By Bryan Toporek
The Process is dead. Long live the Process.
Four years after former general manager Sam Hinkie began the most shameless tank job in NBA history, the Philadelphia 76ers appear poised to rocket up the Eastern Conference standings. With the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers staring down the barrel of a rebuild and the fledgling Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Orlando Magic all mired in mediocrity, the Sixers only need to edge past one of the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat or Charlotte Hornets to earn a playoff berth in 2017-18.
Can the Sixers inspire a second #RTArmageddon by making their 20-win seasons a thing of the past and emerging as a legitimate title contender over the coming years? That largely boils down to the health of their young prospects, none more notably than Joel Embiid. Though the 7’2″ big man lasted only 31 games this past season before a torn meniscus prematurely ended his de facto rookie campaign, he displayed precocious talent in his limited minutes, flashing the upside of a possible top-five-in-the-league player if his body stops betraying him.
While the Sixers attempt to stave off any further injuries, they’re also entering a pivotal offseason. With the potential to carve out more than $50 million in cap space, they could go big-game hunting in free agency, particularly targeting shooters and a veteran point guard to help guide their young floor generals.
In all likelihood, the Sixers already made their biggest move of the offseason when they sent their No. 3 pick to the Boston Celtics along with a lightly protected 2018 Los Angeles Lakers or 2019 Sacramento Kings first-rounder for the No. 1 overall selection and the rights to draft Fultz. That begs the question…
1. Was Markelle Fultz worth the price?
Assuming Fultz lives up to his predraft hype, yes. While that trade could backfire on the Sixers—the Celtics could land the No. 2 overall pick from the Lakers next year, giving them a chance to draft whichever one of Luka Doncic or Michael Porter Jr. falls to them—it was a no-brainer for Philadelphia regardless.
At No. 3, the Sixers were facing a plethora of less-than-ideal options. De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson both tout enticing defensive upside, but their shooting concerns made them questionable fits alongside Embiid and Ben Simmons. Jayson Tatum and Jonathan Isaac would have further clogged their logjam at the forward spots. Malik Monk can erupt offensively at a moment’s notice, but his 6’3″ frame raises questions about his ability to stifle opposing 2-guards. Dennis Smith Jr. was perhaps their best option in terms of fit, but considering he fell to the Dallas Mavericks at No. 9, taking him third would have been a reach. (A trade down would have been preferable.)
With Fultz, Philadelphia has no such concerns. He’s a three-level scorer, having shot 61.6 percent at the rim, 43.8 percent on two-point jumpers and 41.3 percent from three-point range during his lone season with the Washington Huskies, per Hoop-Math.com. With all due respect to Ish Smith, Michael Carter-Williams and the endless drove of journeymen floor generals the Sixers cycled through over the past four season, Fultz is by far their best point guard prospect since Jrue Holiday. Though UCLA’s Lonzo Ball drew more praise for his elite passing ability and court vision, Fultz isn’t far behind. Putting him alongside legitimate NBA-caliber talent should make his top-tier talent shine through far more than it did at Washington.
Could the Celtics come out ahead of the Sixers on this trade? Absolutely! Jayson Tatum may be the second coming of Carmelo Anthony. Boston could receive the No. 2 pick in either 2018 or 2019 courtesy of the Lakers or Kings, respectively. It was a risky move for both sides, as Philadelphia sacrificed the chance to acquire two high-lottery prospects for the price of one. Then again, if the Lakers and Kings make significant strides over the coming months—say, if L.A. trades for Paul George and Sacramento’s stunningly impressive draft haul pays immediate dividends—that other pick the Sixers sent to Boston could wind up being far less enticing.
Given Fultz’s glove-like fit alongside Simmons, Embiid and the Sixers’ other young prospects, team president Bryan Colangelo was right to push his chips in and move up two draft slots. The fact he placed restrictions on the other pick heading to Boston—if the Lakers pick doesn’t fall between Nos. 2 and 5 in 2018, the Celtics get the higher of the Sixers or Kings 2019 first-rounders unless either of those are No. 1 overall—makes it even more of a gamble worth taking.
2. How does Fultz affect the “Ben Simmons, Point Guard” experiment?
Prior to Fultz’s arrival, the Sixers repeatedly billed the 6’10” Simmons as their point guard of the future. The 2016 No. 1 overall pick missed his entire rookie season after suffering a Jones fracture in his right foot during training camp, but that didn’t stop head coach Brett Brown from envisioning a day when the LSU product ran his offense full-time.
During last year’s summer league, Brown told NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper it seemed “quite reckless” to install Simmons as point guard right away, adding it was “almost unfair” given how difficult it is to learn that position while transitioning from college. Four months later, the head coach had softened his stance, telling ESPN.com’s Nick Metallinos, “My intention is to give him the ball. I think that ultimately he’s going to be groomed to be a point guard.”
By the end of the 2016-17 season, Brown was all-in on the notion of Simmons as the team’s point guard, telling reporters, “I have this vision that I want to pursue with him as a point guard. … I think from what I have studied from his childhood, high school and at LSU, I feel confident that we should try this and look at it.” He hedged by saying, “Nobody can promise that I’m right. I don’t know, either,” but it’s clear Brown wanted to give Point Simmons a legitimate go.
With Fultz now in the fold, though, the Sixers could be facing the same “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem that the Houston Rockets may confront with James Harden and Chris Paul sharing one ball. Unless Simmons drastically improved his three-point stroke during his year off—he went 1-of-3 from downtown during his lone year at LSU—he isn’t a threatening enough shooter to frequently play off-ball. Is Fultz willing to slide over to a de facto shooting guard role? In today’s increasingly positionless NBA, do those positional designations even matter?
Fultz isn’t sweating the details yet, telling reporters after the draft he’s willing to do “whatever we need to do to win. Sometimes I’ll be on the ball, sometimes I’ll be off.” The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor likewise expects big things from the Fultz-Simmons duo: “The Sixers needed a player who could offset Simmons’s weakness by providing another source of playmaking while also offering spot-up shooting ability and versatile defense. Fultz does all of that in ways no player available at the third slot could; that’s why losing one of their two valuable future firsts is worth it.”
3. Who should they target in free agency?
According to Mark Deeks’ must-read offseason manifesto, the Sixers could carve out nearly $53 million in cap space this summer even after factoring in Fultz’s rookie-scale cap hold of $7.0 million. If so desired, they could go on a free-agent spending spree Saturday, splurging on a few big-name veterans to help expedite their return to the playoffs.
Team president Bryan Colangelo appears to have other plans, though. ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe reported Friday that the Sixers “have told agents they will seek one-year deals this summer to preserve future space.” He added, “The one-year gambit will be a hard sell for high-profile guys. JJ Redick didn’t wait this long to sign a one-year deal at age 33.” On Monday, O’Connor said multiple league sources expected Philadelphia (along with the Brooklyn Nets) to “make a hard push at Redick,” so it remains to be seen whether the 33-year-old sharpshooter could encourage Colangelo to deviate from his preferred free-agent strategy.
Conceptually, Redick checks most of the boxes Philadelphia should want from a free agent. He’s a career 41.5 percent shooter from deep, making him an excellent fit alongside Fultz, Simmons, Embiid and Robert Covington, and he’s a veteran with 88 games’ worth of playoff experience. His defense is more of a question mark—Redick ranked 85th out of 100 shooting guards last season in ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus metric—but Embiid and Covington could help hide his weaknesses on that end. According to Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, Redick is hoping to earn $18-20 million per season, so his price point may be the ultimate deal-breaker.
If the Sixers can’t lure Redick, who else might they target for that vacancy at the 2-guard spot? They had “some interest” in Dion Waiters last year, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, although they also had reservations “about the concept of the South Philly native returning home to play.” It’s unclear whether his breakout season with the Miami Heat quelled those concerns, but he may be more affordable than Redick. A prominent agent who spoke with Barry Jackson of the Miami Heat predicted Waiters would get somewhere between $8 million and $10 million annually on his next deal.
Beyond that, Colangelo could dip back into the barrel he favored last year—going after under-the-radar veterans who aren’t likely to command huge salaries. In Jerryd Bayless (three years, $27 million), Gerald Henderson (two years, $18 million with a nonguaranteed second year) and Sergio Rodriguez (one year, $8 million), the Sixers avoided the temptation to drastically overpay in a market where Kent Bazemore, Luol Deng and Evan Turner each received four-year pacts worth $70 million or more. If Colangelo exercises the same financial restraint this summer, the Sixers will be well-equipped to make a big free-agent splash in 2018.
4. Should they offer Joel Embiid an extension?
Though Embiid has just 31 NBA games under his belt, he’ll be eligible to sign an extension beginning July 1, as he’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. If he and the Sixers can’t reach an agreement by the Oct. 31 deadline, he’ll instead become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2018.
That puts Colangelo and Sixers majority owner Josh Harris in somewhat of a bind. Can the team confidently invest more than $100 million in a player who missed 215 out of a possible 246 games over the past three seasons? Does his upside justify the risk involved in such a deal?
In those 31 games Embiid did play last season, he demonstrated the makings of a transcendent star. Prior to the 2016-17 campaign, no player in NBA history ever averaged at least 20 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a triple as a rookie. Embiid did so while playing just 25.4 minutes. Health permitting, it’s not hyperbolic to say the self-proclaimed “Process” has MVP upside.
Further complicating matters is the new collective bargaining agreement’s restrictions on “designated player rookie-scale extensions.” Under the new CBA, teams can hand a five-year extension to any player on a rookie-scale contract, but they can only have two such players on their roster at one time. Thus, if the Sixers do decide to sign Embiid to a five-year extension, they won’t be able to do so with both Simmons and Fultz as well.
If Philadelphia opts to bypass an extension, it could match any offer sheet Embiid receives as a restricted free agent in 2018, but that approach could backfire on the team. He could sign a shorter-term offer sheet—such as a four-year deal with a fourth-year player option—to ensure he reaches the next tier of max salary (30 percent rather than 25 percent) more quickly. Though doubtful given his lengthy injury history, he could instead sign the Sixers’ qualifying offer to ensure he’d be an unrestricted free agent in 2019, similar to what Greg Monroe did with the Detroit Pistons a few years ago.
Allowing Embiid to become a restricted free agent would temporarily give Philadelphia more flexibility in next summer’s free-agent market, as his $18.3 million cap hold will assuredly be less than his 2018-19 salary on his new contract. Harris doesn’t appear deterred by the risk of extending Embiid now, though, having recently told reporters, “Look, I’d just say we want Joel to be on the team for a long time. We want us all to grow old together. That’s the way I would put it.”
How the Sixers go about ensuring that—whether they offer him a full five-year max extension on July 1, attempt to sign him to a more team-friendly deal, resist the temptation to give him that fifth year or allow him to test restricted free agency—is the biggest question moving forward.
5. Should they preserve cap space to renegotiate Robert Covington’s contract?
When Lowe mentioned the Sixers hope to preserve future cap space by signing free agents to one-year deals, he added they also might “use some of their current room to extend Robert Covington.” Assuming Covington and the team can find a price point they agree upon, this would be prudent for both sides.
Covington—the crown jewel of the four-year “Hinkie Special” contract for second-round picks and undrafted free agents—is set to earn just shy of $1.6 million in 2017-18 on the final year of his deal. If he and the Sixers can’t reach an agreement on an extension, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent next summer. In mid-May, Michael Kaskey-Blomain of 97.3 ESPN reported Philadelphia hoped to ink Covington to an extension, as “the organization doesn’t want to run the risk of losing him on the open market” in 2018.
Covington fell out of favor with some Sixers fans early in the 2016-17 campaign, as his streaky three-point stroke went missing in action. Through the first two months of the season, he shot just 28.7 percent from deep on 5.9 attempts per game, many of which were uncontested looks. Over that span, Covington knocked down only 29.3 percent of his three-point attempts where no defender was within four feet of him, much to the chagrin of the Philadelphia faithful.
He began to snap out of his slump once the calendar flipped to 2017, shooting 42.8 percent overall and 36.5 percent from three over his final 38 games, but those focused on his offensive struggles were ignoring his immense defensive output. Covington led all players this year in deflections per game (4.2), and opponents shot 3.4 percentage points below their average with him defending them. Considering he often drew the most difficult defensive assignments each night—from LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Andrew Wiggins—pairing a stifling three-and-D wing stopper like him with the Fultz-Simmons-Embiid trio would be a huge luxury for the Sixers moving forward.
That begs the question: How much should Philadelphia offer Covington? Seeing as the likes of Turner and Bazemore each received a four-year, $70 million deal last summer, Covington’s agent would likely establish that as a baseline for any new contract. Then again, if this summer’s free-agent market proves chillier than last year’s, Covington may have less leverage in renegotiation talks.
By renegotiating and extending his deal, Covington would be in line for a massive raise in 2017-18, which may help offset the appeal of testing the free-agent market next summer. The Sixers could hand him somewhere in the neighborhood of $24 million as a starting salary in 2017-18 and then decrease it by up to 40 percent the following year as part of the renegotiation. In essence, they could effectively free up additional cap space in the future by handing Covington more money now.
Covington isn’t eligible to renegotiate and extend his contract until the three-year anniversary of him signing it (Nov. 15), which is why Philadelphia could decide to preserve upward of $20 million in cap space after free agency. Finding an agreeable figure for both sides may depend on the rest of the free-agent market for three-and-D wings this summer.
6. Does Jahlil Okafor have a future with this team?
With Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric and Richaun Holmes gobbling minutes at the 4 and 5 spots, former No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor appears to be the odd man out of the Sixers’ frontcourt rotation.
Okafor put up impressive counting stats as a rookie—17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 30.0 minutes—but a clogged rotation and a balky knee limited his output this past season. While Nerlens Noel is no longer with the team, Holmes emerged as a strong late-season contributor in his place, so Okafor’s path to viable minutes largely depends on another long-term Embiid injury.
While a low-post-centric big like Okafor would have thrived against behemoths like Shaquille O’Neal a decade ago, today’s pace-and-space NBA is relegating him obsolete. His plodding footwork renders him incapable of guarding a typical pick-and-roll, so opponents can relentlessly target him on defense until Brown is forced to pull him off the floor. A viable three-point shot isn’t yet part of his offensive arsenal, either, as he’s gone just 1-of-6 from downtown over his first two seasons combined.
At this point, the Sixers may have to cut their losses and trade Okafor for pennies on the dollar, as his value isn’t likely to increase so long as Embiid remains healthy. Having two capable floor generals in Simmons and Fultz could help generate easier looks for him offensively, but his defensive concerns remain. Unless Okafor enters training camp with a renewed focus on defense, he’s not going to fetch much for Philadelphia in a trade.
Who might be interested in acquiring him? After sending Brook Lopez to the Los Angeles Lakers for D’Angelo Russell, the Brooklyn Nets may be a viable landing spot. The Nets shouldn’t give up any of their promising young players for him—namely Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson—but they’d likely be willing to part with Trevor Booker’s expiring contract. If Philly wanted a veteran point guard to show Fultz the ropes, Brooklyn could dangle Jeremy Lin, who can become a free agent next summer by declining his 2018-19 player option.
Beyond that, it may behoove the Sixers to see how the deck chairs shuffle in free agency before finding Okafor a landing spot. If Redick and Blake Griffin flee the Los Angeles Clippers, they could decide to go all-in on a rebuild by trading DeAndre Jordan and acquiring young players. The Atlanta Hawks appear to be on the precipice of a youth movement, too, especially if Paul Millsap leaves. The Sixers may not get much in return for Okafor, but his time in Philadelphia may come to an end this offseason nevertheless.