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May 19, 2018

Sixers mailbag: Who are some offseason trade targets beyond Kawhi Leonard?

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Without actual basketball to write about anymore — and all of you should be used to extended offseasons after powering through the Sixers' rebuild — we have moved firmly into speculation and rumor territory in the offseason. Everyone dreams big in mid-May, believing in their heart of hearts that LeBron James or another one of the big name free agents is going to end up in Philadelphia.

Can the Sixers plan their entire summer and their future around that possibility? They certainly have up until this point. Outside of a deal that has already lasted too long for Jerryd Bayless, the Sixers' approach to the salary cap has been to avoid long-term commitments in order to take big swings in the summers of 2018 and 2019, before big-money extensions for their core price them out of the market.

Making that happen is another matter entirely. The Sixers are an attractive destination, no doubt, but the most important pieces are in the early stages of their careers. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons only just got a taste of the playoffs and a full season together, and star players in their primes don't often bet on developing players when they're in search of a title. For better or worse, they join up with brand-name guys who have been around the block a few times.

That's part of the argument for Philadelphia to make a trade this summer, to guarantee they can go out and get a star and then follow it up with continued free agency moves. With due respect to JJ Redick and his impact on the team this past season, they need to shop for a more impactful player to get this Sixers squad over the hump.

So who might that be?

The No. 1 guy I would keep in mind this summer is Portland Trailblazers guard CJ McCollum. There's logic to exploring a trade with Portland on both sides of the equation, as I mentioned in a piece earlier this week, and let's go through Portland's first.

Talented though they may be, the Blazers appear to be running up against a glass ceiling by building around (and investing in) the combined talents of McCollum and Damian Lillard. They continue to be a competitive and successful regular season team, only to have no real chance against the league's elite once the playoffs show up. Lillard and McCollum are probably not the biggest reason for that problem — the team has way too much money tied up in bad role players — but the money they're paid puts a certain responsibility on their shoulders to produce.

After getting demolished by New Orleans in round one despite owning homecourt advantage, the Blazers will have to take a long, hard look at themselves this summer. They're probably not going to trade Damian Lillard after he turned in a sub-MVP season, but McCollum will be inquired about by plenty of teams this summer. He has three years left on a big-money extension, giving any team that acquires him the certainty of having him around through the heart of his prime.

There are few teams who could use a McCollum type more than the Sixers. His shooting variety and capability is among the best in the league, with the Lehigh product already proving he's a killer with his shot whether he's playing off the ball or shooting off the dribble. In many ways, he is the player the Sixers want Markelle Fultz to become, albeit a lower ceiling outcome than they'd hope for given how much they gave up for last year's No. 1 pick.

Bringing McCollum in would allow the Sixers to experiment with a lot more lineup and play type possibilities. Simmons could be used more as a roll man in pick-and-rolls, you'd have playmaking duties spread around more evenly, and you could really unlock Embiid's potential by putting him in sets with a guard who can handle the ball and shoot.

The only real concern here would be how much it would cost to bring him in to begin with, and some of the defensive questions you'd bring to the table. The three-headed monster of Embiid, Simmons, and Robert Covington would go a long way toward offsetting it (assuming Covington wasn't sent packing in the deal), but a Fultz-McCollum backcourt would have a lot of the same issues on defense as Lillard-McCollum. Add on to that his big salary, and you better be damn sure this is the guy who is going to put you over the top if you invest major trade chips in bringing him to Philadelphia.

McCollum is very good, but firmly below the league's elite tier. How valuable would he be here? That's up for Bryan Colangelo to weigh and figure out.

I would assume they'll lean closer to the first option than the second if at all possible. Bayless' contract isn't completely useless, as it would allow them to match salaries in a deal for a star as long as the opposing team is willing to eat the final year on his contract. In a scenario where you're trading for someone like Leonard, the franchise involved is signaling the start of a clear rebuild, and therefore is probably more likely to take on your "bad" deals if you offer a little sweetener.

If they can't find any takers for a reasonable price, the Sixers would probably bite the bullet and stretch Bayless in order to sign a major free agent this summer. But that's very much a decision they can sort of wait out and determine once everything shakes out at the start of July.

I think it would probably sell this conversation a little short if we presented this as a dichotomy. If the Sixers only believed they needed one or the other of this archetype, they wouldn't be hunting for max free agents this summer — the only group of players in the league you can count on to be reliable in both departments.

If I had to take my educated guess, I would say the Sixers probably lean toward taking one of the wings and bulking up on three-point shooting and defense around their core guys. This comes attached to two built-in assumptions: they still believe in Fultz as an important piece of their core, and they earnestly believe they have a chance at luring a major star over the next year or so.

Both are giant assumptions to plan around at this point in time, with the former perhaps being the more pivotal one. Fultz's uncertainty makes everything about the next year of acquisitions that much more difficult, and if the Sixers strike out on acquiring a star they will be reliant on internal growth from their young guys to hit a championship level of play. That would put a special degree of pressure on Fultz to be the ballhandling star they expected when they drafted him.

But if we make that assumption, the smart money says the Sixers will select someone at the No. 10 spot who they project as a potential future starter, which really only makes sense if you're drafting a wing. Big men are off the table, and you have a lot invested in the point guard/playmaker positions.

Whether this is a wise use of resources is up for debate. You can probably find some three-and-D guys later in the first round if you're really interested in doing so — Cincinnati's Jacob Evans, to throw out one name — and you're probably not getting that much more creation equity from either Bridges (Miles or Mikal) or Kevin Knox. The Celtics series highlighted that the Sixers need as many guys who can shoot and put it on the floor as possible, and the latter has been discounted a bit too much in the playoff post-mortems.

The shorter answer to all this: the Sixers should be taking whoever the best player available is here, outside of taking a big man. They have needs for shooting, defense, creation, and much more, so unless a prospect falls out of the sky to combine all those ideas, they need to keep an open mind.

I would mark this possibility down as fairly low, both the reasons that have been laid out above and by the team's actions during their last crack at the NBA Draft.

In the 2017 edition, the Sixers made a reasonably bold move to trade back into the first round and acquire the No. 25 overall pick from Orlando, giving up a future first they owned from Oklahoma City (protected 1-20) and a second-round pick. Once there, they made the curious decision to draft Anzejs Pasecniks, a Latvian big man who remained overseas last season and is likely to do so again this year.

That decision, however, was made explicitly with roster space and developmental limits in mind. The Sixers had tracked Utah's Kyle Kuzma, who would go on to have a productive rookie season for the Lakers. But PhillyVoice has been told a contributing factor in selecting a draft-and-stash big came down to management not believing they had space to develop another young player last season, particularly one they saw as more of a 3/4 hybrid in Kuzma where they had overlapping players as it was. 

(This view on positional overlap also impacted their decision to draft Jonah Bolden, a player they see as a 4/5 hybrid, versus a more wing-ish option at the top of the second round. Would they have changed their view on positional molds had they been able to see what Simmons looked like as a practical NBA player? I'm not quite sure.)

Would the Sixers reverse course on that philosophy this season after winning 50+ games and expectations rising around them? I doubt it, though it's not impossible, I suppose.

I'm a big Jaren Jackson Jr. fan and would consider giving up plenty for him if I was the GM of a team looking for a foundational piece. 

But in the position the Sixers are in? No thanks.

The answer to this question ultimately comes down to who is making the call here. If it's in the hands of the coaching/development staff, I would imagine getting Fultz some competitive basketball minutes is priority No. 1 this summer after missing most of his rookie season.

But look at this from the perspective of his agent, as one example, and think about the cost/reward ratio here. If Fultz comes out and looks more like the guy we saw at last year's Summer League, no one is going to be over the moon about a No. 1 pick dominating Summer League drek. But if Fultz comes out in the middle of this summer with his jumper still a major work in progress — and the rest of his game stunted as a result — that only adds more noise to a pivotal summer for last year's No. 1 pick.

Frankly, though, there's no real way to avoid the scrutiny until Fultz comes out at some point this year and proves he's all the way back, whether that's against scrubs in July or real NBA players in October. The team can and should be focused on whatever the best developmental path is for him reclaiming his shot. If that means he's locked in a gym with no cameras until October, so bet it. If that means he has to get game reps in after figuring things out over the next two months, so be it.

This is going to be a collaborative process with a lot of voices in the mix, however. Everyone from Colangelo to Brett Brown to Fultz's family and the kid himself are going to weigh in here. If I had to guess personally, I would say there are better odds he doesn't play than he doesn't. But it would be exactly that — a guess.

I advocated for Smith as an interesting Sixers target back when he was viewed as a mid-late first guy who could end up returning to school to improve his stock. What has happened since has been a little jaw-dropping for me, even as a fan of his game.

I'll save extended thoughts for prospect profiles I'm working on over the next month, but I would be wary of taking a guard that doesn't have outlier size or shooting ability that high if you don't truly believe in their self-creation ability. He's a tremendous in-game athlete and a home-run swing wherever he goes in the draft, but as a top-10 guy I think he represents some serious risk. Very few outlier athletes who leave school with creation concerns turn into rookie year Donovan Mitchell.

This is very simple: when healthy and on the floor, Kawhi Leonard is one of the best basketball players on the planet. And whether it's Leonard, his uncle, or some other unknown figure trying to push him in another direction, most teams would move a hell of a lot if it meant getting one of the league's best players on their team, warts or not.

There are all sorts of ugly realities to having LeBron James on your team, to some of the shortsighted GM-ing to keep him happy to the spotlight growing brighter just from having him around. That's a trade-off teams happily make in order to get an all-time great on the roster and on the floor, and it's one they've done repeatedly for players of a certain caliber throughout the history of the league.

Of course, most of those guys are not coming off a season in which they beefed with one of the best-run organizations in sports over health concerns. The red flags with Leonard are there, even if they've been suppressed a bit in these conversations. But that's why organizations have so many different specialists to help them make decisions, from the medical staff to the analytics team. Given that Leonard has been seeing a doctor associated with the Sixers' organization, nobody is going to get a clearer picture of his health than they are.

Building a championship team is not always or often about taking the safest route to the top. Teams fire good coaches to chase great ones, pass on good free agents to sign the best ones, ignore good draft prospects for more volatile but potentially elite ones. That's what competitive sports are all about — finding the right balance between risk and reward. Look no further than Philadelphia's franchise center as an example of that. 

Adding the Leonard we all know and have seen play represents a surefire path to contention for a Sixers team already making noise. You will never have outright certainty in player acquisition, and the healthiest guy in the world could suffer a catastrophic injury the next day. If a Finals MVP and a game-changing talent in the middle of his prime is available, that's almost always going to be worth the risk.

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