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June 29, 2017

Ten thoughts about the Sixers heading into NBA free agency

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The madness, if we haven’t used it all up, that is NBA free agency is now just a few days away. The league has become so meta that one of the biggest Woj Bombs on July 1st will be that basketball’s best news-breaker is switching teams himself.

Another change is that just like the random WIP caller on Sunday night, the Philadelphia 76ers can say “First time, long time” to even mid-tier free agents. Even though the Sixers made occasional early-July moves throughout The Process (most notably, this little bit of fleecing), the image of Sam Hinkie and his staff sipping on piña coladas while the rest of the league spent money like drunken sailors wasn’t too far off. Adam Silver didn’t find the Sixers’ summer vacations quite as humorous. Oh well.

Before July 1st hits, here are ten things to know about the Sixers’ situation heading into 2017 NBA free agency:

1. A decision is coming on Gerald Henderson. Certainly not the biggest domino to fall, but it’s first up. Henderson’s contract guarantees Friday, and if the Sixers pick up his option for next season, they will pay him $9 million; if not, he’s only owed $1 million (per The Vertical).

We’ll use this section to lay out what the Sixers should have in terms of committed salary. Most people would project 12 current players besides Hendo on the Sixers roster next year barring a trade (Bayless, Fultz, Simmons, Embiid, Okafor, Stauskas, Saric, Anderson, TLC, Holmes, Covington, McConnell). Here is what I have with those salaries added up if the cap is, in fact, $99 million:

Number of players
Combined Salary
Projected Cap Space
12, without Hendo
13, with Hendo

(All numbers are taken from the verrrry helpful Basketball Insiders.)

Those numbers aren’t factoring in 2016 first-round pick Furkan Korkmaz, and Bryan Colangelo said it’s “appearing more and more likely” that he’ll play in the NBA. If Furkan B does come stateside, take away a roster spot and $1.4 million of cap space.

I like what Henderson provides for the baby Sixers as a world-class agitator, but if we’re blessed with a second Furkan, that makes five younger players on the roster at his position alone. I wonder if Henderson could be used as a trade chip for a team that needs either a stopgap wing or salary to match up in a trade. He can still help a team.

Regardless of what happens, the Henderson decision will be the difference between “a crap ton of cap space” and “a crap ton of cap space plus $8 million.” Maybe I should have just written that to begin with?

2. Leave room for Robert Covington. Colangelo is on record saying re-signing Covington is “certainly something I think that we want to address.” If the Sixers want to keep RoCo, the “renegotiate and extend” option could appeal to both sides.

Very quick aside: Covington is now pretty jacked.

Let’s say the Sixers release Hendo, sign Korkmaz, spend big on one free agent, and have something like $25 million left over they aren’t going to utilize. They could then offer Covington in the area of $20 million this season and decrease his salary by 40 percent the following season in the first year of the extension. This would appeal to both sides because:

•    RoCo would finally be properly paid, as he was slotted to earn relative peanuts ($1.5 million) for the fourth straight season, and get some financial security for the long run.

•    The Sixers could keep his cap hit lower (perhaps $10-12 million) for when they’re chasing bigger fish in free agency.

Speaking of those fish…

3. 2020 is the summer the Sixers will get expensive. Covington and Embiid will get their money (more on that below), but the rest of the Sixers’ young core is cost-controlled for a few years. Having Dario Saric, Ben Simmons, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Markelle Fultz on rookie deals for at least three more seasons is huge. It’s even more impressive because Dario hasn’t even come over yet.

But in 2020, Simmons ($24 million), Saric ($10.5), and TLC ($7.5) will be restricted free agents with high cap holds. Let’s say Embiid is making a max ($30) and Covington is at $11, which puts you at about $95 million for those seven players. That’s before factoring in Richaun Holmes (due a big raise), draft picks, future free agents, and everyone else on the Sixers roster.

Creating max cap space in 2020 (projected cap: $118-120 million) isn’t theoretically impossible if the Embiid-Simmons-Fultz core pans out and it makes sense to build a top-heavy roster, but in general, the Sixers should stick to the following game plan…

4. Signing a stopgap vet is fine, but keep it to two years or less.

5. Joel Embiid is also eligible for an extension. This won’t affect the 2017-18 cap, but it’s pretty darn important. Embiid’s talent is that of a no-brainer max player, but the bottom line is that he has played 31 games in three seasons. An incredible 31 games, but still 31 games.

If the Sixers do enter into negotiations with Embiid, they would likely be looking for a below-market deal or some sort of injury protection. Besides that, what is the worst-case scenario for waiting? Embiid kicks ass in 2017-18, his cap hold is about $7 million lower next summer as a restricted free agent, and then you max him out all the same.

6. The Sixers say they’re prioritizing shooting. Let’s use the name most often linked to the Sixers in rumors: J.J. Redick. If Duke’s second-most hated player were paired with Markelle Fultz, opposing guards’ eyes might light up in a similar way to when the Blazers (Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, both poor defenders) appear on the schedule.

But Brett Brown, when he was talking about “Mahhhkelle” and his fit with the Sixers roster, mentioned veteran shooting as what they will target in free agency last week.

Embiid is already elite defensively, while Covington is very good. Fultz and Simmons both have the tools to be good, but they will struggle early on. I agree with Brown that spacing is going to be a big deal. The Sixers really could use player who can bend a defense with the threat of his jumper, a player who provides the young guys space to do damage.

7. Looking at the Sixers roster, they should stick to the wing. I wrote an impassioned case about avoiding stretch-fours in free agency (unless Saric is somehow traded) a few months ago. Ben Simmons very well may be a point guard offensively, but his best position defensively will likely be at the 4. You want that guy around the rim to rebound. Also factor in Saric’s presence and I just don’t see a need for a 4 on the Sixers roster. The Sixers have a bunch of young wings too, but not ones as important as Simmons and Saric.

And because I have already gone on way too long, the last three points will be both brief and related.

8. The Sixers could use their cap space to acquire a player or an asset. Danny Green was my personal dream scenario, but with the Spurs now out of the CP3 Derby, that seems less likely. The Sixers are probably past this stage of the game, but it’s nice to have the option.

Speaking of Green…

9. Deferring to 2018 wouldn’t be the worst thing. Maybe Redick gets 3+ years from Brooklyn and all of the other shooters sign with contenders. Maybe the best option would be to bring to Henderson back at one year. Green and Avery Bradley are both unrestricted free agents next year, although they will command a long-term offer.

Whatever. The point is that...

10. The Sixers have, wait for it, optionality. Despite all of the anticipation, I don’t think there is a ton of pressure on the Sixers front office in free agency. They have their core and a bunch of outcomes that could be reasonable as long as the price and years are right.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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