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February 04, 2019

Ranking Sixers' top needs heading into Thursday's NBA trade deadline

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There is universal agreement in Philadelphia that the Sixers need to upgrade their rotation in advance of this year's playoffs. The fans know it, the media know it, the team certainly knows it. We've been collectively talking about the failings of the bench for months, and with their three stars showing what they can do, it's about time Elton Brand went out and upgraded his team.

Philadelphia has been relatively quiet about their overarching plans, outside of Brett Brown declaring that he'd like a rim protector and another wing during a media availability session in January. Things have changed a bit since then, with Sixers players emerging (or disappearing) from the rotation, and with experiments underway in the lineup, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So while we all may not agree, here are Philadelphia's biggest priorities as far as I see them, with some targets to keep in mind should the Sixers make a trade on Thursday.

1. Three-and-D wing

The Sixers have been short on wing depth for basically the entirety of the Process era. It's a problem they have tried (and failed) to address and remains a huge problem with how the game is played in 2019.

By virtue of having Ben Simmons on the roster, the Sixers should be able to play with a lot of experimental lineups, going bigger and more athletic than the average team even when Joel Embiid hits the bench. This is doubly true with Jimmy Butler taking over some of the backup point guard minutes, putting another oversized ballhandler at the controls of the offense.

But because of Philadelphia's roster construction, they end up getting forced into traditionally-sized lineups without the skills that should come attached to the players in those lineups.

With just one guy who can switch on the wing and knock down open threes, the Sixers' healthy rotation would completely transform. Their starting lineup of Simmons-Redick-Butler-Chandler-Embiid is killer, but with Simmons leading the second unit, there is no reason the Sixers should have to turn to T.J. McConnell in the first wave of subs. Get one wing Brown can trust on the bench, and suddenly you're looking at a second unit that looks something like Simmons-Shamet—Wing X—Chandler—Bolden, which helps foster the identity the Sixers should be trying to build as a big, athletic team that still has enough guard skills to not suffer on offense.

(That last bit is important. No one should be expecting a primary creator, but an upgrade from Corey "The Drunken Dribbler" Brewer in the handler department would be useful.)

The upside you'd love to shoot for here is to get a fifth starter who can supplant Chandler, or at least fight him for minutes. Chandler has been fine at what he's been asked to do, and if you can scale back his minutes and keep him fresher for the playoffs while getting another contributor to the rotation, it'll be a huge help for this group.

With another credible wing, you can minimize minutes for guys like Mike Muscala in the playoffs, where his issues defending in space could become a much bigger problem.

Candidates: A lot of the names here have been circulated on social media a ton. Taurean Prince in Atlanta has come up some, though I think he's overrated defensively and is more of a project than people seem to believe. Orlando's Terrence Ross could be had for the right price, ditto Memphis' Justin Holiday and Garrett Temple with the Grizzlies shopping their stars. (Of note: Holiday can't be packaged with other players.)

On the buyout market, we've already reported that Wesley Matthews is on the team's wishlist if he gets bought out by New York. The buyout market is tougher to peg before the deadline actually happens, but keep an eye on guys who are on teams with nothing to play for — Cleveland has a handful of guys on the block right now, according to local reports. I'd stay far away from J.R. Smith, but Alec Burks could be worth an end-of-bench flyer.

2. A better/more versatile backup guard

Here's the flipside of the above conundrum: Brown's tendency has been to play lineups that skew traditionally when he goes to his backups. Look at the team's history of acquiring stretch four types (Mike Muscala, Ersan Ilyasova) as an example of what I mean. The same could be said about his backup guard selection, where he has leaned heavily on McConnell even in matchups where it's clear they need something else.

With that in mind, Brand could seek to simply give Brown a better version of the player he wants to put on the floor in these situations. 

If McConnell's three-point shot was respected by opponents, or if Markelle Fultz was who the Sixers believed he would be, we probably wouldn't need to have this conversation. Unfortunately, McConnell turning into a multi-level scorer or Fultz finally blossoming are hard things to bet on for a team with Finals aspirations.

While the ideal fit here would be a player who could plug holes at both ends of the floor, that's probably not realistic. If they can bring in a guard that has some multi-positional defensive juice, that will do. If they can get one that gives them some added versatility as a pick-and-roll handler, that would also work. The Sixers need anyone who can help them defend guards, and stabilizing the minutes behind Simmons would be a big start.

I would understand someone who ranked this at the top. But I think if you upgrade the wing, the Sixers have the defensive steel between Butler and Simmons to deal with guards, provided they find someone who would take the assignments either would have to vacate to stick opposing guards. And as mentioned previously, I think their future should be in making teams play up to their size, not the other way around.

Candidates: Two standout options: Corey Joseph in Indiana and Patrick Beverley of the L.A. Clippers. Both are on expiring deals, play on teams with young guards who need minutes, and could give Philadelphia some help on both ends of the floor. Unfortunately, both guys play for teams who are currently in the playoffs, and they might hold onto whatever they have in the hopes of solidifying that position. Joseph has long been rumored as a trade candidate, but with Victor Oladipo out for the year, it could be all hands on deck in Indy.

The Pelicans are at the center of a lot of rumors right now, and they've reportedly called teams about E'Twaun Moore. He fits sort of in between the two player archetypes we've discussed so far and would be much better off in a smaller role in Philly. But he's also owed $8 million next season, which would complicate Philadelphia's free-agency plan.

3. A stretch four

If the Sixers could upgrade the spot Mike Muscala currently has in the rotation, they would really be cooking. So why is this so far down the priority list?

With the way the game is played today, I would prefer a guy who offers versatility so you're not pigeonholed into different lineups. And compared to the problem the Sixers have with their guards, I think upgrading the Muscala spot is a lower-priority issue.

Still, imagine how much better they'd look with a player who was either a better shooter than Muscala or a more versatile offensive player. Simmons hands him a handful of wide-open looks every game, which could easily turn losses into wins and close games into comfortable victories with the right upgrade.

Candidates: Washington's Markieff Morris, a Philly native, makes some sense here if the Wizards don't get fooled by their uptick in play* with Bradley Beal running the show. Morris has been a lot more inconsistent from three than you'd like and is actually below-average beyond the arc for his career (33.8 percent career, 33.3 percent this season). I would also be concerned about adding another wild card to the locker room, but he would absolutely add some toughness up front and some shot-making versatility from mid-range. The latter could loom large in a playoff setting when teams take away Philly's primary options.

The home-run swing would be to take a run at Nikola Mirotic, who like Moore has been made available by the Pelicans. It's an option I'm admittedly sour on — Mirotic would be another potential target for an opponent's offensive gameplan, he's been in and out of the lineup with injuries, and he probably won't come cheap. But he's a good shooter, can help on the glass, and he helped Anthony Davis hit another level in New Orleans last season.

*Note: The Wizards will absolutely get fooled by their uptick in play.

4. A rim-protecting center who can shoot

Brown has outright said this is a priority for the Sixers when discussing their plans recently. We do not agree on this point, or at least not on the urgency they have to get it done.

The Sixers will always have to manage Embiid's minutes in the regular season, but I just don't see the case for spending assets on another true center in advance of their playoff push. With Jonah Bolden emerging, I believe he needs to get a lot of his minutes learning the nuances of defending the five spot, 

Another thing to note here — once the playoffs hit, backup center is roughly a 10 minute per night role. Embiid is going to dominate touches and time on the floor. Does it make sense to package the few assets you're willing to give up for a pure backup? Maybe, but only if that player is the best one available on the market. That doesn't seem likely here.

I firmly believe that a steady hand at backup center would help the Sixers when it matters, but I think that's a buyout market priority, not a position you spend real capital on. The goal should be to find players who can play alongside all the best members of your team, especially with the minutes increase Embiid will see in the playoffs.

Candidates: Atlanta's Dewayne Dedmon is the popular name to toss in here. He strikes me as the only current trade candidate who makes much sense for Philly — Marc Gasol is far too costly (on multiple levels) for a team built around Embiid, and the same could be said to a lesser extent about DeAndre Jordan, assuming the Knicks are serious about keeping him.

If the Sixers want to go bargain bin shopping, Salah Mejri has been out of the rotation in Dallas for most of this season. He's not going to offer you anything on offense beyond three feet, but he's made a defensive impact in spot minutes for the Mavs over the last four years.

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