very vague terms. "Don't be surprised if they get involved" was as concrete as things got.

But the Sixers executed that trade all the same. I say that to say this — do not mistake current inactivity or radio silence as a sign that nothing will happen before the NBA trade deadline on February 9.

Still, an honest look at the situation reveals a couple hurdles for the Sixers. Do the Sixers have some valuable assets to move? No doubt. But are they willing to part with them, and will they be able to leverage their primary trade chips into an impact player before the deadline? The likely answer is no.

All roads lead through Markelle Fultz

The inclusion of Jerryd Bayless in November's trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves was sneakily a big deal for Philadelphia. Bayless was the only player on the roster with sizable cap hit and no present-day value (or upside) for Philadelphia, making him an easy candidate to ship out for salary-matching purposes.

Unfortunately, almost every player with at least a decent-sized salary is an indispensable part of the rotation. The Sixers can't really afford to make two-for-one (or worse, three-for-one) trades involving members of the rotation, as their depth is already terrible enough as it is.

That even applies to Wilson Chandler, who has been underwhelming as an obligatory fifth starter. Chandler is miscast as a starter, but he's one of the few players beyond their top three that can offer you something on both sides of the ball, even if he's average or below-average at a lot of those things. Pre-Butler trade, Chandler showed you he can still offer value as a wing off the bench in the minutes he played behind Robert Covington.

That leaves Fultz as the only logical trade chip for Philadelphia, despite being out of sight and out of mind at the moment. The rest of Philadelphia's young players either don't have the same upside, don't have enough salary to be moved on their own, or both.

Moving the second-year guard at this juncture is a tangled web of priorities. The front office that selected him No. 1 overall is still mostly in place, sans Bryan Colangelo. The Sixers have invested a ton of equity in Fultz, from draft capital to development hours, and have not received an offer they feel offsets the potential downside of moving him.

The rumored teams in the running for Fultz haven't proven willing to offer much for Fultz, nor do they have much to offer in the first place. Is it really worth getting an expiring shooter like Detroit's Reggie Bullock or Orlando's Terrence Ross to help them this year and get off Fultz's deal ahead of free agency this summer? Debatable.

Some have compared the situation to the decision the Sixers faced with Jahlil Okafor, where you risk holding onto him too long, but I don't think that's a fair comparison for Fultz. 

Tough as it is to fit Fultz on a team built around Ben Simmons, he has a much better case for carving out a career as a role player if the shot never comes back. Unlike Okafor, Fultz has also shown progress and development in problem areas with more playing time — his defensive improvement was notable between the start of the season and late November. The problems in Philadelphia are centered more around his developmental timeline, fit, and the overwhelming scrutiny invited by a bit player.

With the avenues to upside closing in the years to come, it's a hard sell to part with Fultz for spare parts, even with how much of a fiasco as the situation has been. And that leaves the Sixers with very little to offer another team if they want to add depth to this group.

Needing lightning to strike twice

This leaves the Sixers in quite a predicament. They need to nail the buyout market for the second season in a row, and not only are the odds against them doing so, but there is also more pressure to nail their post-deadline moves.

Good luck getting two players who help as much as Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova did last season. Belinelli shot seven points higher than his career average from the field and hit all sorts of crazy threes down the stretch of last season. Ilyasova's play was at least more sustainable, but finding that perfect of a fit for the frontcourt is also unlikely on the buyout market. 

The Sixers are no longer a fun story and a team ahead of schedule. They are a team with serious expectations, with some of those coming from their own head coach, who has said since training camp that the Sixers want to compete for a title. They did not trade two rotation players for Jimmy Butler so they could tread water.

If the Sixers fail to upgrade the rotation, forget for a second about how you, the fan will react to the lack of progression. Think about what's going through your mind if you're Joel Embiid, putting up MVP-type numbers and playing with a bench full of guys that can't defend. Think about Jimmy Butler, who has the choice of where he wants to sign this summer, and basically can't leave the court because the Sixers don't have even a passable backup on the bench.

I'm not suggesting either guy is going to throw a fit, but hanging stars out to dry with a lack of help plants seeds of doubt in their minds. That's not what you want to do in year one of their new core playing together if you can help it.

Chickens coming home to roost

All of this stems from the team's strategy in free agency over the last few seasons. Their approach is certainly defensible when viewed through the right lens, and if they get another really good player over the summer, it will have all been worth it.

When they went out and acquired Wilson Chandler last summer, they were expecting him to be a backup to Covington, not a starter next to Jimmy Butler. You can decide how much you believe the people saying this, but after the Sixers acquired Mike Muscala, multiple members of the organization insisted to me that his acquisition was meant to come alongside Nemanja Bjelica, not as a substitute for him. That sure would have been nice — Bjelica, who backed out of an agreement with the Sixers to go to Sacramento, is shooting a ridiculous 48.5 percent from three this season.

But this is the peril of putting all your eggs in the "sign a big fish" basket. The Sixers have limited themselves to players on one-year deals in order to chase stars and sub-stars in free agency. All they've come away with is an assortment of middling vets who have been thrust into bigger roles than they're capable of playing at this stage of their careers.

Had they nailed their draft picks, they'd still be doing okay. But the Sixers have botched the majority of their non-lottery picks, perhaps because they never really understood what they were trying to build around in the first place. Simmons missing a year with an injury hurt for planning purposes, no doubt, but with the idea in mind that he was going to be a point guard or at least a point forward, they could have done a hell of a lot better than drafting a big man from Latvia who seems destined to stay in Europe for his whole career.

Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, Red Dead Redemption 2's story is based around one central dynamic. Dutch, the leader of the gang you're a part of, insists throughout the game that he has a plan. He does this so frequently that there are entire YouTube videos built around how often he does this:

Over time, the story's protagonist, Arthur Morgan, recognizes the pattern and wrestles with the idea that Dutch never knew what he was talking about in the first place. His skepticism is not the result of a sudden bad decision, but a reassessment of events that take place over years of time. As the days of the outlaw die out in the old West, Arthur questions what it was all for, even as he continues to go along with Dutch's plans.

The Sixers are not unlike Dutch in the way they've gone about their business. On the horizon is that last big score, the final free agent piece that will tie this whole thing together, as long as you are willing to believe in that goal and wait with them. Sure, they'll take some lumps in the meantime, but just you wait until they deliver the big prize at the end of it. Their front office insists they have contingencies built into their plan and the backing of ownership to make it all happen, glancing past the current wreckage on the bench to do so.

Elton Brand deserves time to prove that he deserves your faith in his plan. Unfortunately, he doesn't exactly have a lot of time to execute one before the well dries up. And the creativity the Sixers need to fix their current predicament? That has been the biggest quality their front office has lacked over the last three years.

Maybe this all ends happily and we're all farming mangos in Tahiti attending a parade down Broad Street in the years to come. Or maybe multiple years of failure to build on top of a strong foundation ruins everything, and we all wonder what could have been.

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