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May 24, 2019

Mailbag: What skills should Sixers prioritize with their first-round pick?

Sixers NBA
113018_Elton-Brand_Usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers general manager Elton Brand.

Without any games to write about, we move into everyone's favorite time of the year — transaction and rumor season. The fake GM in all of us gets a chance to declare how they would run the Sixers if they had control of the draft or free agency because a simulation of NBA 2K19 just isn't good enough. I get it — I used to go 20 years deep in Madden's franchise mode before I quit sports games for the sake of my blood pressure.

So without further adieu, let's start rolling out some offseason mailbags. 

I don't think this is an area where you can afford to write off either side of this equation. The ideal role player for Philly would be able to do both, though often times that ends up being easier said than done because everyone wants three-and-D players in today's NBA.

Still, I think it's important to note how much of an impact James Ennis made on Philly's playoff rotation just by being a competent shooter and an above-average defender on the wing. There are guys on big-money deals who get played off of the floor in the playoffs either because teams funnel all the shots their way and dare them to shoot, or because they get turned into revolving doors on the defensive end. Ennis, making less than $2 million, was essential.

That being said, if I had to lean one way or the other, I would give the nod to a guy with defensive chops in the hopes they can be at least an average standstill shooter. Philly's identity moving forward should be big, mean, and athletic, and the priority should be picking up players who add to that. Size was one of the biggest reasons they went the distance with Toronto in spite of their inexperience — good role players like Fred Van Vleet were simply overwhelmed by it.

End of the day, you're just searching for the best player available who fits within your culture and style of play. There are team needs, certainly, but get the guys who you're most confident can be NBA players and figure out the rest later.

It's gotta be Zhaire Smith by a mile, right? Last summer's Markelle Fultz experience should be enough to curtail any excitement for whatever he shows from "the lab" this summer. Ben Simmons shooting jumpers in an empty gym may get the biggest reaction, but I have seen him launch threes and J's in warmups time and time again, so until he starts shooting more in games it's all kinda background noise.

I suspect we'll see at least one crazy dunk from Smith this summer, which would top the list.

I'll give each of these scenarios a five percent chance of happening. I would like to say zero, but nothing is ever truly a zero-percent chance, so that accounts for some outlier outcomes.

I think the Sixers would love to get one of Durant or Leonard in here, but their interests appear to be elsewhere.

Good question, EK. I believe Kurtis Blow has the answer to that one for you.

This will always depend on how the board shakes out/draft-day context of course, but I suppose I would say no from where we sit today. With the salary cap situation being what it is, I'm not sure the Sixers will want to add another guaranteed slotted salary to the books if they can avoid it. That just adds to the luxury tax bill. Maybe they take a few fliers on second-round guys and just hope to agree with one of them on a small deal with non-guaranteed money in it.

I also don't know that there will be anyone in this class worth trading up for from where they're at, obviously. It's a class with a decent amount of role player depth but not a lot of star equity. They'd have to have supreme confidence in somebody's upside to trade up, in my opinion.

I have to tell you guys, sitting where I was at Scotiabank Arena for Game 7, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that shot was going in the second it hit the rim for the first time. One of the advantages of sitting in higher media seating is that you can often tell when a shot is going down much easier, and this was one of those cases. It was still a tremendous moment to witness in person, but the shock and awe of it was not the same for those of you watching at home.

And really, that council scene made no sense at all, so even if the shot had been surprising from my view I would still have the same answer.

Have you seen how large Joel Embiid is? I can put food away pretty well for a skinny person, but I am not at his level as an eater.

This is a bit more complicated than it may seem on the surface. I think the first place your mind goes is to say they should run more pick-and-roll and allow guys like Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to control the offense more. I don't think they're ever going to be a team that just runs spread pick-and-roll to death, though, nor do I think that's a good way to build harmony with a star-studded group.

Diversity is the key for me here. Assuming everyone is back, I would like to see Harris and Embiid work on developing some of the same two-man game we've seen Embiid in with JJ Redick over the years. I would like to see more willingness to live with tough stretches from young players to try to break through. Butler running more backup point guard would be nice, and unleashing Ben Simmons as a screener/roller is high on the list as well.

Priority No. 1, however, is solidifying the team's defense. This is going to be a battle fought on several fronts — he needs to get buy-in from players who showed they can flip the switch in the playoffs and he needs to make personnel decisions on a game-to-game basis that help his guys. The former will be easier said than done, but it is critical for this team if they have Finals aspirations moving forward — homecourt may have been the difference between losing a Game 7 in Toronto and potentially going to the Finals to challenge Golden State.

As I tried to preach this past season, the Sixers (and you guys) are going to have to be able to live with some ups and downs in the regular season. But if they have a reasonable amount of continuity, there needs to be a defensive edge and toughness that they only showed in spurts last season. They should set their eyes on the top of the conference and move forward with that goal always at the forefront of their minds.

I don't think you have to worry about anybody dragging things out the way Bryce Harper and Co. did. NBA free agency is a much quicker affair, with the league mostly waiting on one or two guys to move before a flurry of signings are made elsewhere. Once Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard make decisions, the dominos are going to start falling.

Or at least they better, because I'm going on vacation in mid-July, so if things break while I'm off of the grid, your boy is going to be upset.

A guy who will be available that I think would be a perfect fit for what they need — Khem Birch, who spent last season with the Orlando Magic. Unfortunately, he's a restricted free agent this summer, and any offers likely won't be big, so the Magic might be able to keep him for cheap.

But if they pay Nikola Vucevic big money and commit to developing Mo Bamba behind Vucevic, I could see a scenario where they have to save that (very small amount of) money and usher Birch into free agency. He would be excellent in Philly if he becomes available. He improved all over the place on offense for Orlando last season, is a great screener and finisher as a roll man, and though his box-score numbers aren't much to write home about, he will consistently give you good minutes off of the bench. His defense at the rim was quietly near the top of the league, albeit in limited minutes.

I say this to make a point — there are value players out there if the Sixers choose to look. The Sixers should not head into free agency overthinking the center issue, because there are guys like Birch who are only theoretically on the board who could help their team. 

Someone will shake loose by the end of the summer. They don't need big names to improve the rotation. Ed Davis is available every freaking year for almost nothing. This shouldn't be too hard or too expensive.


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