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March 08, 2021

The Sixers’ biggest needs to fill before the NBA trade deadline

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Daryl_Morey_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and managing partner Josh Harris.

The All-Star break is never a fruitful time to discuss basketball, unless you're particularly interested in a midseason game with no defense or the media circus that leads into (and out of the game). But it should be a time when trade rumors bubble to the surface in a big way, so we might as well embrace that fact around these parts.

We will continue to update you with concrete trade rumors and more analysis right up until the deadline on March 25th, but for now, let's look at a few of the Sixers' top needs as I see them, how they impact the team, and who makes sense within that context.

Archetype — Shot creator

The Sixers have only been able to piece together an average offense despite Joel Embiid playing out of his mind, a soft schedule, and a good ecosystem for their best players. The big thing missing is three-point shooting, but I don't think the Sixers lack shooters, which is an important distinction. Generating threes has been a problem for the Sixers — they rank 28th in threes attempted, besting only the Knicks and Cavs — and the path to rectifying that problem is to add another guy who can find shots for their standstill shooters.

Under Doc Rivers, the Sixers have seen an uptick in pick-and-rolls but not the dramatic leap forward I think many expected coming into the year. There will always be a cap on the volume they can get to on a team built around the Embiid-Simmons duo, but it's invaluable in the playoffs when your first, second, and third options for set plays can break down/be figured out, forcing you to simplify the game and run a lot of late-clock offense. A ballhandler who can put pressure on defenses and open up space for other players is as valuable as it gets in the spring and early summer.

In a best-case scenario, the Sixers would get their hands on someone who can join the starting lineup and help carry the second unit. You could use Simmons as a screener more throughout the game, buy rest for Embiid and Simmons, pair Harris with another high-level player in bench-heavy groups, the opportunities are plentiful. Even if they can only manage to bring in a "serviceable" option, that changes the game for a guy like Shake Milton, who has carried a heavy burden for the second unit and could see his three-point numbers climb if he was not asked to run nearly every possession.

If the post-up center driving their success is irreplaceable, and Embiid is, you can never have enough guards to help him out.

High end: Kyle Lowry

Realistic target: George Hill, Patty Mills

A return of one of Philadelphia's prodigal sons would not just make for a great story, it would put the Sixers in the tier of real-deal contenders this season. Lowry is that good, and he balances out their lineup in a profound way without the Sixers losing any of their top players in the exchange. It would be hard to do better than that. Lowry checks basically every box you would want in a deadline acquisition, save for the part where he's pretty old. 

Even that feels like it could end up being to Philly's benefit — playing for a contender in his hometown is an easy sales pitch beyond this year, and the Sixers could potentially get him at a reasonable salary rate unless he wants to hop from team to team in the final days of his NBA life. But there is considerable risk before and after you make the deal depending on cost. You could give up assets or players who turn into stars for a conference rival, give additional chips to one of the league's savviest executives, and ultimately overpay for a small-ish guard whose time could come sooner than it seems at the moment. Worse yet, if you make the move with the idea that he's here past this season, perhaps you end up paying too much in salary to do so, inspiring enough anger at the ownership level over the tax bill that it forces management to make subsequent bad moves down the road.

So let's say that's not available or you're not happy with the price. The good news is that there are almost always playable guards available to be had at the deadline. There are more guard-sized players with skills worth acquiring because there are far more people in the world who are guard-sized, so the question is what a team might desire in terms of skill set.

Hill is as clean a fit on paper as you're going to find because he's the sort of guy who all playoff teams want. Solid defender, solid initiator, terrific catch-and-shoot player, there's basically nothing to dislike about him. He also has another year on his deal that is only partially guaranteed, so if he stinks it up and you don't want to be on the hook for the full $10 million and change next year, you have an out. That will be the thinking for plenty of other suitors, however, and the Thunder will sit in a position of strength right up until the deadline.

Archetype — Stretch big

With all due respect to Dwight Howard, who I think has ultimately been fine for a backup center in his mid-30s, he's not an every-game player for a team that wants to contend for a title. The Lakers figured that out quickly during last year's playoff run, booting him from the lineup in the series against small-ball Houston and feeling out how useful he could be on a given night the rest of the way. Even if there weren't team-specific concerns to think about, it's the nature of relying on an inconsistent backup big man.

Then there are the Simmons-specific considerations to keep in mind. When the Sixers have actually made the attempt to stagger their stars this season, it has often ended with the Simmons-Thybulle-Howard triumvirate of death on the floor together. Swap in a big shooter for Howard and suddenly you don't have as many problems with spacing, allowing Simmons to slice and dice as both an initiator and a roller. Skills like short-roll passing, which are within his wheelhouse but rarely able to be worked on, could be honed with more time on a spread-out floor.

To me, this is a type of player worth pursuing even if they're an addition you only get value from in the regular season. It allows you to present a different look to teams during a brutal second half of the schedule, giving you outs when your usual plan doesn't work, and if these lineups work well enough down the stretch, it creates uncertainty 

High end: P.J. Tucker

Realistic target: Nemanja Bjelica, Mike Muscala, Ersan Ilyasova

I hesitate to put anyone in the "high end" category for this one mostly because Tucker is having an abysmal season in Houston. Is that a reflection of the poor situation in Houston, age catching up to Tucker, or proof that James Harden lifted all ships when he was still with the Rockets? Making your living as a corner-three shooter is a bit easier when you have a corner-three generating machine at the controls, and Tucker's numbers are his worst since he played for Phoenix back in 2015-16. Someone who has seen the Rockets play more than I have this season will have to be the judge of the root cause, but let's just assume Tucker has a bounce-back playing for a team with something to play for.

If he still has more to give, Tucker is a great option for Philly. His expiring, team-friendly deal makes him easy to acquire, he's a rugged defender who can play well beyond his size, and he is just fine in a tertiary offensive role. The good version of Tucker is exactly who you want to have next to Simmons in a small lineup that switches more frequently on defense and spreads you out on offense.

Every other guy they can reasonably get comes with some form of defensive downside. Muscala is having the best year of the three by a comfortable margin, mostly because he's actually in the Thunder rotation and making a healthy amount of threes every night, compared to Bjelica (out of Sacramento's rotation) and Ilyasova (out of the league entirely).

Bulls big man Lauri Markannen has come up among some fans and analysts, but he's on the verge of restricted free agency and is young enough to command some trade value as a result, even though he's oft-injured and still more potential than production. 

Archetype — Two-way wing

It hasn't hurt them yet, but the Sixers' options off of the bench are remarkably one-dimensional on the wing. Furkan Korkmaz has improved defensively but will likely always be a candidate to be targeted in the playoffs, Matisse Thybulle can lock down on defense but can't shoot a lick, and, well, they don't much in the way of playable wing depth beyond that. Isaiah Joe could get there someday, and his defense has been better than expected, but there's almost no way they can count on him during a playoff run.

Getting a guy who could take some defensive responsibilities off of Simmons' shoulders without cramping his space on the other end of the floor would be pretty ideal. There's one main problem with this sort of player — they're in high demand and shorter supply pretty much always, so it's hard to get a good one at the trade deadline without paying an exorbitant price for the privilege.

(Tucker probably fits in here better than the other category to some extent, but since acquiring him would help create a path to new lineups, I threw him in the stretchy category. No less relevant.)

High end: Does one exist?

Realistic target: Terrence Ross

There are a bunch of names people will throw at you here, from Otto Porter to Will Barton to Harrison Barnes. I think all of those guys could help the Sixers in one form or another, but there are roadblocks to acquiring most of them.

Porter is probably the easiest guy to acquire from a value standpoint for reasons that make him a tough sell as the "final piece" — he has constant health issues and is not exactly the most dynamic player in the world. His salary (a whopping $28.5 million in this final year of his deal) also makes it damn near impossible to go after him unless the Sixers think acquiring Porter and Porter only will swing their title odds. That doesn't seem likely.

Barnes was a name that came up in the offseason but mostly for bad reasons, the thought being that they might be better off if they could swap Tobias Harris out and shave some salary for a smaller and shorter contract. I don't think Barnes is bad if they decide to go that direction, but he is most effective as a four by far, which means you would either be paying far too much money for a bit player or shoehorning him into the lineup and sliding guys out of natural positions to make it work.

Barton is tricky because the Nuggets are in a similar-ish position as Philly, probably in need of a consolidation move and short on movable pieces/contracts to make that happen. The Nuggets can't deal Barton in a Sixers deal, IMO, unless the Sixers are ponying up assets to re-route to a third team that is giving Denver a star. Young players and assets aren't of significant interest to Denver at this stage of team building.

So I keep coming back to Ross, a guy who has been connected to the Sixers many times over the years, and was allegedly gettable when they opted to get a first-round pick and Jonathon Simmons back in the Markelle Fultz trade two seasons ago. I think he's the sort of player who would infuriate some people, with his gunning tendencies pronounced and his defense not exactly consistent, but they sort of need a guy who will get up shots with no fear of falling.

The Magic seem to be open to moving vets this deadline with the team ravaged by injuries, and if the Sixers go this route, they could have Ross for a couple more playoff runs after this year, with Ross locked in through 2022-23 on a contract that declines in value after this year (down to $11.5 million in the final year). That could increase his value on the market, but he's a guy worth yet another look. 

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