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March 14, 2019

Sixers mailbag: Who is the ideal opponent in the first round of the playoffs?

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The Sixers are one month away from the postseason, the only period of the year that truly matters for this group. They may be headed to consecutive 50-win seasons for the first time since the 1980's, and they may have their most engaging star since Allen Iverson, but no one is going to care about any of that if the Sixers don't deliver in the playoffs.

Philadelphia does not have the profile of a typical contender — they have two young stars and very little continuity around them, and those two things both tend to hamper the ability to succeed in the NBA. But it is undeniable that the Sixers have the top-end talent to play with anybody on their best day. Expectations are driven by that fact.

So as the Sixers try to round themselves into fighting shape down the stretch, we can begin thinking about who they might face in the first round, amongst other things. Let's start there with today's Sixers mailbag.

Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder here, to some extent. The Sixers should be expected to beat any of those teams if they meet in the postseason, though at this point I think Indiana is the best possible matchup from that group.

Yes, the Pacers are a tough team that can lock you down on the defensive end of the floor. But without Victor Oladipo, they just do not have the go-to player a team needs when times get tough in the playoffs. When the games slow down and it turns into a battle of who can leverage their talent best in the fourth quarter, the Sixers simply have more options and more reason to believe they can get there. They have also beaten Indiana comfortably in 3/4 games this season, and have no real reason to fear them.

Earlier in the year, I would have said Detroit is the preferable option, and I still think the Sixers would win that series comfortably with how badly Joel Embiid owns Andre Drummond. But it's worth considering how well the Pistons have played over the last month, and they have a player (Blake Griffin) the Sixers have struggled to cope with individually. Add that onto his playoff experience, and perhaps the Sixers sweat this one a little bit.

The Nets would be the team the Sixers would hope to avoid, at least from my view, simply because their guards have given the Sixers fits this year. They play smart, tough basketball and Philadelphia's personnel is worst suited to beat a team built like the Nets. Brooklyn probably has the least amount of playoff experience, which is worth noting. But I think if you're given the choice, you'd have to prefer teams you've proven you can beat comfortably regardless of their experience.

One thing most can agree on — they should be hoping they don't have to deal with Boston in the first round. That's a recipe for disaster. I don't know if that's a universal belief within the organization, however. There are some who would welcome the challenge of playing their rivals to the north to get the proverbial monkey off of their back. Me? I believe you hope for whatever playoff bracket gives you the best chance to go to the Finals, end of discussion.

We've touched on this in previous mailbags, but this is going to be context dependent. Is everyone healthy? Who did they lose to and why? On a general level, yes, I think a first-round exit would be hard for Brown to overcome unless circumstances were out of his control.

There is pressure on everybody in the playoffs this year. It's not the first rodeo for Brown, Embiid, or Ben Simmons, and they're the three most important figures in the organization on a daily basis. Results should be expected.

This has been something I've noted when I've cautioned against firing Brown for the sake of doing so. I think it's easy to convince yourself he is "the problem" when things get tough, but it's not as easy to identify who the right fit would be for this team should Brown lose the job.

Let's throw out a few names that are well thought of around the league (while noting that NONE of these are connected to any conversations about Brown/the head coaching job with members of the Sixers' organization):

  1. Jerry Stackhouse — The Sixers opted to go with a former Sixers player with minimal managerial experience to run their front office. This would be a similar bet on a guy who has a great reputation but little track record. He earned a lot of respect as a G-League head coach, winning two titles with the Raptors 905 in 2017 and 2018, and Stackhouse spent the 2018-19 season as an assistant on the bench in Memphis.
  2. Ettore Messina — It would be another chop at the Gregg Popovich assistant tree, but Messina is a much different candidate than Brown was in 2013. Messina is one of the most decorated coaches in the history of European basketball, with four Euroleague titles to his credit on top of various domestic championships in Italy and Russia. Messina has had cameo appearances as the Spurs' head coach when Popovich is absent and would be a more seasoned option to consider.
  3. Jay Wright — The local college fixture will always be a part of these discussions, and his involvement with USA Basketball separates Wright from a generic college candidate. Wright also has a reputation out of getting the most out of the talent he has on hand, but that's a different equation at the NBA level. His four-out motion offense is also not a huge departure from Brown's current system.
  4. Jarron Collins — You'll recognize Collins' name from his playing days, and he's currently an assistant on Steve Kerr's bench in Golden State. But he started as a scout with the Clippers in his early post-playing days, and worked his way up from a player-development coach to where he is now. 
  5. Jeff Bzdelik — Bzdelik is a bit of an enigma. He garnered acclaim in recent years as a defensive coordinator for Mike D'Antoni's Rockets, and after retiring before training camp last September, he returned to help right the ship in Houston this season. Bzdelik is on the older side of the scale at 66, and who knows if he's actually interested in taking a head coaching job at this point, but he's a more experienced name to keep in mind.

Again, I want to reiterate that this is just a thought exercise. But names like these — a mix of youth and experienced coaches who have had success in their respective lanes — interest me a lot more than some of the names you'll typically see thrown out there, a la Mark Jackson.

The most we see of practice is during training camp, where we get to see the tail end of some five-on-five scrimmages and drills. But the Sixers rarely have practice time during the season, and when they do the media don't exactly have a front-row seat for it. By the time we're in the gym, formal practice has typically dispersed and guys are going through their own individual shooting routines to cool down.

The Sixers have a lot of options available to them this summer, it's just a matter of which path they want to take and how much risk they want to expose themselves to. They have a lot of guys who are unrestricted free agents this summer, which is a gift and a curse.

If in theory they had zero interest in bringing back Butler for one reason or another, they can renounce his rights and clear his cap hold from the books, freeing up that money to use on other players. They could do the same with some other players they've acquired this season — Boban Marjanovic has a hefty cap hold at $13.3 million, Mike Scott has a $5.1 million cap hold, and so on. But in terms of true guaranteed money, there's not a ton on Philadelphia's books for next season.

I wouldn't assume the Sixers will sit out of discussions for big free agents this summer — if they can somehow convince Kevin Durant to come to Philly, they'll renounce whatever rights they need to in order to make it happen — but it would be interesting to see if they'd still commit to being a high-salary team if it meant signing some expensive role players this summer instead of just auto-maxing Butler and Tobias Harris. There are several guys I'd consider good fits and good players (Danny Green being at the top of the list) who could step into roles immediately.

The trick here would be getting these deals done up front while hammering out terms with your in-house free agents like Harris, who can then be extended on deals that go over the cap because you possess their Bird rights. But this is easier said than done, and you always leave yourself at risk of someone having second thoughts and bolting.

Short version: you take Butler's money and turn that into multiple players, which just shifts more responsibility to your other stars with the goal of improving your depth. It's a strategy that has its own risks, for sure, because as thorny as Butler can be his production is not easy to replace.

The easy answer here is Boban, right? He's just a really great guy with a good sense of humor and I imagine he would make the best of any situation. That includes being stuck in a cooking class with one of the guys who covers the team he plays for.

I don't think we've seen the end of Bolden's time this year. Boban is still a player who has big theoretical downside, and Brett Brown has made it no secret that they're altering some things within the scheme when he's on the floor so they can see if he will be viable in a playoff rotation. They know this might not work out in the end.

Bolden will likely get some time between now and the end of the season. Though I must say, I was the guy who was beating the drum for him to be their backup center earlier this year, and now I've seen enough from him that I have doubt that it's possible. His defensive reads have been brutal in the recent games he has played in, and I think we all know that Brown is ultimately going to play the backup center he trusts on defense.

If I absolutely had to guess, I would say Butler is not in Philadelphia next season It's hard to say anything for sure before their playoff run even begins, but there are tons of factors working against it.

First, consider how many teams will be able to offer him max money this summer. The Sixers can dangle the carrot of an extra year on the deal, but Butler will have other suitors from which he can pick his favorite scenario. Once you combine that with the ability to have a bigger role elsewhere, it's easy to see a future where Butler leaves because he decides he doesn't want to just be a cog in the machine.

Butler has said his No. 1 priority is winning, though I think it's always more complicated than that. Does someone with his talent want to sacrifice in order to be part of a more talented collective, or does he believe he's good enough to win where he's featured even more? People often paint the second viewpoint as someone's ego getting the best of them, but I think that's a belief you really want your best players to have. You can't turn off the confidence switch when it suits you.

With Harris on board, opportunities are scarcer for everyone. Does the extra year matter that much? Does Butler want to spend the last of his prime years playing with a traditional post-up big? We know what desires and preferences he chooses to make public, but his private wishes are another matter entirely.

Maybe Butler and the Sixers realize they need one another during the playoff run, you never know. I would presume everyone still has an open mind, but there are many paths where he can leave and only one where he stays, so I'll take the odds here.

In a world where the Sixers have a more complete rotation, certainly. But McConnell is one of the few role players they can actually count on, and putting him in bench lineups with Butler is a lot better than the alternative.

Since the Sixers are (correctly) building bench lineups around the Simmons-Harris and Butler-Embiid combinations, the latter is the better duo to have him on the floor with. We've discussed the issues with Simmons-McConnell lineups before, and those are going to be even tougher to deal with in a playoff format.

You can put McConnell on the floor in the Butler lineups and still let Jimmy run plenty of the offense, and I think that's preferable to having him on the floor with Simmons at all.

I can't speak for other people, but I think sometimes Philly fans fall into a football mentality with coaches. That's a sport where it's a lot easier to distribute blame with the coaches. Coaches get a week to prepare for their opponent, the primary assistants all do interviews between games where they talk about decisions and their roles, and every individual playcall is there to be dissected and judged.

Basketball is wholly different in this way. Coaches all have their roles (Billy Lange took over defensive duties this year, for example) but you're preparing for a greater number of games and instilling a philosophy more than you are making constant decisions. No one has a headset on to communicate exact instructions between plays, nor would that even be effective with how quickly the sport moves.

We simply know less about assistant coaches in basketball relative to their peers in other sports. In fact, when I've discussed the subject of assistant coaches with front office personnel in the past, it has been floated several times that this mystery is intentional. Some teams like to obscure the value they're getting out of top assistants or mislead other teams about which guys are value drivers in their organization. It's a competition, after all.

I guess it depends on whether you think the Sixers still would have been able to move up to take Markelle Fultz. They loved him as a prospect, so I think they still would have made a strong effort to climb up to get him.

But for the sake of argument, let's just say they stood pat and No. 5. If they take DeAaron Fox, for example, who they worked out in the morning before Fultz's infamous workout, it's hard to know how things unfold for him and Simmons specifically. Fox was pretty awful as a rookie and he would have needed a lot of on-ball reps, pushing Simmons to the side more often than he was during his rookie campaign. Do the Sixers win 52 games if they're spending a lot of the season figuring out how to develop two point guards at the same time? I'm skeptical.

Owning the Kings pick this year outright would be helpful, and drafting a player in 2017 who was capable of contributing at all would have helped. But it's impossible to say how trajectories change for everyone else, and Embiid's life would have been rough last year with another bad shooter in the lineup on top of Simmons.

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