Over the coming weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team will be taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, starting here with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Fresh off a 10-win campaign, the Philadelphia 76ers are facing far more questions than answers this offseason. Between a looming frontcourt logjam, a barren point guard depth chart and a lack of proven wing scorers, the Sixers will almost assuredly undergo a major roster overhaul over the coming weeks.
With new team president Bryan Colangelo running the show, there’s no way of telling which direction the Sixers will go during the draft and free agency. Colangelo and other franchise executives have trumpeted their desire to move toward building a competitive team—#process2progress, if you will—which seems to imply short-term, win-now moves taking precedence. Then again, Colangelo recognizes the Sixers aren’t currently in a position to lure top-tier free agents, so “placeholder” signings may be the best path forward until they fix their battered reputation.
Thanks to former general manager Sam Hinkie, the Sixers have a stockpile of assets that most teams could only dream of. It’s now up to Colangelo to transform those holdings into something resembling an actual NBA team.
He’ll start that process on draft night, where the Sixers will face a franchise-altering decision right at the outset.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”2016Offseason” title=”More 2016 Offseason articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
1. Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram?
When the Sixers won the draft lottery on May 17, it immediately ignited the Ben Simmons-vs.-Brandon Ingram in Philadelphia.
Simmons, who entered the 2015-16 season as the overwhelming front-runner to be selected first overall, didn’t quite live up to expectations during his lone season at LSU. His individual numbers were phenomenal—he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game—but the Tigers were a profound disappointment, failing to even make it to the NCAA tournament. That raised questions about whether Simmons was worthy of being the No. 1 pick, especially as he appeared to mentally check out later in the season. In March, The Vertical’s Jonathan Givony resoundingly came down on the “no” side of that debate, writing, “Simmons has displayed an apathy for defense, contact and delivering winning plays in crucial moments. Those troubling revelations in Simmons’ game are cause for concern among decision-makers on lottery teams with whom we’ve had contact.”
Ingram, meanwhile, shattered his best-case scenario at Duke, going from the third-ranked player in his high school class (per 247Sports) to a clear-cut top-two pick. The lanky freshman struggled a bit during the early portion of the 2015-16 campaign, but by mid-January, he had hit his stride. On the year, he knocked down 41 percent of his 5.4 three-point attempts per game, showing a silky smooth stroke that should translate well to the Association.
The dilemma for the Sixers, then, is two-fold. Ingram fits better both with their current roster and with the style of play that’s becoming more prevalent in the NBA. With Golden State’s Splash Brothers burying just about every challenger with an avalanche of treys, it’s easy to envision the 6-foot-9 Ingram becoming a natural counterpunch in due time, even if the Kevin Durant comparisons are overblown. He’ll need to add muscle to his string-bean frame—earlier this month, he told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News that he was tipping the scale at 195 pounds—but with a 7’3″ wingspan, he should have no problem eventually becoming a lockdown defender and 20-point-per-game scorer.
Simmons, on the other hand, is virtually the opposite. He has the mentality, ball-handling ability and playmaking skills of a point guard, but he’s trapped in a 6-foot-10, 240-pound body. Whereas Ingram is drawing comparisons to Durant as his ceiling, Simmons is far more in the mold of a Magic Johnson or LeBron James. He attempted just three triples at LSU (hitting one), so he’s not going to help with spacing concerns, but his ability to run an offense at the 4 would enable the Sixers to build an unconventional roster around him to complement his unique skill set.
It doesn’t appear as though the Sixers are deterred by Simmons’ lack of a jump shot. After working him out two days prior to the draft, they reportedly let their intentions be known, per Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:
This morning Philadelphia 76ers informed camp of Ben Simmons he would be taken No. 1 in NBA Draft, league sources tell @clevelanddotcom.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 21, 2016
Barring a Joel Embiid-esque situation where Simmons is diagnosed with a significant injury between now and Thursday, it appears as though the Australian point forward will be plying his trade in Philadelphia this fall.
2. Should they trade Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor?
Assuming the Sixers do select Simmons with the No. 1 overall, pick, it’s only going to further contribute to their frontcourt logjam. They already have Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, who proved as compatible together last year as oil and water, and former No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid appears to be on track to make his NBA debut this fall after missing his first two seasons due to foot injuries. If 2014 lottery pick Dario Saric decides to come stateside—a topic we’ll delve further into later—the Sixers would need to juggle minutes for five players 6-foot-10 or taller. Throw in 2015 second-round pick Richaun Holmes along with Jerami Grant and Robert Covington, both of whom could play the 4 in small-ball lineups, and the Sixers would simply have too many big men for their own good.
Since Embiid and Saric likely have negligible trade value at the moment, that leaves Noel and Okafor as the two logical candidates for the Sixers to dangle. They’ve been doing just that, according to ESPN.com’s Ford and Stein, and are “increasingly likely to move at least one of them in conjunction with the draft.”
That raises the question: Which one should they more willingly part with? As I delved into earlier this month, the answer boils down to what the Sixers prefer from a big man to complement Simmons. Noel is far more advanced defensively than Okafor, having become the second player in NBA history to average at least 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks during his first two years in the Association. Okafor, meanwhile, is a potent low-post scorer who fared far better offensively last season upon the arrival of journeyman point guard Ish Smith.
Which player works better next to Simmons? The answer is relatively clear:
On paper, Noel would appear to be a better fit alongside Simmons than Okafor. Simmons needs the ball in his hands to tap into his playmaking upside, so Noel’s low usage rate on offense won’t compromise that, and his athleticism would enable him to be on the receiving end of countless Simmons alley-oops. (Lob City East?) Okafor, meanwhile, is far more ball-dominant—he had a usage rate of 27.3 percent as a rookie, compared to Noel’s career usage rate of 17.8 percent—which could negate Simmons’ strength as a point-forward. Defensively, it’s even more of a no-contest.
The keep-or-trade calculus isn’t necessarily that simple, unfortunately. If the Sixers don’t sign Noel to an extension by Oct. 31, he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer. Depending on his contractual demands and his willingness to embrace a bench role if Embiid ever proves capable of staying on the court, his long-term fit in Philadelphia isn’t set in stone. Additionally, as the Sixers have shopped both players, they’ve discovered Noel has more trade value than Okafor, according to Ford (via Liberty Ballers’ Kyle Neubeck). If they’re seeking the maximal return, flipping Noel may be the way to go.
3. What should they do with Nos. 24 and 26?
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Hinkie, the Sixers enter Thursday’s draft with not one, not two, but three first-round picks, courtesy of the Miami Heat (No. 24) and Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 26). That gives them a plethora of options to consider after making their choice at No. 1.
In Simmons or Ingram, Embiid and perhaps Saric, the Sixers may already have three lottery picks to integrate into their rotation this coming season. Acquiring two additional rookies via this pair of late first-round picks would put even more strain on head coach Brett Brown. Thus, in all likelihood, the Sixers will not be using all three first-rounders on players who come to the team immediately.
If they’re set on trading either Okafor or Noel by draft night, they could throw in one of those two late first-round picks as a sweetener to entice a potential suitor. They could always attempt to package both picks to move up a few spots in the draft, particularly if they identify a must-have prospect in the late teens or early 20s. Denver and Boston, each of whom have three first-round picks (including Nos. 19 and 23, respectively), likely wouldn’t want to add more, but Memphis (No. 17), Detroit (No. 18), Indiana (No. 20), Atlanta (No. 21) or Charlotte (No. 22) may.
If the Sixers can’t find a taker for either Nos. 24 or 26, they’ll likely spend one of those two selections on a draft-and-stash prospect. Mega Leks wing Timothe Luwawu would be a steal at No. 24 if he takes an unexpected tumble down draft boards, as would Saric’s teammate on Anadolu Efes, Furkan Korkmaz. Isaia Cordinier or Paul Zipser would provide some much-needed floor spacing, while Ivica Zubac, Ante Zizic, Zhou Qi or Thon Maker could give them some big man depth in the international pipeline.
In the unlikely event the Sixers decide to use all three first-rounders on domestic prospects, who they select at No. 1 will largely determine the direction they go at 24 and 26. If they choose Simmons, they’ll be in desperate need of adding backcourt shooting, which could lead them to target prospects such as Malik Beasley, Patrick McCaw or Malachi Richardson. Considering their barren point guard depth chart, they could go after Dejounte Murray or Tyler Ulis there, too, particularly if they opt for Ingram over Simmons. Injury concerns could always contribute to an unforeseen draft-day slide for Michigan State swingman Denzel Valentine, who “may have a fairly significant knee issue,” according to Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler.
Given the high bust rate of late-first-round picks, what the Sixers do at Nos. 24 and 26 is nowhere near as important as where they land on the Simmons-vs.-Ingram and Noel-vs.-Okafor debates. If they’re able to hit on one of those picks, though, that player will become one of the top value contracts over the next four years as the salary cap skyrockets past $100 million.
4. How do they fill their point guard void?
Had Hinkie addressed the Sixers’ glaring hole at point guard last offseason, the team’s ownership group may have never brought in the Colangelos to usurp him. Instead, he allowed Ish Smith to walk as a free agent and only brought in Kendall Marshall (who was coming off of a torn ACL) and undrafted rookie free agent T.J. McConnell. When Marshall and Tony Wroten struggled in the early portions of the 2015-16 campaign, the Sixers crumbled, getting off to a dismal 1-30 start.
Colangelo can’t make the same mistake this offseason that Hinkie did last year.
Whether through the draft, a trade or free agency, it’s imperative for Philadelphia to bolster its point guard rotation. Even if the Sixers do take Dejounte Murray or Tyler Ulis with one of their late first-round picks, it would be borderline reckless to expect a rookie floor general to run the team’s offense with no major hiccups. It often takes considerable time for a young point guard to acclimate to the NBA, as D’Angelo Russell of the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay demonstrated this past season.
That leaves either free agency or a trade as Philly’s two best quick-fix routes at the point. Save for Memphis’ Mike Conley, however, the depth of this year’s free-agent class of floor generals leaves much to be desired. The next-best options among unrestricted free agents are some combination of Rajon Rondo, Jeremy Lin, Deron Williams, Brandon Jennings and Matthew Dellavedova. Restricted free agent Jordan Clarkson of the Lakers would be an enticing target, but even if the Sixers offer him a so-called “poison pill” deal, L.A. would likely match it.
Thus, while Philadelphia may be able to find a stopgap option at the point in free agency, a trade appears to be the only realistic route for landing a long-term solution. According to The Vertical’s Shams Charania, the Sixers have engaged the Atlanta Hawks in recent weeks to discuss a potential swap structured around Noel and Jeff Teague, although “an agreement isn’t imminent.” The Milwaukee Bucks have not-so-silently shopped Michael Carter-Williams since prior to the trade deadline; could he find his way back to the team that originally drafted him 11th overall in 2013? Would the Utah Jazz be willing to flip Trey Burke for a bag of peanuts at this point?
If the Sixers do trade Noel or Okafor, they’ll likely be doing so for a point guard. Whether it’s for a 28-year-old soon-to-be free agent such as Teague (bad!) or a younger player who hasn’t managed to fit seamlessly into his current surroundings (good!) remains the biggest question on that front.
5. Can they lure Dario Saric to Philadelphia?
As the Sixers navigate free agency and the trade market, they’ll have to keep Dario Saric in the back of their minds.
The Croatian forward, who went 12th overall in the 2014 draft, has a buyout clause in his contract with Anadolu Efes that would allow him to come stateside this summer. Throughout the year, a number of reports suggested he’d do just that—in April, international writer David Pick reported Saric “told his teammates he intends to leave Europe for the Sixers this offseason”—despite the financial disincentive to do so.
If Saric does come stateside this summer, he’ll be bound by the terms of the rookie scale, which limits him to a certain salary based on where he was selected. Even if the Sixers offer him the standard 120 percent of the scale amount, he’d be able to earn $10.75 million over his four-year deal at most. If Saric opts to stay overseas for one more season, however, he’d have no such limitations when negotiating a contract with the Sixers in 2017 or beyond. (Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic took advantage of this loophole, signing a three-year, $16.6 million deal with the Bulls during the 2014 offseason.)
Conflicting reports have emerged in recent weeks about the likelihood of Saric making the jump this summer. In speaking with NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper earlier this month, Colangelo divulged that his coming over is no certainty:
The timing of him coming to the NBA is still in question. I believe there’s a desire on both sides to make it happen sooner rather than later, but at the same time, the contract scenario, economics, etc., etc. all plays a part in that decision-making. We’ll know soon enough whether it’s going to happen for this particular season. That’s our goal and our desire.
Since then, however, a report emerged in a Croatian newspaper suggesting there was a 99 percent likelihood of Saric joining the Sixers (via Hoop 76):
— Hoop76 (@Hoop_76) June 15, 2016
Colangelo and Brown went to Turkey in early June to speak with Saric about his impending decision, per Sixers.com’s Brian Seltzer, where they stressed how much they’d like him to join the team this offseason.
“Coach [Brown] and I both expressed to him, and I think he understands, that this would be a good time for him to come over for a lot of different reasons,” Colangelo said upon returning from that trip, per Seltzer. “Number one, the make-up of our team and the roster right now would lend itself to considerable playing time, or an opportunity to earn that playing time. Can’t necessarily project out what it’s going to look like at this time next year, but this is a good time for him and a good time for us, we feel, for him to make this jump.”
Saric has until July 17 to officially inform Efes of his decision. Until then, Colangelo and Co. can only wait with bated breath to see whether they’ll have him at their disposal next season.
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