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September 29, 2023

Grading the Sixers' offseason moves

The Sixers' offseason has been defined by the James Harden saga. What grade should the team receive for how they've handled the last few months?

Nearly five months into the Philadelphia 76ers’ offseason, writing up a grade feels like an incomplete task. The biggest domino, resolving James Harden’s trade request, however that shakes out, has yet to fall. How that concludes will factor in significantly to the image and impact of the Sixers’ moves throughout the summer.

Amid the fallout of balancing Harden’s wishes with its own aspirations, Philadelphia has completed a handful of signings to retool a roster that won 54 games last season and made it to Game 7 of the second round (for the third time in five years).

Most of the moves reside on the margins. Harden, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris occupy the majority of Philadelphia’s cap space. The largest contract handed out was to Paul Reed, who received a three-year, $24 million deal. And that’s only fully guaranteed for 2023-24 unless the Sixers win a first-round series this upcoming season, then it’s guaranteed for 2024-25 and 2025-26 as well. Behind him, Patrick Beverley’s one-year, $3.2 million contract was the most lucrative.

With training camp beginning next week, assessing each relatively major event of Philadelphia’s offseason seems relevant, despite Harden’s situation chilling in limbo.

James Harden exercises his $34.3 million player option and requests a trade: D

Admittedly, it’s challenging to fully grade this until Harden stands down from his trade request or he’s finally sent elsewhere. But acquiring Harden has unequivocally been the defining move of Daryl Morey’s three-year tenure as the Sixers president of basketball operations. The fact he asked out fewer than 1.5 seasons into his stay and never truly regained his pre-injury form, all while costing two rotation players (as well as Ben Simmons) and two firsts, is an indictment on Morey’s decision-making. This team’s flexibility, both financially and asset-wise, was poured into netting Harden and it’s clearly proven unwise.

Harden absolutely helped the Sixers, but his playoff inconsistencies and Morey’s inability to properly navigate contract negotiations are massive impediments for this team’s prior and present-day ceiling. Isolating Harden’s opt-in and grading that alone cannot be done. The history matters, too, and all of it is a glaring problem.

Based on how this ordeal ends, there’s room to slide this grade up or down. For now, though, it’s been a terrible outcome and loomed over everything Philadelphia’s done both this offseason and across the past few seasons.

Patrick Beverley signs a one-year, $3.2 million deal: B+

While Beverley’s brazen, outspoken persona can distract people from the merits of his game, the veteran journeyman is a very good role player. Teams win when he’s around, and he helps fuel it. He brings excellent point-of-attack defense to a team needing it and is a career 37.3 percent shooter beyond the arc. He’ll slot in as a key reserve guard and fills the void left behind by Shake Milton off the bench.

Paul Reed signs a three-year, $24 million deal: B+

In his third season, Reed solidified himself as a dependable backup, refining his finishing, screening and defense, to pair with keen instincts, mobility and rebounding. Despite stalling on a new deal, allowed the Utah Jazz to extend him an offer sheet with an atypical stipulation hinging on a second-round appearance, the Sixers retained Reed on a reasonable deal. Head coach Nick Nurse seems to be fond of Reed and I expect him to carve out a prominent role, both behind Embiid and playing alongside him in spurts.

Initially, I incorrectly framed the possibility of Reed’s non-guarantee to mean he’d become a free agent if Philadelphia failed to make the second round this upcoming season. That is not the case. It just is non-guaranteed until January 10, 2025 for years two and three. Proper interpretation of that drastically shifts the grade on this. Apologies for the misinformation, everyone.

Kelly Oubre Jr. signs a one-year, $2.9 million deal: B

Officially signed earlier this week, Oubre helps shore up Philadelphia’s shaky wing depth and can assume some of the scoring responsibilities left behind. He’s a good cutter who offers versatile volume shooting from deep and has long been a useful defensive playmaker behind his instincts and dexterity. Yet he’s never scored efficiently, struggles as a passer and is sporadic as an off-ball defender. Given the price point and timing of the signing, there’s nothing wrong with the move. It just remains to be seen how he slots into a smaller role with less offensive freedom.

Mohamed Bamba signs a one-year, $2.3 million deal: C

Bamba’s physical tools — a 7-foot frame and 7-foot-10 wingspan — have exceeded his production throughout his career. Having buried 38.3 percent of his three the past two years, he’s a reliable stretch five, though defensive discipline, mobility and consistency escape him to this point. Since being drafted sixth overall in 2018, he’s failed to put it all together. His intrigue skews toward an idea rather than anything reinforced by steady on-court performance. But it’s a low-stakes investment and maybe, Bamba finds himself in Philly.

Montrezl Harrell signs a one-year, $2.9 million deal: F

After opening 2022-23 as Joel Embiid’s backup, Harrell was rightfully supplanted by Reed midway through the year because of shoddy pick-and-roll coverage and insufficient finishing. Then, he declined his player option and entered free agency, only for the Sixers to retain him for another year. Harrell was once a battering ram of a sparkplug whose interior scoring could prop up bench units and mask his defensive deficiencies. That didn’t prove the case last season. Bringing him back knowing all that, while the wing depth required reinforcements, was a poor decision, especially given Reed and Bamba’s presence when both of their contracts were agreed upon prior to Harrell’s return. Among Embiid, Reed, Bamba, and small-ball five P.J. Tucker, Harrell’s path to minutes seemed quite cloudy before he tore his ACL and meniscus.

Everything else

Old friend Danny Green is back in a Sixers uniform on a non-fully guaranteed deal. He hardly played last season after tearing his ACL in May 2022 and returning in February 2023 to see occasional minutes for the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers. If he’s rejuvenated physically, his defensive feel, floor-spacing and off-ball movement could invigorate Philadelphia’s cast of wings. There’s no risk in the signing.

Filip Petrusev, selected 50th by the Sixers in 2021, agreed to a two-year, $3 million deal with a small guarantee. He’s never struck me as an NBA guy when I’ve watched him in Summer League or college at Gonzaga, and is the fourth true center on the depth chart. I’d be surprised if he makes the opening night roster.

David Duke Jr. and Javonte Smart are on Exhibit 10 deals. Marcus Bagley also signed one, but was waived and will likely join the Delaware Blue Coats. I imagine Duke and Smart will see similar futures. Terquavion Smith, Ricky Council IV and Azuolas Tubelis are on two-way contracts. The first two dazzled at times in Summer League with offensive creation and shot-making. Tubelis never really popped, to me. All of them should entertain prominent roles in Delaware.

Those are all the imports and holdovers. That doesn’t summarize the scope of the Sixers’ offseason, however. Former rotation members, Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton, are all wearing playing elsewhere. Although a different style of guard, Beverley can mitigate Milton’s absence.

Niang will be missed. His elite off-ball shooting opened up a lot of lineup possibilities and aptly complemented Embiid and Maxey. But the Sixers couldn’t afford to match Cleveland’s offer (three years, $25 million) without sacrificing significant cap space flexibility in the interim and long-term. His departure simultaneously stings and can be understood financially.

McDaniels’ departure is the head-scratcher. Upon his acquisition in February, Morey said he believed McDaniels had “starter potential” before letting him leave as a restricted free agent on a modest two-year, $9.2 million deal. McDaniels fell out of the rotation in the second round and is a developmental player. Yet he instilled necessary size at the point-of-attack defensively, gave Philadelphia a rare lob threat and added some offensive value as a cutter and connective passer in spite of a tepid outside jumper.

He was the Sixers’ lone trade deadline addition. If he truly had “starter potential,” he’s back. The comment reads as lip service in an attempt to salvage an uninspiring trade deadline during a year where a title was the goal. That’s a foolish loss and bad process, even if McDaniels was probably a mid-level rotation player.

The Sixers are enduring a horrendous offseason. They were a very good team last year, albeit south of title contention. They are much further away now. They’ve bewilderingly invested a sizable portion of their resources into a position shared by their franchise superstar. The wing depth has improved in recent weeks, but is still uninspiring and unproven. Beverley and Oubre are positive moves. Niang’s loss will be felt. McDaniels’ departure for Toronto was mismanagement. A D feels like a fair score, while the NBA landscape awaits Harden’s possible exit and whatever Portland elects to do with Jrue Holiday.

Overall Grade: D

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