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August 28, 2020

Sixers mailbag: What's the best possible team to surround Joel Embiid & Ben Simmons with?

Plus, trade proposals, shedding bad contracts, coaching/front office changes, and... Messi?

If you thought the Sixers flaming out in spectacular fashion would stop fans from having a billion questions about the team, clearly you have never talked to a Sixers fan before. It was time for a mailbag.

Thankfully, there were minimal attempts to trade Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid by the fanbase this time around, but the most popular question behind "Why does Elton Brand still have a job?" was a variation of how to build a team around the two tentpoles. The fake trade proposals, as always, varied in their viability, but I look forward to a sea of trade proposals coming my way between now and next season.

With that, we are off to the races. As always, if you have any additional questions or concerns, you can always drop me a line through Twitter, email, or perhaps carrier pigeon, and we can discuss in future articles.

(A note before we get started: a lot of people were interested in my thoughts on recently fired Pacers coach Nate McMillan. I think that's a topic for a separate article, which I'll get to soon, promise.)

I think it’s a big portion of a coach’s responsibility, though I think of it as an organizational responsibility as much as anything else. A coach sets some important things — like playtime, like scheme, like day-to-day goals — but ultimately works within the framework they’re given.

To use a Sixers-specific example, it may be harder for a coach to develop a non-shooter role player to a shooter if they can’t get them enough minutes as a result of the needs of Embiid and Simmons. In any situation, it’s also going to hinge on the players themselves. Most players have their biggest leaps in the offseason when their time is spent with personal trainers, rather than the team. Some guys are maniacal enough workers to transcend problems with team construction or coaching, but that’s rare. Everyone is a product of their environment to different degrees.

I think it’s probably not super difficult to judge a coach on the team side but insanely hard on the outside. If you’re not in the gym with guys seeing/hearing what’s being taught, you’re left to guess based on what they tell you themselves. And while player anecdotes are useful, teams have the incentive to lie about just how much coaches help players — the threat of a bigger role or payday elsewhere can lure valuable coaches away at any time.

Not a chance in hell are they moving Booker without one of those guys going back. A better question is whether they’d give him up if either guy was on the table. I'm inclined to say no.

Considering the presence of DeAndre Ayton, swapping Embiid for Booker makes no sense without another big corresponding move, and I’m not even sure they would trade Booker if you offered Simmons for him. Booker isn’t perfect by any stretch, but with his scoring and playmaking bonafides, there are far fewer question marks about him moving forward (his far inferior W/L record notwithstanding).

Steph Curry is the easy first choice for me. He is not only capable of carrying the offense by himself, he has the ability to distort defenses without having the ball in his hands. Plus, he has already shown the demeanor to accept a different role depending on matchup and situation, a critical piece of building any super team.

From there, I’m looking for big, athletic wings who can shoot, handle, and lock opponents down. I guess this depends on whether you’re looking at this from a short-term or long-term perspective. Truthfully, if not for the concerns I would have for him coming off of a major injury, I would probably add Curry’s backcourt partner in Golden State, Klay Thompson.

If you’re just trying to win a title in short order, give me Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. I would replace LeBron with a better catch-and-shoot guy (not to mention a younger guy) if we are talking about trying to create a large title window, and would probably consider Leonard’s Clippers partner Paul George in that case.

There are a bunch of different types of teams you could build around these two. Another fun one is going with the Leonard and George combo on the wing and Jrue Holiday at point guard, building a team with no potential weak spot on defense. If you want to go all-in on shooting and trust Embiid and Simmons to carry the defense, you could put together a trio like Steph Curry—Duncan Robinson—Danillo Gallinari and just dare teams to leave a collection of elite shooters alone on the perimeter. 

A less fun thing for Sixers fans to think about is that if you're hoping to build a long-term contender, Jayson Tatum is a strong candidate, with his combination of isolation scoring, multi-tool shooting, and defensive aptitude giving them everything they would need on the wing. Let's just put a stop to this answer before I make people upset.

Harris: 90 percent and could be convinced into going even higher. He has one of the single worst contracts in the league, a fact that will be compounded by the pandemic’s impact on the salary cap and the wallets of the owners. A team would either have to be desperate for a reset or relevance to trade for Harris and frankly I don’t think he offers the latter on his own anyway.

Richardson/Thybulle: 70 percent. Both of these guys can play a role in Philadelphia’s future, so you’re not looking to trade them for the sake of trading them. But any deal where one of the big “must-move” players is out the door probably involves moving picks and/or players like these two. Plus, neither is an absolutely perfect fit with Embiid or Simmons, so maybe there’s a chance they hit the road to chase better fits.

Horford: 50 percent. He’s older than Harris and a one-position player in a league where versatility is increasingly the key, but I think there’s an easier sales pitch to make to teams. Shorter contract, less money owed, and the final year of his deal isn’t fully guaranteed. You just have to hope you convince teams his bad year was a product of the poor fit.

Don't think you can make your decision on Richardson based on Zhaire Smith, truthfully. I don't pin this on the kid, who has had a rough two years personally, but he is behind the developmental eight ball in Philly. Perhaps the change in expectations after this nightmare season will be good for him, but he hasn't exactly blown away the field in the G-League, so I'm skeptical that makes much of a difference for him.

I guess I see it like this with Richardson: if he plays well during a contract year, you can get value back from a contender at the deadline. If he doesn't, you could argue it's more likely you get him back on a team-friendly deal after the season. I don't think the difference between trading him in the first scenario and trading him this summer is enough to give up the production he'd offer in the meantime.

There don't seem to be many scenarios where trading Richardson now returns enough value to justify getting rid of one of your few competent two-way players. As part of a package to clear dead weight and bring in better-fitting pieces? I would listen, sure.

I got a couple of questions along these lines, and I guess I don't know why Toronto would want to do it and what the Sixers would even give up in this scenario. 

Is Richardson going to the Raptors? Van Vleet is a better decision-maker and a better shooter than Richardson is, which is most of the job of being an NBA guard. And in that scenario, the Raptors are just avoiding the decision to pay a guard for a season, when they would have to figure out what to do with Richardson. Maybe I missed someone reporting this as a possibility, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Toronto tends to keep and value their good players.

From where they sit right now, they’re going to have to get lucky. They no longer have an asset surplus to package for a disgruntled star, a la Butler, they’re not bad enough to pick in the areas of the draft where stars are typically drafted, and on top of that, this is not a development environment where you’d expect a surprise star to develop out of nowhere. With all of the important reps going to Embiid and Simmons, I don’t see how you take a talented but flawed prospect drafted post-lottery and develop them into your No. 1 crunch-time option, at least not in this iteration of the team.

It’s not impossible, of course, and maybe if they can flip their ill-fitting parts into a player who fits better, the platform Embiid and Simmons provide defensively can overcome offensive flaws and propel them to being “the guy.” I don’t think Zach LaVine could defend half of the people reading this story, for example, but maybe they can plug enough holes that his microwave scoring could masquerade as the guy they need.

But short of Simmons turning into the guy, I don’t know where this comes from. And that’s arguably the least likely outcome of all, considering how far he has to go.

Dave asks in my DMs: How much do you think cost will play in who the Sixers want to hire? Accounting for Brown's money left to pay, ownership's record of selling second-round picks, and COVID-related crunch for the entire league?

This is a great question I'm not sure I have the answer to. The whole league is in uncharted territory right now, and then you can stack the upcoming election on top of this (the result of which could cause additional market volatility for various reasons we don't have to get into here).

Philadelphia is already going to be deep into the luxury tax before they hire a coach, with few avenues to getting out of that cap hell. You don't want to throw good money after bad, but if you believe the right coach is your best chance to make sense of this goofy roster, how could you justify not going the extra mile? Easy to say because it's not my money, but to me, you might as well try to make the best of this.

The bigger issue, IMO, is that the Sixers have real competition for good coaches. Assuming there's faith Kevin Durant is healthy, Brooklyn has a cleaner roster situation (albeit with some very eccentric personalities in the locker room). If a coach wants to put his stamp on something closer to the ground floor, you can coach Zion Williamson starting in his second year in New Orleans.

MORE: 10 candidates to replace Brett Brown as Sixers head coach, and why they will or won't work

The only scenario listed I think has some potential merit is the Kings swap.

Horford to OKC doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless you think he and Steven Adams are going to be a better frontcourt duo than Embiid and Horford. The Suns would probably laugh you out of the room for that proposal — Bridges can shoot and has flashed the ability to credibly guard the likes of Kawhi Leonard, the Suns aren't giving him up for a Euro guard (albeit a good one) and some unspectacular role players, let alone adding more stuff on top of that.

I don't mean to be the trade Scrooge in this mailbag, I just don't think the Sixers' players and assets are all that appealing to most teams around the league. 

I think so poorly of Michael Porter Jr.’s defense that I don’t necessarily consider him as a big value add in this deal. They’ve inexplicably let him off the hook at times in their series with Denver, but Utah has been able to attack him at will whenever they’ve wanted to. There is no doubt he is a gifted scorer, but human matadors don’t do it for me.

The Murray question hinges on how much you value fit. He has been absolutely electric in the playoffs, and through his partnership with Nikola Jokic he has already shown the ability to expertly navigate a guard-big relationship. When he’s on, he’s basically the perfect guard to take control of the offense on an Embiid-led team.

That said, Denver fans would tell you he has some infuriating lows — like weeks at a time, “WTF is this guy doing?” type lulls — and he’s a much worse defensive player than Simmons.

If this Orlando restart was the beginning of a new normal for him, of course, trade for the guy who is putting up 40 with ease and shooting the hell out of the ball. I’m more than a little dubious that’s the case, and I maintain that it’s not the right time to trade either of these two yet.

Most of what I know or have heard about Cassell is anecdotal, and that's a big problem looking at assistant coaches on a broader scale. You can obviously do your homework on guys, talking to players they have worked with, teams who have employed them, and certainly the head coaches they have served under, but it's unlikely you're going to get the raw, uncut truth about any of them.

I think the reason to be optimistic about Cassell is that he pretty immediately jumped into the coaching grind post-retirement and didn't get/take any shortcuts straight to the lead job. On top of that, you look at the traits he possessed as a player and think about how that translates to coaching. Cassell was a very good NBA player for a long time without standout measurables or athleticism, relying predominantly on his basketball intelligence and leadership qualities to stick in the league.

Does that translate to things like designing schemes? Impossible for me to say. I don't know if the Sixers can afford to risk hiring a first-timer right now, but I think Cassell is a guy who should get a look as a head coach in the near future.

I’m mostly with you on Udoka. Had he been the strong voice in the room they needed to set the tone this year, wouldn’t we have seen that manifest? He was in charge of the team’s defense this year, and they were simply good, not great.

That said, it does make a difference to be in the lead chair and to set the tone/culture from the front rather than as a secondary leader. We shouldn’t throw out all the things people have said and believed about Udoka prior to his arrival in Philly, and it wouldn’t be fair to have him answer for the team’s systemic failure this past season if he’s still the best man for the job.

As for Richardson, I think he is what he is — a good defender who can be helpful in a secondary role but shouldn’t be anywhere near the lead ball-handler or decision-maker role at a given time. He’ll benefit from a less insane roster composition too. The question will be whether you can harness his strengths and get him to play within team structure during a contract year, when he’ll be incentivized to show and prove for his next deal.

If they can swap Harris for him, you do it because Oladipo is a better player with a shorter/better contract, but I don't think he answers a lot of questions and I think he might even be a worse fit in this lineup unless you make some big corresponding moves. Don't trust him as a volume shooter, and his health/explosion is still an open question post-injury.

Obviously you try to trade him before you exercise the theoretical amnesty option, but if you’re just asking which contract would be best to wipe out with a magic wand, there’s no real debate.

Do I think they should? Absolutely, provided you're bringing in someone who can turn this thing around. Do I think they will? Truthfully, no clue yet. Brand was ambiguous on the subject when we spoke to him earlier this week.

In any case, I don't think the Sixers can leave Brand in this neutered GM position he has been in moving forward. Someone has to be the face of responsibility, whether that's Brand or someone hired from outside the org. No more parlor games, no more "collaborative" decision excuses, just a guy (or gal) who the buck stops with. They can fill the front office with as many people as they want, there still needs to be a leader.

As a soccer fan, I am excited for the potential of him in the EPL but a little bummed to see Messi leave Barcelona. He has played his entire senior career there and is one of those players who is hard to picture in a different uniform. But I sort of love it as a Liverpool fan, weirdly enough. Getting arguably the greatest player of all time only turns the pressure up on City to deliver. If they win everything as they probably should, it's just what they're supposed to do, a la the Warriors with Kevin Durant. Happy to let the primary rival for the league title wear the target on their backs.

Too short, IMO. Messi is getting his shot packed every time he puts it up.

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