By: Ryan Waterman
For the second straight year, Philadelphia suffered spring heartbreak, as a promising season comes to a brutal end. Last year, the Sixers' overall inexperience was exposed against Boston, and the Celtics cruised to a four games to one cakewalk, ultimately falling short of the NBA Finals, thanks to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year, with LeBron having left for "greener" pastures in Los Angeles, the East appeared wide-open. The Sixers and Celtics were viewed as the early favorites, especially given Toronto's inability to get over the proverbial hump, making just a single conference finals appearance in the organization's nearly 25-year history.
All of that changed drastically last summer, with the short, albeit impactful announcement that the "Raptors acquire All-Star Kawhi Leonard from Spurs." A move that ultimately changed the landscape in the East, has powered the Raptors to an NBA Finals appearance, and brought them within one win of the city's first major professional championship in nearly three decades. It's also a move that has left Sixers' fans wondering "what if?" after their season came to an abrupt end in the most devastating fashion possible.
As fans wonder what could have been, the front office has been busy preparing for an off-season that is going to be loaded with uncertainty and question marks, as they continue their build towards the ultimate goal of an NBA Championship. Perhaps the biggest question marks that face the Sixers this summer surround the status of pending free agents Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris. Butler, acquired in November from Minnesota, possesses a player option that he figures to decline in favor of a new, max contract. Meanwhile, Harris, acquired just before the deadline from the Los Angeles Clippers, also stands to receive a max contract this summer. Much like Butler, however, the question remains -- will that deal come from Philadelphia?
Currently, the 76ers project to enter free agency on June 30th with approximately $69 million in cap space. With a list of ten pending free agents, the Sixers have some tough decisions to make. Atop that list are the aforementioned statuses of Butler and Harris. Additionally, they'll have to worry about their fifth starter in sharpshooter JJ Redick, quality depth off the bench in Mike Scott, James Ennis, and Boban Marjanovic, and added bench pieces in TJ McConnell, Greg Monroe, Amir Johnson, and Furkan Korkmaz. Given Johnson and Korkmaz's lack of contribution, it seems fairly safe to assume they won't be back. The same can be said for Monroe. That leaves the five-pack of Redick, Scott, Ennis, Boban, and McConnell. I'm inclined to believe that the Sixers feel comfortable in renouncing their rights to all but Redick, which would put them just slightly over the cap space, still with nearly $70 million in cap holds from Butler, Harris, and Redick.
Where things get interesting, is when you consider the fact that since the trio are the Sixers' own free agents, they've got the ability to wait on signing them, in favor of bringing in another star. Sure, that's a dangerous practice, as nothing is preventing any of the three from signing with another squad. However, if the opportunity arises to bring in a player of Kevin Durant's stature, the Sixers would be foolish to not go all-in on the opportunity. In pursuing Durant, the Sixers would not only bring in one of the best pure scoring threats the league has seen, but also one of the best overall two-way players. Much like Butler, the soon-to-be 31-year old Durant has garnered the reputation of being a lockdown defender.
What might a Durant contract look like? For this instance, we'll use an example provided from the good people over at Knicks Film School. It's not exactly a secret that Golden State can offer Durant the largest, longest, and most lucrative deal. However, with the Warriors are deep into the luxury tax, and the contracts of both Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins also looming this summer, it seems that Durant could find himself on a new team this fall.
Clearly, for the Sixers to afford a Durant contract, they'd need to renounce their rights to both Tobias Harris and JJ Redick, freeing up just over $38 million in cap room -- seemingly enough for Philadelphia to provide KD with a four-year, $164 million max contract. Fear not though, Sixers fans, as this wouldn't be the team's only significant move of the summer. With the team possessing the Bird Rights to Jimmy Butler, they have the ability to go over the salary cap to retain The Butler's services. Should this scenario come to fruition, the Sixers would sport a core four of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Kevin Durant. It would serve as an immediate upgrade over Tobias Harris, would lock them in as an Eastern Conference favorite, and a heavy favorite for the NBA Championship. However, this scenario currently stands to be nothing more than a dream -- albeit an obtainable dream.
More realistically, the Sixers will opt to bring back the trio of Butler, Redick, and Harris -- leaving them to round out, and improve on their lackluster bench production. However, what if they opt to explore options outside of Redick and Harris? Among the most popular names discussed are Milwaukee Bucks standout Malcom Brogdon (Yes, the same one that robbed Joel Embiid of 2017 Rookie of the Year). A career 40.8% shooter from deep, Brogdon is the poster-boy for the term "3 & D," a phrase Philadelphia fans often associate with former fan favorite Robert Covington. The former Virginia product has developed an extremely well-rounded game in his three seasons, owning a career slash of 48.4% from the field, 40.4% from deep, and 89.5% from the charity stripe. With the Bucks set to break the bank of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and hope to retain Khris Middleton, Brogdon will be a highly sought after name, one that'll surely be priced out of Milwaukee. If the Sixers would like to avoid a third-straight exit in the second-round, a Brogdon signing could go a long way towards achieving that.
Among other high-profile splashes that could replace Harris and Redick are Brooklyn's D'Angelo Russell, who the Sixers are no strangers to having interest in. Klay Thompson, the Golden State sharpshooter, who fans have long drooled over the prospect of signing. Or, possibly Julius Randle, an intriguing prospect if the Sixers wish to play a traditional power forward next to Embiid. Some less-flashy, yet equally as impactful targets could include: Patrick Beverley, Nikola Mirotic, Danny Green, Jeremy Lamb, Ed Davis, Robin Lopez, or JaVale McGee. Some of these targets may come into player as part of Philadelphia's Nontaxpayer Mid-Level Exception of $9.24 million.
Another fascinating aspect of this off-season is the ongoing saga known as Ben Simmons. Unquestionably, the league's most polarizing youngster, Simmons has taken Philadelphia by storm. Some love him, some hate him, but we're all in awe. He's dazzled with his basketball IQ, his ball-handling skills, and his elite defense. On the flip-side, he's also infuriated the fan-base with his lack of a developed jumper, and seemingly disinterest in developing one to further cultivate his game. That said, there's no denying he's a special player. The only issue is that nobody knows what his future holds. Some believe that he wants out of Philadelphia, and is Los Angeles-bound, while Simmons' public comments suggest that he wants to stay for the long-haul, and create an unstoppable force with Joel Embiid.
This summer will be a vital part of that process, as Simmons becomes eligible for a supermax contract in July, worth north of $200 million. A possible monkey-wrench in those plans are the rumored talks of a Simmons-for-LeBron trade that's reportedly making the rounds within league circles. The chatter has cooled over the past month, but there's no denying the potential validity to those rumors. Philadelphia was a key presence in courting LeBron James last summer, and fell short to the Los Angeles Lakers. It's also no secret that the Lakers are currently a team in turmoil, having just lost Magic Johnson, plus the bombshell report (https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/26821790) dropped by ESPN's Baxter Holmes at the end of May. One could argue that these are two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum, with Philadelphia tasting a title in their future, and the Lakers beginning another attempt at rebuilding. Would it make sense to swap a 21-year old phenom for a 35-year old legend? Maybe, maybe not. That's for Elton Brand to determine, and us to find out. One thing we know for certain though, is that this will be one of the more interesting stories to follow as the summer unfolds.
Before the Sixers can truly shift their focus towards free agency, there is the upcoming NBA Draft on June 20th. The organization currently holds the 24th overall pick, which may not seem like it'll result in a sexy selection. However, history suggests otherwise with names such as Rick Fox (1991-Boston), Derek Fisher (1996-Lakers), Andrei Kirilenko (1999-Utah), Kyle Lowry (2006-Memphis), and Serge Ibaka (2008-Seattle/Oklahoma City) among the most well-known selections. Some potential targets in this year's draft include: Admiral Schofield (SF/Tennessee), Tyler Herro (SG/Kentucky), Grant Williams (PF/Tennessee), Carsen Edwards (PG/Purdue), and Kevin Porter (SG/USC).
The most notable of those names to fans is Kevin Porter Jr, the former five-star recruit of the USC Trojans. Many scouts believe that he's one of the most talented players in this draft class, and his play on the court shows that. That being said, there are a number of off-court red flags surrounding his maturity, his discipline, and his decision-making. Going to the right place is key for Porter, which begs the question -- is Philadelphia the right fit for Porter? The second most notable -- mostly to Philadelphia fans -- would be Carsen Edwards, the man who torched Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. Primarily viewed as a one-way explosion of scoring, Edwards projects to be a nice boost off the bench for teams. Scouts don't believe though, that he has the mentality of being a point guard, which leads the belief of him transitioning back to his natural shooting guard position.
Herro projects to be an average "3 & D" player in the NBA, with potential to be above-average. Most comparisons link him to Joe Harris, which isn't a terrible comparison by any means. It's just that the Sixers currently have that type of player in JJ Redick. A selection of Herro could be a sign that Redick may be on his way out, or it could signify the passing of the torch with a fina one-year deal for JJ to mentor Herro. That brings us to Admiral Schofield, my personal favorite prospect in this draft. He didn't possess much buzz when he came to Tennessee as a three-star prospect. A solid senior season (16.5 PPG, 47% FG, 42% 3-PT) really put him on the Draft Map, but it was his NCAA Tournament production that has him skyrocketing up boards. He showed this year that he can do a little bit of everything. His ability to shoot at a solid clip offers immediate value to NBA squads, and his positional versatility offers additional intrigue.
Coming off of such a painful end to their season, Philadelphia will be hungry to take that next step this summer. While their roster is sure to look different, how different remains the biggest question. Will they opt to run it back, and hope that a full season of chemistry carries them? Do they think an upgrade over Tobias Harris is necessary? Is Ben Simmons in the team's long-term plans? I don't have the answers to any of these questions, but I invite you all to sit back with me, crack open a cold-one, and enjoy the ride -- for better or worse.