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January 10, 2018

Sixers Mailbag: Do Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons deserve to be All Stars?

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The Sixers are in London with an extended break between games, so that was only ever going to lead to one thing: bringing back the mailbag to go over some midseason questions.

Heading into their overseas date with the Boston Celtics, the Sixers have turned a corner and started to show flashes of the dominant play they first showed off in November. They are the current owners of the No. 7 defense and the No. 15 offense, marks that speak highly of their progress considering their personnel and the various hurdles they've had to clear. At 19-19, they are firmly in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot, with their hopes riding on a strong second half of the season.

And yet, the focus of many Sixers fans remains on the long-term. After spending the last four years looking past a historic dose of losing, I can't blame anyone with big-picture questions on the brain.

Admittedly, I haven't watched as much amateur basketball as I have in years past because the pro team around here has demanded a lot more attention. But for now, I think Luka Doncic remains the guy at No. 1 unless someone makes a profound case between now and the draft.

Doncic's production as a teenager on one of Europe's best teams is nothing short of incredible. Unlike other young stars who have played in Europe, he is an integral piece of what Real Madrid does, the maestro of their offense rather than just a component of it. His level of craft and understanding of the game is far beyond his years, and while I struggle to compare international players to guys with "normalized" competition in the NCAA I think he has done everything to prove he's the top talent in the draft.

The only caveat I would add here is that Philadelphia's current roster composition eliminates several options other teams would consider. DeAndre Ayton has been an absolute man-child for Arizona, and he has a combination of size, strength and grace that you do not see come around very often. But the Sixers are not going to draft a center, even one as talented as Ayton, to sit behind Joel Embiid. Trae Young has seen his profile swell in recent weeks, but even with Fultz being a man of mystery right now I doubt the Sixers would take a smallish guard at No. 1 a year after investing so much in the Fultz selection.

Doncic is the only guy who really makes sense in the draft's top tier unless you're a believer in Michael Porter Jr., who is expected to miss his only college season following back surgery. If you're asking me to choose over someone we didn't see play against college competition and a teenager dominating Euroleague, give me the latter every time.

(Editor's Note: Only addressing No. 1 from the following question)

While I think it would be unwise to throw out the value of respective draft classes out the window entirely, I would caution against reading into prospect rankings this far out. The word we got on the upcoming class last year was that it'd be a weak one, and so far there appears to be plenty of top-end talent for rebuilding teams to be excited about.

My philosophy on this is fairly straightforward and tied to other beliefs on team-building. Philadelphia's focus and/or rooting interest on the Lakers pick should strictly be concerned with maximizing upside because top-end talent is the key to sustainable success in the NBA. If anything, Sixers fans should root for L.A. to lose and lose heavily, because better odds for a No. 1 selection are the best way to move the program forward.

There is a reason the Sixers made sure they could keep that pick if it ended up going No. 1. Even if they got it and didn't end up using it, the value of the No. 1 pick far outstrips any other selection at the top of a draft. The ability to choose anyone you want in a crop of talented young players is invaluable, and historically the higher you select in a draft the better odds you have of drafting a foundational piece for your team.

In a hypothetical where Fultz never rediscovers his jumper — improbable in my eyes, but not impossible — the Sixers don't just need a shooter to step into his place, they need a third star to supplement the talents of Embiid and Ben Simmons. Players who can create off the dribble, score, get to the free-throw line, and do all the things a star-level player does are not often found lower in the draft. 

While the prospect of Boston coming away with a selection in the 2-5 range this June might be scary, the Sixers have to worry about maximizing their own potential. If that means having to fly close to the sun and potentially getting burned, you live with it. If the Sixers lose the Lakers pick this year, they still have the Kings pick waiting for them after next season to help load the roster.

I think there's only one real answer to this question, though it was not the guy who first came to mind when I stared at this list of names. Julius Erving would not be the cleanest fit alongside the players the Sixers have in place, but I think he's comfortably the best player in this group and the guy you have to choose.

The warts for the other players in this list are pretty obvious. Iverson's ball-dominant tendencies would be a struggle to fit alongside Simmons and Embiid, and I think the potential for ego clashing would be high. Toney had a knack for clutch performances and the shooter's rep, but at 6'3" he'd be a weird guy to fit into the defensive picture and not as sure a bet to make threes as you might think. Barkley's limitations are perhaps the most pronounced: he's arguably the worst volume three-point shooter ever and a player who would complicate Philadelphia's defensive plans, forcing Simmons and Robert Covington to deal with uncomfortable matchups depending on how you doled them out.

Erving was far from a three-point marksman, but he was an efficient volume scorer for the entirety of his professional career and he gives you the best combo of length and athleticism for modern NBA defense. If you put Covington, Erving and Simmons in the 2-4 spots, you could absolutely kill teams in passing lanes, and the Erving and Simmons combination would be the deadliest transition duo since LeBron James and Dwayne Wade played together in Miami.

Floor spacing would be a potentially major issue for this squad if Erving was on the team, but I think there would be enough basketball intelligence and talent on the floor to overcome it. The Sixers would be a nightmare to play against with Erving added to this group, and if a debate is ever close I will always lean toward the player who I'm confident can impact the game at both ends.

Do they deserve to be? The answer for me is absolutely. Whether they will actually make the team or not is another matter entirely.

Let's start with Embiid, who most people assume is a lock. He's a much surer bet if we're being honest, but I think there are bigger hurdles for him than you might think. He looks poised to rank near the top of the fan vote, but the player and media vote are worth 25 percent each for the starters. The player voting is a complete mess — I think you'd be stunned at how little thought and effort some guys put into it — and media opinion swings wildly on Embiid depending on criteria. Look no further than Malcolm Brogdon's Rookie of the Year award as proof of that.

And if Embiid has to rely on a reserve spot as selected by the coaches, there are more hurdles to clear. Gregg Popovich is (for my money) the best coach in the league and one of the best minds we have in basketball, and when he came to Philly this January he mentioned Embiid's "minutes restriction" several times during pre-game availability. Embiid has not had any sort of minutes restriction in months, but the idea is entrenched among even the sport's top minds and is certainly not seen as a point in his favor. Would coaches give him a reserve spot over a vet who doesn't have that false, but still persistent tag on them? I'm skeptical.

Simmons has a tougher case, and I think he'll be the victim of a numbers game. The East's backcourt options are plentiful this year; I think DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo are absolute locks, with Bradley Beal behind that group. That would leave Simmons fighting for a wild-card spot, and I don't think his odds are great going up against more established names like John Wall. It's exceedingly difficult for a rookie to make an All-Star team for reasons that aren't always in their control.

I think Embiid ultimately makes it and at this rate appears to be a likely starter, while Simmons makes every "snub" list written by people like me.

I think Saric is a viable starter in the sense that he could be a perfectly fine cog in the lineup when the team hits that next gear. But I am skeptical they can maximize their lineups and success with Saric as a member of the top-five players.

This is no criticism of Saric the player, who I think routinely sparks the Sixers at times they need him most. He consistently finds a way to impact the game in different ways, and the progress in his three-point shooting is legitimately encouraging. His three-point percentage has risen six percent compared to last season, and if he knocks down threes at an above-average clip it's a whole different ballgame for "The Homie."

Still, his inclusion would be at odds with the way the league is trending. Teams are increasingly filling the 2-4 spots with long athletes who can shoot, and Saric at his best only fits one of those categories. He's a competitor on defense who has dealt with switches better than you'd expect this season, but there are limitations in his recovery and closeout speed that are unlikely to change. Those are much easier to hide in the regular season than in a playoff series against teams equipped with athletes offering pace-and-space.

Here's what I would say about Saric: he's an odd fit with the way the league is trending, but at the same time any coach who can't figure out how to use him probably isn't worth a whole lot. Brett Brown made the excellent decision to insert him into the starting lineup early this season despite Saric's play not deserving that honor. He was rewarded with a serious uptick in Saric's production, and Saric has been an integral part of one of the league's best five-man lineups.

Saric's role in Philadelphia will depend largely on the pieces moving around him. For now, he's doing everything you could want him to do at the power forward spot. He's a major reason why the Sixers have been an elite rebounding team, and his versatility on offense is badly needed whether he starts or not.

While we're on the subject...

My gut tells me Saric is much better as a piece on this team than he is as a trade chip. Part of that is because I honestly have no idea what Saric would command if you offered him on the open market, as he's not a terribly efficient player and he comes with the "league trend" questions we already discussed.

Yet I think there are things Saric does that aren't able to be properly measured by the box score. He will ugly up the game when he needs to, flying in for an offensive rebound with his elbows out and extending a crucial possession. Saric is just as comfortable pump-faking three times to draw contact under the rim as he is tossing a behind-the-back dime to a waiting teammate.

If you were able to include Saric in a package to acquire a star, I would sign on the dotted line tomorrow. Top-end talent wins in the NBA and I don't believe Saric is or will ever be that sort of player. But if we're comparing him to a "better fit" role player you might shop him for, I think I would lean toward keeping Saric around. You need players on the roster who you feel confident going into battle with, and Saric is a foxhole guy through and through.

The answer to this question is no, and I believe the answer is almost always no when it comes to building an NBA team.

There is no bigger team-building mistake than overpaying lesser players because the star you set aside money for decided he was taking his talents elsewhere. It is not sexy to sell patience to a fan base hoping for a big splash, but the best teams in the league let other franchises pay top dollar for mediocre talent. Good role players are available every year, and good front offices are confident in their ability to get value on shorter, cheaper deals instead of splashing the cash on name-brand players.

If LeBron James or Paul George wants to come be a part of what Philadelphia is building, by all means, back the damn truck up. The former is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, and the latter is a star talent who fits perfectly alongside their core. They are no-brainers. But locking down your cap space for the right to sign Avery Bradley? That's not the move, in my eyes. 

There will always be creative ways to use cap space if you have it, and there will always be difficulties in team-building if you don't. Year after year we wonder why [Player X] took a one-year deal or a below-market contract, and the Sixers should strive to be a team who takes advantage of that rather than being the easy money at the poker table. 

The Sixers won't have space on their sheet for too much longer — more extensions loom on the horizon — but spending money for the sake of doing so would be silly.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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