June 28, 2018
The passage of time in an NBA offseason can make it feel like so many things are happening despite a complete absence of activity. Betting odds for free agency decisions rise and fall based on lightly-sourced reports and intel on where someone is "leaning," and we all pretend that means free agency has been wrapped up by the time the NBA Draft is finished.
That's what the mood has been like in Philadelphia, anyway. With Kawhi Leonard's reported preference to play in Los Angeles coloring everyone's perception of the landscape, a lot of Sixers fans (and analysts, to be fair) have written off the team as a potential suitor for the big names this offseason. If the Lakers get the first star to commit, it could create a domino effect that prompts the likes of Paul George or LeBron James to take their talents to the West Coast. Failing that, the stars staying with their respective teams would also work against Philadelphia, obviously.
These are outcomes the Sixers absolutely have to prepare for, of course. They may be well-positioned to go out and making "star-hunting" moves, as Brett Brown would call them, but being in the right position does not always produce results. It's the same as playing good defense in basketball — sometimes you can do everything right and the guy across from you is still going to splash one in your face.
But if the future the Sixers envisioned does not come to fruition this summer, if the Sixers are left on the outside looking in as big-name players sign elsewhere, how do we evaluate everything that has happened so far? And to hone in on the real question — will that represent a failure and missed opportunity for the Sixers?
Philadelphia's lack of a "real" GM has not been a huge deal up until this point, including during the critical pre-draft process that led the Sixers to make some bold moves last week. The vast majority of the team's work on the scouting front was done ahead of time, with the workouts in the final weeks pre-draft serving as just a small piece of the puzzle. Even with Bryan Colangelo getting kicked to the curb, the Sixers still had plenty of capable and prepared hands around to keep them on track.
While it may not feel like it, this much remains true in Philadelphia's pursuit of big-name players. It doesn't exactly take a basketball genius to understand adding LeBron James or Paul George to your team would make you better in the short and long-term, lowering the individual pressure on your young stars and raising the ceiling of the team in one fell swoop.
But in the event that the Sixers are shut out in their hunt for big fish, things get a lot trickier and more complicated. I have no doubt the Sixers have contingencies and backup plans for a whole host of scenarios, but those are lot harder to choose from than lining up a max player and saying, "Hey, we'll pay you whatever you want."
Without a true lead decision-maker — apologies to Brett Brown, who I think did a stellar job on draft night — competing philosophies and beliefs have the potential to emerge in the Sixers' war room. Do they stand pat for another summer, offering big one year deals again, or do they make an earnest effort to compete in spite of losing out on their top targets? Which players exist in the tier behind the stars that can actually move the needle in a meaningful way?
These are complex and interconnected decisions Philadelphia's collaborative front office will have to make. Consider this — if the Sixers determine they're going to be frozen out of star acquisitions over the next two summers and make moves this summer accordingly, what they do with their cap space could impact the sort of GM who would want to come here.
The attractiveness of the Sixers' lead basketball operations job is tied to the presence of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, sure, but also to the cap flexibility that would allow someone to come in and build a possible contender around them. Committing the wrong long-term money this summer could prompt qualified candidates from places like Boston or Houston to stay away, fearing the combination of pressure to win and limited flexibility almost immediately.
This is all theoretical, of course. No one is sitting with a gun to Brown's head telling him he has to make moves to get this whole thing done in an instant, and if anything the draft proved he is capable of making divisive, future-focused moves with the pressure on.
Does that extend to free agency? That's anyone's guess.
Philadelphia's chase for stars this offseason and next has been one of the biggest open secrets in basketball over the last couple years. When PhillyVoice reported last fall that the Sixers would not pick up Jahlil Okafor's fourth-year option, the subtext to that move (and many others) was their pursuit of max players in the summer of 2018.
LeBron James has always existed at the top of their priority list, for reasons that should be obvious. Focusing on bringing in one of the greatest basketball players of all time and a mentor to Simmons makes all the sense in the world, even if the on-court fit is not the smoothest. Holding out for the highest-upside scenario is absolutely defensible.
However, this prioritization comes at a cost that is not as clear in real time as it is in hindsight. The focus on this group of free agents specifically kept the Sixers on the outskirts of other potential deals for needle movers. As one example, could the Sixers have been more involved in the Jimmy Butler trade talks last summer? The capital they used in the Markelle Fultz trade could have been used to bring in a more proven option alongside their core of young players, providing them with a go-to player on the perimeter and an excellent two-way player.
That's just a single instance, and it's harder to spotlight players they could or should have targeted in free agency over the last two summers. Although it shrunk their pool of players quite a bit, it is decidedly a good thing that the Sixers strove to keep their cap sheet clean and hold out for larger growth opportunities, instead of settling for small, but ultimately inconsequential gains. The addition of JJ Redick alone was invaluable for Simmons and Embiid, who benefitted from his floor spacing on a nightly basis.
It should also be noted that Philadelphia's hunch about 2018 free agency and the direction the team was heading in ended up being largely right. Most people would have scoffed at the idea that LeBron James would join a team led by two young players if you brought it up last summer, as a playoff appearance looked like a wide-eyed dream at that point. 52 wins and a playoff series victory later, the sales pitch Philadelphia brass always believed they had has come to fruition.
That might not get LeBron or George to put on a Sixers uniform when all is said and done. But to be firmly in the conversation at this point reflects well on the process they took to get here.
The biggest reason to remain optimistic in the event the Sixers don't lure a star to Philadelphia? It's not because they'll have another chance to do so next offseason, or even because comparable talents will become available. Instead, it's because the Sixers already have the talent on hand to be a considerable force in the Eastern Conference for some time.
Joel Embiid was named to an All-NBA team in just his second season playing professional basketball, and he has yet to have even a single healthy offseason to prepare for what's in front of him. What he has achieved to date is staggering — with a complete absence of prep time between and during seasons, a former inability to play back-to-backs, and a relative lack of experience in the sport compared to peers, Embiid is still one of the most impactful basketball players on the planet.
The health question marks are what they are, but the optimist's case for Embiid is a future in which he can be one of, if not the best player in the NBA. His ability to dominate the game on both ends is staggering when he has it all rolling, and building a proper conditioning base should help him endure the grind of the long seasons he has ahead.
Despite a very obvious flaw in his game, Simmons too has an immense amount of upside as a two-way player. He was the rare rookie who put more on the table than he took off on defense, a do-it-all force on offense who made his teammates better, and a fixture in the lineup in contrast to his taller running mate. The base skills and talent are there for Simmons to turn into something special, so long as he continues to work on the oft-discussed jumper.
Philadelphia will almost certainly get something out of Fultz moving forward, and further growth should be expected from the likes of Dario Saric, who made a tremendous leap as a shooter in year two. Add in excellent defense from Robert Covington, crazy upside from Zhaire Smith, and it's not hard to talk yourself into Philadelphia being just fine without any major moves, even if it takes them a little longer to reach the summit than some fans hoped.
Make no mistake, it will be a gut punch if Philadelphia loses out in free agency and has to watch Lakers exceptionalism win after years of empty boasting. Talented as the Sixers' young core may be, it would absolutely be a setback if they can't bring a more seasoned star in to help give those guys a leg up.
But optimism should remain no matter what happens over the next week or two in free agency because the tentpole players a star would come to play with will remain in place regardless of any signings this summer. The mere presence of Embiid and Simmons is worth celebrating, even if this summer's end product is not.
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