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July 18, 2018

What are the ramifications of the Kawhi Leonard trade for the Sixers?

The basketball world spent most of the last couple months debating what exactly was going to happen with Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who has done everything short of saying himself that he wanted out of San Antonio. But the assumption long existed that it would be one of a triumvirate of teams — the Lakers, Celtics, or Sixers — who would ultimately make a move for the disgruntled forward.

As it turns out, it was the Toronto Raptors who emerged from the ether over the last couple weeks and sent shockwaves around the league. After preliminary rumblings regarding a potential Spurs-Raptors swap, confirmation began to leak early Wednesday morning, and the final details emerged courtesy of an Adrian Wojnarowski report.

It is, before addressing the various angles and outcomes brought on by this trade, a rather shocking move by both parties. With the aforementioned trio of teams able to theoretically offer packages built around young players and more valuable draft choices, striking a deal that is of a more win-now variety seems a bit strange from the Spurs, and at the very least runs counter to our normal expectations when assessing star trades.

San Antonio's priorities here should signal something to Sixers fans that perhaps they're not willing to accept right now — nothing the Spurs would have actually wanted was anywhere close to being on the table. The Spurs sought out DeRozan, who turns 29 in August, in an effort to remain relevant now that sacrifices future upside. Unless you believe the Sixers could have trumped that package with sheer volume of assets (which would have been a huge risk), there's not an immediate needle mover for them to trade that isn't named Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons.

Spoiler alert: neither of those guys is going absolutely anywhere. And if immediate help is what the Spurs wanted, the Sixers were 100 percent correct to let Toronto rise to the top of the trade pile.

That doesn't mean they're unburdened by the consequences of the move. Far from it, really. So let's take a look at what the Sixers are staring down in both the short and long-term following Leonard's move to the north.

The path to the Conference Finals just got tougher ... theoretically

Once LeBron James decided to take his talents to the Western Conference, it was all but assumed that Boston and Philadelphia would run the East for the foreseeable future. That remains a fairly likely outcome if things hold, but in the short term the new-look Raptors should absolutely be taken as a credible threat to win the East — and perhaps as the outright favorite to do so.

Toronto was summarily dismissed after another playoff collapse against LeBron James this spring, but the pendulum swung too far in one direction following their loss to Cleveland. Once LeBron left the conference, Toronto had every right to believe they were the team in the East to beat, even if future forecasters spent a lot more time discussing the potential of the Sixers and Celtics.

With Leonard replacing DeRozan and Danny Green added in for good measure, the Raptors have swapped out DeRozan for a legitimate MVP candidate, and added to their defense and three-point shooting on the wing. A team that was elite on both side of the ball in 2017-18 now has one of the game's best two-way players, and they sacrificed almost none of their depth to make it happen. That is a scary proposition for Eastern Conference teams.

In contrast to last year's Sixers team, who couldn't find defensive depth to save their lives, these Raptors are absolutely loaded with switchable or impact defenders and are going to be a massive pain in the ass to play against. The two-man combination of Leonard and OG Anunoby alone will make life difficult for opponents, and Leonard is capable of taking on the same offensive burden DeRozan carried without defensive warts or shot distribution concerns.

This should concern the Sixers, who will now presumably have to beat one of Toronto or Boston just to appear in the Conference Finals. The reprieve that looked to be on the horizon for teams near the top of the East pile is not coming yet, and may not come for a while if Leonard remains with Toronto. That's how good he is at his best.

Of course, this all comes with a massive caveat: Leonard has to be healthy enough to give it a go, and he has to have a desire to play in Toronto. So far, that does not appear to be the case:

Any talk about how good Toronto can be hinges on the Raptors changing his mind between now and the start of the season, and the viability of that pitch depends on what you think of Leonard's overall mindset right now. Is he actually deadset on a select few markets, L.A. most notably, or was his mistrust with the Spurs and their medical staff the driving force behind last year's extended absence from the team? That's an important an open question to answer.

But the Sixers can't go into next season hoping Leonard will be a total non-factor. That makes the push for seeding in the Eastern Conference even more vital than it already was before, especially if the Sixers can somehow make a push for the No. 1 seed in the East. That's a tall order for a team with no significant additions and should not be a realistic expectation for a young team, but it would mean a hell of a lot for their hopes at contention.

The pressure to lure another star in 2019 continues to mount

How seriously are we to take Leonard's desire to play in Los Angeles long-term? Serious enough that one of the first things reported during Toronto trade talks is Leonard's complete disinterest in playing for the Raptors. If you're truly open to every viable option, your immediate response to a trade probably wouldn't be to posture as if a potential holdout is possible.

Of course, that threat means a lot more to the Raptors than it does to any of the other teams that will now resort to chasing Leonard in free agency. Leonard will have two distinct options on the table: signing with the Raptors for five years, $190 million next summer, or leaving Toronto to sign with another team for four years and $141 million.

(For the record: I tend to discount the difference when it comes to true max players like Leonard, who one would presume can demand another lucrative deal down the road if his health is in order.)

Knowing Leonard's preference for Los Angeles being what it is, the Sixers can only compete on the same financial terms as the Lakers and other interested parties in free agency (including the dark horse Clippers). That's obviously not ideal, and though there may be a better case to offer him from a basketball perspective, the chain of events that set this in motion have indicated it may not just be basketball that is at the forefront of Leonard's mind. Other factors matter a great deal, as the Sixers found out the hard way with LeBron James.

So the Sixers, frankly, should be prepared to go into next offseason knowing they aren't going to convince Leonard to come here, even if it's something they'll hope for. And in that case, what exactly is the next step for Philadelphia?

Cap space is quickly going to dry up for the Sixers after next summer, and there are issues with just about all of the big free agents on the market next summer. Is Jimmy Butler the best fit alongside this core? Would Klay Thompson, who has expressed interest in taking a discount to keep the Warriors together, really leave the best team in basketball for Philadelphia? Would a lesser free agent, a la Khris Middleton, be enough to put the Sixers over the top of Boston over the long term?

All fair questions to ask, and none of them come with clear-cut answers. This all highlights a point that has been hammered home as the Sixers have missed out on targets this summer — internal development is going to be what powers the Sixers future, alongside the obvious notes about keeping Embiid healthy.

The pressure on Markelle Fultz continues to build

While the glare on Embiid and Simmons will continue to grow brighter with larger expectations next season, no Sixers player is going to feel more pressure as a result of this trade than Markelle Fultz.

Right or wrong, Fultz is and has been viewed as the swing piece that would have prompted San Antonio to do a deal with Philadelphia. Maybe that's incorrect given what the Spurs ended up seeking as a return, but his lack of inclusion in trade talks, which multiple sources confirmed to PhillyVoice, will make many believe Philly had a path to a deal had they wanted to take it.

As a result, Fultz will be expected not just to recover from the weird year he had last year, but to reestablish the path to stardom expected of him when he left the University of Washington. When you balk at including a young player for someone who is a top-five player in the NBA when healthy, hitting a median or lower outcome is generally not going to be an acceptable output in the eyes of the fans, fair or not.

If we were just betting on Fultz based on his work ethic and character, there would be little reason to doubt he gets things right and turns into the third core piece of a contending Sixers team. But if that was all it took for players to cut it at the NBA level, we'd have a lot more success stories and way less failure from highly-touted prospects.

Yes, the flashes Fultz showed at times last year were excellent and he is still tremendously young. But shooting 40 percent from the field, refusing to take outside shots, and struggling to finish at the rim is not going to be an acceptable combination for very long, especially after a full offseason to rebuild and improve his jumper. Giving him the benefit of the doubt was easy last season, and will only get harder to afford him the more actual basketball he plays.

The best outcome for everyone involved here — including the people who cover him, because most well-adjusted people would never wish anything but success for a good kid chasing their dream — would be for Fultz to return from his summer program with Drew Hanlen a revitalized man. No amount of pressure will ultimately matter if he shoots anything like he did at the University of Washington.

However, if things aren't up to par in short order and the saga continues to drag on, there is an undercurrent of skepticism and hostility that will wash over the city. And now the stakes have been raised — he's not just the No. 1 overall pick the Sixers gave up a bounty for, he's the No. 1 overall pick who could potentially have been the player who netted them Kawhi Leonard.

That's a lot for any young person to carry with him every day and every time they step on a basketball court. For his sake, let's hope it ends up being a non-concern.

And, by the way, Philadelphia should hire a general manager

Unless the Sixers went out and hired someone with an extraordinary penchant for risk — which doesn't strike me as the sort of move the franchise would make — no hiring was going to make a Leonard deal more or less likely.

However, with the biggest fish on the market now off the table, Philadelphia's full attention must turn to finding the best possible candidate to helm the basketball ops department. Brett Brown has done a fine enough job maintaining the status quo and upgrading around the margins, but the need for a long-term decision maker has not dissipated in the last month.

Having Brown at the head of the table as the team attempted to feel out his former employer on a trade would not realistically have held them back in any way. But it would be ideal for everyone if the usual chain of command for a successful sports franchise was reestablished, and for Brown to go back to focusing more of his efforts and energy on being the best possible coach for the group he has in Philly.

Leonard's move to Toronto also theoretically slows down the offseason for other major players, including a franchise like the Boston Celtics. If the Sixers wanted to poach respected members of some of the league's best front offices, the period between now and training camp is as good a time as any with a lot of team business all but wrapped up. There's plenty of free time on both sides of the equation to conduct interviews.

Whether this actually gets Philadelphia's ass in gear is up for debate. But since star-hunting season appears to be over for now, they might as well make use of this extra time on their hands.

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