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July 03, 2018

The silver linings of the Sixers losing out on LeBron James in free agency

Sixers NBA
Ben Simmons Joel Embiid Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid walks the floor with guard Ben Simmons.

In the moment after losing out on the biggest free agent on the market, you can only imagine what's going on in the heads of Philadelphia's brain trust. Years of planning and decision-making led them to a meeting with the agent for LeBron James on Sunday afternoon, and before they could even finish discussing things amongst themselves, a press release was sent out revealing his deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.

That is a gut punch by any stretch of the imagination. Brett Brown is one of the most relentlessly positive guys you will ever meet, but even he has to feel the gravity of what just took place. All the work that led to this moment — declining options, sitting out of prior free agency years, the years of development for supplemental pieces — were looked at with a level of seriousness that has to be disheartening.

Having gone through this, the Sixers have a bit of soul searching to do. They have nothing to hang their heads about here, as it appears James heading west was never dependent on luring another star ahead of time. At the time the deal was struck, the Sixers represented the best basketball situation of the options on the table, and that is what the organization should be about above all else.

If there is a takeaway the Sixers should hold onto in the hours, days, and weeks following James' decision, it should be that focus on the long-term sustainability of the basketball program above all else. They can't offer the glitz and glam of Los Angeles, they can't offer the exemption from state taxes of Florida or Texas. But they can continue to build on what they've accumulated in recent years, and turn the Sixers from a beacon of mediocrity into an organization respected around the league.

The GM search should be more open than ever

Now that the most critical part of free agency has ended, the Sixers can turn their attention to deciding who will run their basketball operations moving forward. Free from the pressure of signing James, the Sixers can now make this decision with more of a future focus in mind.

David Griffin was the name that came up early and often in discussions about the opening initially, and while he's absolutely a qualified candidate who should be taken under consideration, there's no longer the same impetus to turn to the former Cavs GM. The Sixers no longer have to weigh how their GM choice will impact LeBron's decisionmaking, and that is freeing to a certain degree.

Without the pressure of signing a player with unprecedented power in team decisions — something he has earned, by the way — the Sixers can simply seek out the most qualified, creative, and prepared candidates for the job. They aren't going to go totally off the reservation with their pick, I suspect, but they don't have to rely on retread candidates for the sake of having a "name" guy running things.

This will provide them with plenty of interesting options. Candidates like Boston Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren and Houston Rockets Executive Vice President Gersson Rojas become a lot more viable, in this writer's opinion, and this opens up the field to a more diverse set of names than perhaps we would have seen in the event the LeBron plan was in full motion.

Some fans will balk at this being a net good, because ultimately having the best basketball player in the world is a more important priority. I tend to agree! However, the market has served a reminder of where the Sixers actually are in the marketplace, even with two young stars who could be among the best players in the league in short order. Free agency is an avenue through which they can improve, but it remains a tough hill for them to climb relative to other destinations around the league.

Knowing this, they need to bring in someone who can mesh with the qualified staff they already have in place, and someone with the proper internal balance of risk-taking and patience.

The biggest developments continue to be internal

Regardless of whether the Sixers were able to bring in another star this summer, the most important development for the team was always going to take place in-house. Philadelphia's front office has been adamant about who they're building around, and the pillars already in place will ultimately determine their fate.

Let's say this for the 100th time this offseason: this is the first healthy offseason of Joel Embiid's career. He has a full summer to hit the gym and work on every element of his game, from scoring and reading plays in the post to becoming more of a weapon as a shooter. With his defensive capabilities already at near DPOY levels, becoming a more efficient offensive player is the key to unlocking the final level he can reach.

His growth to date has come despite comparatively little time playing basketball and injuries that kept him physically unable to play for months at a time. With the speed of his development in spite of these facts, there is every reason to believe a fully-dedicated Embiid can reach the level of an alpha dog on a championship contender.

Does that come this season? Maybe not, but it is absolutely on the table. In the first year of the Embiid/Simmons partnership, the Sixers won 52 games and a playoff series. And that's with last year's No. 1 overall pick effectively falling into a manhole for the majority of the season, the Sixers could get a huge boost with even a partial return to form for Markelle Fultz.

Assuming Fultz isn't dealt this summer — and all indications suggest the Sixers have not put him on the table in trade talks — his work with trainer Drew Hanlen takes on an even greater level of significance. The Sixers drafted him with the idea that he would be the third star to compliment Simmons and Embiid, with his skill set tying so many things together for Philadelphia. He needs to prove that's still attainable with his play, of course.

But from Philadelphia's perspective, the developmental environment for Fultz and his more accomplished co-stars is worlds better in this setup. LeBron's mere presence adds pressure to be good immediately, through the expectations he brings by himself and the glare of the media that comes attached. If you thought the Fultz saga was bad last season, it would have been a full-blown circus had it taken place at the center of LeBron mania.

As Fultz and Simmons go through critical developments of their jumpers, they need to have some level of freedom to fail as they work through the ups and downs.

Philadelphia's story is far from over

It is true that the Sixers had a prime opportunity to strike this offseason, with the biggest free agent in all the land on the market and their cap sheet wide open. The good news? They still have near limitless opportunities to improve the team moving forward.

Assuming they don't go on a spending spree this summer and tie up their cap sheet over the long-term, the Sixers will have another crack at free agency next summer. With another year of development and production for their core, the Sixers will be an even more enticing candidate for free agents, who will begin to believe in Embiid and Simmons as long-term fixtures in the league in ways they couldn't have previously.

Failing that, the Sixers have future-proofed the team to a certain degree. In trading Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and a future first-round pick this June, the Sixers acquired a comparable (and many would argue better) prospect while adding another asset to the war chest. Philadelphia has made no secret of their desire to chase star players by any means necessary, and between their young talent, future picks, and desirable roster in place, they're a prime candidate to take a risk by trading for a star sometime over the next few seasons.

Maybe that ends up being Kawhi Leonard, but it doesn't have to be. Maybe it's CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal, or any number of promising candidates on teams that have plateaued. Trade opportunities arise out of nowhere in the NBA, and the Sixers are about as well-positioned as you could hope to strike if any disgruntled stars emerge over the next few years.

Because the Sixers put so much into this chase for LeBron and Co., because their rebuild started with a dramatic strip-down and a whole lot of losing, there is a sense among some people in Philadelphia that urgency should suddenly shoot through the roof.

So it's worth reminding everyone once again — last year was the first year Simmons and Embiid played together, the second NBA season for Dario Saric, a lost season for Fultz, and each one of these names remains under 25 years old. The primes of all their most talented players are years in the distance, assuming they all stick around long enough for Philadelphia to benefit.

And that's probably a good thing, because any moves meant to push the Sixers to championship contention right this second would likely be an exercise in futility anyway. Not that they needed any more help, but the Warriors signing DeMarcus Cousins as some sort of demented insurance policy and curveball only further solidifies their spot as the most dominant team in modern NBA history. Philadelphia pushing their chips in now for a title shot would be like pissing in a hurricane.

It may feel like all is lost, and Sunday evening the Sixers definitely suffered a major blow. But this is not the end of the world or anything close. It remains pretty sunny in Philadelphia.


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