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June 29, 2019

Sixers mailbag: Looking at the free agency picture for Philly, from Jimmy Butler to smaller pieces

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Tampering season is in full effect, and NBA free agency has almost begun. The Sixers are going to be one of the most interesting teams to follow as contract negotiations unfold and plans for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are revealed, and that's all anyone can really think about at the moment.

At 6:00 on Sunday night, all the rumors will (mostly) come to an end. The Sixers will have their chance to solidify their core or move in a different direction, and Philadelphia will be a nervous wreck in the meantime.

I can make no promises or lie to you about what I do or don't know, but I hope you all take a deep breath and remember that even if your favorite team strikes out this summer, they are still in a good place moving forward. To the questions...

Here's my message to the fans heading into free agency — the Sixers have the ability to make offers to Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler that other teams aren't capable of. They have said over and over that they're willing to go into the luxury tax to contend, and this will be their chance to prove that.

If the Sixers really do pony up the years and cash, I think they have an excellent chance to keep the core together and run it back with the same group that took the Toronto Raptors to seven games this season. It may not be the cleanest fit in the world, but I think the Sixers really did grow as a group on the court and off of the court this past season, and there's no telling what they could look like with another year of experience under their belts.

Even if Butler and Harris leave, the Sixers have one of the league's 10 best players in Joel Embiid, a flawed but super-talented prospect in Ben Simmons, cap space to fill out the supporting cast, and some prospects to develop that fit on a longer timeline. It's not what people want to think about right now, but it's the reason the Sixers felt bold enough to take risks in the first place. When your worst-case scenario is falling back on a pair of young stars, you have justification to go for it as soon as you can.

I'm not the guy running the team, but the playoffs would seem to have confirmed all of the worst fears people had about Boban as a playoff player. He was unplayable against Toronto to the point that Brett Brown went with Greg Monroe, a man they plucked out of thin air in early April, to try to hold down the fort in minutes without Joel Embiid.

JJ Redick might be the most interesting free agent the Sixers have this summer. There are a lot of strikes against him, namely his age and the money an elite shooter can expect to command on the open market. He is not going to be the top priority for Philly this summer, although you could make a case that his perpetual motion and shooting is more important to the offensive structure than their stars were at times last season.

As long as you don't have to pay through the teeth for him, I think you continue to roll with Redick. I do think there are factors that are relevant to him that people don't discuss as much as age and money — he doesn't want to uproot his young family if he can help it, and keeping a sense of continuity by staying in Philadelphia (or selecting a New York team closer to his home) could be an option that helps him compete and have the best off-court life possible.

Redick likes this group. He was on the verge of tears discussing the team and the camaraderie in the moments immediately following Game 7. He's a pro's pro, and the Sixers benefit from having him around as much as he benefits from the attention defenses pay to the stars he plays next to. They should keep him if it's feasible, period.

MORE: Live updates: Latest Sixers rumors heading into NBA free agency

I know "Run It Back" has gotten a little overzealous on Twitter among fans, but I really don't see a better path forward for Philly that doesn't involve something totally unforeseen. If they had a real chance to sign Kawhi Leonard or a player of that caliber (there aren't many of them), it would be a different story. But threading that needle seems highly unlikely, and the corresponding moves they'd need to make on top of that would certainly complicate matters.

Nobody hands out awards for almost beating the NBA champions, but the Sixers played the eventual title winner as tough as any team in the playoffs. Keeping Butler and Harris in the fold would keep them big, athletic, and skilled, and while they can maintain some of those advantages regardless of who they sign — it helps to start with Embiid and Simmons as building blocks — their starting group was a unique mix of talent that shouldn't be taken for granted.

I don't know if they will come to regret a max contract for Jimmy Butler by the time he nears the end of it. I don't know if Harris is worth a max or even a near max. I do think, however, we have seen that this group is capable of a lot. If it all falls apart, people will say to themselves that it is okay because they have two young stars either way. Maybe that's true, but you don't know how long you'll have them for, or how long they'll be healthy, or how far they are from their respective peaks. Sometimes the best chance comes sooner than you think. Ask the Oklahoma City Thunder if you don't believe me.

It is complete nonsense. My dad once told a group of my friends and I, "If you can't be good, be quiet," which I suppose is the guiding philosophy of tampering enforcement. As long as you don't tamper on national television like Magic Johnson, it's all good.

Most likely, it'll be a mixed bag for both guys. The good news is that neither one should have to step into a defensive stopper role out of the gate, partially because that's not really how NBA defenses work anymore. They can work on making the proper reads, learning when (and when not) to gamble, and be disruptive away from the ball, which was a huge need for the Sixers last season after Robert Covington was sent packing to Minnesota.

They both have good instincts and tools, but they are still young and have to go through pains like all inexperienced players. Philly has to let them grow through those so that they're ready come playoff time.

RELATED: NBA free agency: Does Horford actually make sense for Sixers?

If you start hearing any talk about the Sixers seriously contemplating the Butler sign-and-trade option with Houston, that is not a good sign. So far, all of the smoke has come from Houston's end and the Sixers are still armed with the biggest possible contract offer for Butler. Trade talks progressing in any way either means the Sixers are fearful he's heading elsewhere, or that they're not willing to give him a fifth year.

Until or unless that happens, though, don't assume the smoke means fire.

I'm not sure there is one, truthfully, unless the Sixers think they're unable to get a free agent as good or better than Eric Gordon with the cap space they'd gain from renouncing Jimmy Butler. Gordon would be a good fit in Philadelphia and the likely centerpiece of any returning package for Butler. Is he the absolute best possible guy you could bring in? I would have my doubts about that, considering the Sixers could clear Butler $30 million cap hold from their books entirely.

Maybe if the Rockets come up with some high-value firsts in a multiple-team deal, you think about it, but it feels like if Butler signals he wants out that the Sixers should just accept that he's moving on and pivot quickly to a new plan in free agency.

I could be wrong but I don't think Russell is really on their radar. For one, he already seems to have his suitors lined up, and if you're approaching him as a backup plan (which he decidedly would be for Philly), I don't think you have a real shot at getting him. Fultz was also traded for when the Sixers had a different looking team than they do now, and I think the Sixers have learned a lot more about the talent they have on hand. Remember, no one had any idea what Ben Simmons would look like on an NBA floor at the time they traded for the No. 1 pick in 2017.

Besides, tangling with restricted free agents is dangerous for Philly, even if Russell seems unlikely to return to Brooklyn with the threat of a Kyrie Irving signing looming. It forces them to wait things out either way, and the 48-hour period could screw up their other plans should it come down to it. 

Would not be shocked if they are trying to get involved with Houston during the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade maneuvering, because Clint Capela would make some sense there depending on how everything else shakes out. Publicly, they seem to be more focused on replacing Irving than Horford, though that may just be because they view Kemba Walker as a better target than say, Nikola Vucevic.

MORE: Lakers opening max space makes Sixers' initiative clear — pay up, or else

Purely on the court, I think Noel would be an awesome backup for Embiid. A rim runner who can block shots and credibly switch on defense would do wonders for the Sixers, and Noel is obviously familiar with the coaching staff and some of the players here. He and Embiid were close friends during his time in Philly.

It's the rest of the package that you'd have to look at carefully. There were members of the organization who were unhappy about him behind the scenes while he was in Philly, and there were some public reports about unsavory behavior (e.g. trashing a rental property) that don't help his reputation. We only see a fraction of what goes on with these guys day-to-day, so I can't say exactly how impactful any of this in evaluating players.

From what I can tell, Noel has grown up over the past couple of years, and if he's willing to shine in a bit role here, it's worth exploring. But I would guess it's probably not the likeliest answer at backup center.

A group of masked men, an unmarked van, and enough rope to tie up a professional athlete for a drive on I95 from D.C. to Philadelphia. Somebody call Liam Neeson

The Clippers have the space to sign Butler outright along with another max free agent, so there's zero motivation to discuss a sign-and-trade.

Honestly, I think Simmons needs someone like Butler next to him in the short term. He is going to run into the same problems in the playoffs until he diversifies his games, and having someone who can shift in and out of roles will help keep the Sixers from grinding to a halt.

It's the other half of the equation that would concern me. Will Butler be happy deferring a lot of touches to Simmons, who very much believes he should be (and is) the team's point guard? I'm unsure of that. He likes to have the ball in his hands, and there were times last season where he was clearly not as engaged when he had to be an accessory to the offense rather than at the controls.

Perhaps that dynamic doesn't matter if the Sixers run more pick-and-roll, as they did in the playoffs, but there are some dynamics worth watching if they happen to bring everyone back. The Butler/Simmons role distribution will be one of them.

Unless someone is offering the bluest of blue-chip prospects, a la Zion Williamson, or a star in their prime, like James Harden, no thank you. Since neither of those things are happening, there's no real reason to have this discussion.

(Would anyone go back in time and trade Simmons for Kawhi Leonard knowing how last season played out? I would say there are plenty of "yes" votes there.)

I'm going to cheat and give my own answer — versatility. The Sixers don't need a one-trick pony at center, a defensive specialist who can't shoot, or a knockdown shooter who gets sauteed every time down the floor. They need players who can take on different responsibilities at a moment's notice, switch on defense, and hit enough shots to keep defenses honest.

They could, however, use any sort of guard with pick-and-roll juice. It seems impossible that they've had so few of those over the last decade.

I am going on vacation on July 13th, so if there is any justice in the universe, everything will be locked down before then.

Just kidding, the Sixers are totally going to blow up my vacation.

MORE: Report: Rockets will try to push Sixers to sign-and-trade Jimmy Butler

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