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July 17, 2018

The Sixers response to Nemanja Bjelica fallout should be to sign nobody

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070518-NemanjaBjelica-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica in action against the Philadelphia 76ers during the third quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

In a summer filled with bigger disappointments, the Sixers somehow managed to come up with a brand new letdown in mid-July. After agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with free agent forward Nemanja Bjelica on July 5th, the Sixers were informed Tuesday morning that Bjelica would be remaining in Europe next season instead.

According to a source familiar with the situation, the Sixers made an attempt to bring Bjelica to Philadelphia after agreeing to terms, but he was unable to travel to the U.S. immediately due to complications with his visa. Bjelica would eventually speak to Sixers brass and relay that a combination of personal, family, and professional reasons, he would be pursuing opportunities on his home continent.

This obviously changes things a bit for Philadelphia, who are now short their Ersan Ilyasova replacement heading into next season. What looked to be a much stronger bench than they had heading into the 2017-18 campaign now remains incomplete, in theory.

Losing out on a premium shooter to come off the bench will hurt, especially with so little talent left on the free-agent market to replace him. Bjelica knocked down 41.8 percent of his looks on catch-and-shoot threes last season, with those shots representing nearly all of his attempts from beyond the arc. Teams respect him a great deal from deep, and having him on board would have made life easier on Philadelphia's players who make their living in the paint.

But while a lot of people will see their minds drift to alternative options, there is a pretty obvious case to be made, in my opinion, for the Sixers to stand pat and save the room exception (approximately $4.4 million) they planned to use on Bjelica.

The first reason is the most obvious reason — there simply aren't many productive basketball players left on the market for the Sixers to use that money on. Even ones they've been tied to in reports, like bench scorer Jamal Crawford, come with significant downsides on one end of the court. That should be expected at this point in the offseason, with all of the suitable candidates finding homes toward the opening of free agency.

Spending money for the sake of spending it is never the move, even if it placates fans with a shiny new toy temporarily. As we saw with Philadelphia's attack of the buyout market last season, there are gains to be had by standing pat and remaining prepared to lure in help during the back half of the season. There is an opportunity cost using the money now, especially when considering the options that are actually available. Is a black hole, non-defender like Michael Beasley really going to boost this team?

But the main reason it seems prudent to hold onto that money is because it affords the Sixers another opportunity to modernize a team that has, sort of inexplicably, leaned away from the unique makeup of their roster.

Dario Saric's emergence as a high-level contributor last year forced Philadelphia into a bit more of a "traditional" basketball setup, but with Ben Simmons at the core of Philadelphia's roster construction, the Sixers have the opportunity to build all kinds of funky lineup combinations. With the collective length and athleticism of Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Wilson Chandler, Zhaire Smith, Justin Anderson and others, the Sixers are equipped to play lineups with a lot more speed than they did down the stretch last season.

In the cases of Covington and Chandler specifically, both guys are equipped quite well to slide up and play minutes at the power forward spot, at least as it's constructed in 2018. The Sixers should be striving to play as many switchable wings as possible with the way they play defense, and earmarking minutes for that duo as nominal fours helps open up developmental time at the other wing spots.

The numbers with Covington at power forward have routinely been fairly strong for the Sixers. According to lineup data provided by Cleaning the Glass, Philadelphia was 6.2 points better than their opponent per 100 possessions when Covington played the four last year, in a sample of over 1200 possessions played. That ranks in the top 15 percent of all lineups tracked around the league, and the efficiency numbers are strong on both sides of the ball — Philadelphia's offensive (55.1) and defensive (48.6) effective field goal percentage both ranked in the top 10 percent.

The lineup numbers for Chandler are less encouraging there, but they have to be taken within the context of the Nuggets generally. Denver was a bottom-10 defense last season, and while Chandler slipping a bit had a role in that figure it's far from the primary reason the Nuggets defended the way they did as a unit.

While Bjelica's catch-and-shoot prowess likely would have been worth the tradeoff, the league is trending away from playing power forwards who are going to get routinely exposed on switches and pick-and-rolls. It has been hard for the Sixers to justify playing Covington too many minutes there the last couple years because he carried a high defensive burden and had no one resembling a competent backup to fill his role. With Chandler in the mix, the Sixers can spread responsibilities out a little more, thus freeing the existing personnel up to shapeshift.

In a roundabout way, this also seems like good news for the developmental wings on Philadelphia's roster. Zhaire Smith was already going to be a developmental priority, but if the Sixers choose to slide players up in the lineup rather than spending the money, they will have more immediate time to offer Smith and some of his peers on the bench. 

The Sixers might take a short-term hit as a result, but getting reps early in the season would ultimately good from a developmental perspective, and help the Sixers better understand how they need to continue building this roster moving forward. For a fringe member of the rotation like Justin Anderson, this is also a bit of a lifeline, affording him a chance to prove his mix of toughness and athleticism can translate to winning basketball on a consistent basis.

Make no mistake about it, this is a setback for Philadelphia in the short-term and dampens expectations for their bench productivity. But doubling down on that new problem by throwing money at over-the-hill or ill-fitting players would be a mistake, and the Sixers would be better served allowing internal options to carry them forward.


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