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April 20, 2017

Why exactly are the Sixers looking to sign a stretch-four in free agency?

As Brett Brown and Bryan Colangelo spoke publicly after conducting exit interviews last week, everyone knew at least 75 percent of what was coming, the general beats that both the Sixers head coach and president of basketball operations were going to hit.

Our practice facility is great!

The Philadelphia fans are tough and passionate!

Our young talent is exciting!

News at 11. Greatest hits aside, there are always useful nuggets buried somewhere in these long answers, one of which caught me by surprise a few times after questions concerning the 76ers’ offseason needs.

Both Brown and Colangelo singled out a position they could target in free agency that I wasn’t expecting: stretch-four.

“I think a backup four-man to Dario,” Brown said when asked about missing pieces. “How can we all not see what Ersan Ilyasova and Dario Saric provided as two legitimate stretch-fours?”

“I think the stretch-four position is something, backing up Dario or starting in front of Dario, whichever it is if we can find someone that’s better,” Colangelo said a few minutes later. “We’ve got to probably address that four position.”

Sounds like they’re on the same page, right? Take note of that for later.

One of the Sixers’ dominant storylines this past season was the frontcourt logjam. And for good reason, that concept was mostly associated with the center position. In plain sight, you had Jahlil Okafor struggling, Richaun Holmes dunking, Nerlens Noel kvetching, and Joel Embiid processing harder than any one man has dared to process before.

For a while there, though, the 76ers appeared to have a full house in the entire frontcourt. At the 4, Ersan Ilyasova was meshing well with Embiid, Dario Saric was getting acclimated to the NBA game, and the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft was on the way. That situation never materialized as Ilyasova was traded and Ben Simmons sat out the entire year, but in Simmons and Saric, the Sixers still have two players more than capable of soaking up 48 power forward minutes each night.

So, what’s with all of this stretch-four talk? There a few talking points here…

Ben Simmons’ position

The Sixers sound like they’re full speed ahead with the “Ben Simmons, Point Guard” project. And while that sounds swell, positionality is often determined by who you can guard. Isaiah Thomas is one of the best offensive players in the NBA, but when the diminutive guard can’t even hide defensively on Paul Freaking Zipser, it poses a major problem for Brad Stevens and the Celtics.

“He’s got a chance and quick feet, he’ll be able to do it. It’s just learning the angles, learning the personnel, learning their tendencies, but he’s been doing a lot of film study, so he’ll probably have a leg-up on a lot of that.”

For the 6’10”, 240-pound Simmons, an elite defensive rebounder in college (26.5 percent, which ranked 25th in Division 1 per KenPom), it feels like he’s suited to primarily guard 4 men next to that monster the Sixers have patrolling the paint. The plan of attack seems fairly straightforward: Play Simmons in the backcourt offensively and frontcourt defensively.

Not so fast. Colangelo and Brown were in lock step on the need for a stretch-four, but they had different opinions on Simmons’ defense. While Brown said verbatim “I don’t really see Ben guarding point guards” last Friday, Colangelo had a different take a few minutes later.

“He’s that kind of an athlete and he’s shown us that he’s got the ability to get down in a stance and with a long wingspan and a wide base,” Colangelo said. “He’s got a chance and quick feet, he’ll be able to do it. It’s just learning the angles, learning the personnel, learning their tendencies, but he’s been doing a lot of film study, so he’ll probably have a leg-up on a lot of that.”

Simmons is quite a talent, and while the inconsistent message might be concerning, it does illustrate his tricky fit. I don’t believe anybody feels confident about what the supersized playmaker will look like on an NBA court, including Brown and Colangelo.

His defensive position is pretty important, though. Both answers gave some reason for pause:

•    In Colangelo’s case, Simmons getting into a real defensive stance at LSU was a rare occurrence. Brown raved about his defense during training camp and Simmons certainly has the tools to be good, but there needs to be a mindset change. That goes double if he wants to defend point guards.

•    In Brown’s case, if you don’t envision Simmons defending PGs, what is the need for a stretch-four? Robert Covington and Jerryd Bayless are already guarding the best two perimeter players. The Sixers have players capable of guarding on the wing (TLC, Henderson, Draft Pick X, etc.)

The curious case of Ersan Ilyasova

Let’s not forget that the Sixers had a stretch-four. Colangelo went Full Hinkie in shipping Ilyasova for second-round picks at the deadline, and Saric took off right after. Colangelo played that situation well.

“I think we had, perhaps, contract desires that didn’t align,” Colangelo said of Ilyasova. “That didn’t align with our growth and our program right now and our timeline.”

 Both Joel and Ersan
Joel, no Ersan
Ersan, no Joel
 OffRtg 109.7103.5

(Numbers via NBA Wowy. In general, I think that gives a decent representation of what happened. Embiid is more responsible for the success, but the Sixers played better when Ilyasova was paired with him.)

Not committing long-term money to Ilyasova was a prudent move, but the stretch-four free agent market outside of him looks either unattainable or fairly expensive: Paul Millsap, Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Nikola Mirotic, and Patrick Patterson.

Maybe this could open the Sixers up to drafting Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, especially if they land two picks?

I don’t know. To me, the beauty of Ben Simmons (and Dario Saric) is that you don’t need a stretch-four. The Sixers are sure going to need shooting, but with a 6’10” point guard, I expected them to target that skill in more conventional places like the backcourt and wing.

Things can change, but early indications are that they want a stretch-four.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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