For years, the Philadelphia 76ers were the emblem of tanking in the NBA. Former GM Sam Hinkie utilized cash considerations and second round draft picks in an effort known as “The Process” to avoid mediocrity in order to land high future draft assets which theoretically should convert to homegrown superstar talent. This past season, however, signaled a complete abandonment of The Process in Philly, as the newly led front office under Elton Brand decided to bet big on the present, sending off most of their coveted assets to reel in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to join Sixer-drafted stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in an effort to push this team to championship heights. The result? 4 unlucky bounces via Kawhi Leonard and a second consecutive playoff exit in the second round: the exact type of mediocre finish that The Process was supposed to eliminate.
Despite heavy criticism regarding head coach Brett Brown, the front office has revealed their intentions to keep him on board for at least one more season. Therefore, with free agency quickly approaching, Brand has some critical roster decisions to make if he wants his team to continue to make progress towards a title. Butler, Harris, and sharpshooter JJ Redick are all unrestricted free agents, and Simmons is soon due for a contact extension. What Brand ultimately decides on doing could determine how successful this team is for years to come, so here are the paths the general manager can pursue:
Option 1: Resign Everyone
If Brand decides to bring back all of last year’s core, it would mean bringing back one of the most productive units in the entire league. Ever since Philadelphia acquired Tobias Harris on February 6th, the Sixers starting group of Harris, Butler, Embiid, Simmons, and Redick outscored their opponents by 19.6 points per 100 possessions, which was the best in the NBA for a lineup that played at least 100 minutes with each other during that span. The lineup advantage became even greater during the postseason, as the point spread increased to 26.0 while distancing themselves from the league by an even more significant margin. An offseason together will no doubt allow this group to develop even more chemistry with the belief that last year’s team was just a lucky bounce away from the Larry O’Brien trophy being paraded around Philly instead of Toronto.
The main problem with running it back is how expensive it would be. Butler and Harris seemed poised to receive max contract offers around the league, with the Sixers being in position to offer 5-year $190 million deals to each of them. Redick just turned 35 and is a liability on defense, but with 3-point shooting being such a premium in the NBA right now he is sure to get an offer at least similar to the $12.25 million he made last season. Simmons is still on his team-friendly rookie contract, but his looming contract extension, which could come next offseason, could limit Philly’s roster flexibility even more down the road.
Even now Philly seems to be boxed in when it comes to adding depth, as the only other guys they have locked in for next season are Zhaire Smith, recently drafted Matisse Thybulle, Jonah Bolden, Shake Milton, and Haywood Highsmith. While Smith and Thybulle offer upside as complimentary 3-and-D guys, what’s noticeably lacking is a reliable backup center to Embiid. They had the same issue last season, and the result was Philly being outscored by a staggering 19.7 points per 100 possessions in the postseason when the franchise player was sitting on the bench. That being said, while options will definitely be limited, the Sixers could be an attractive destination for ring-chasing veterans who would be fine with settling for the minimum salary, and that could be all it takes to get this team over the hump.
Option 2: Let Either Butler or Harris Walk
Another problem with the plan highlighted above is that nobody is sure whether Butler or Harris would even like to return to the city of brotherly love. The Sixers must brace for such a departure from either one of their mid-season acquisitions, but could Brand really find a justification if both of them leave? He dumped pretty much all of their best assets into these two guys and seeing them walk after not even one full season would be a devastating blow to the franchise. With that being the case, Brand should do all he can do bring back at least one of the two players… but who should he prioritize?
At first glance, their on-court production seems to be quite similar. They both averaged 18.2 points per game while on the Sixers during the regular season, and Butler shot 46.1% from the field and 33.8% from 3 while Harris boasted percentages of 46.9% and 32.6%. However, when it comes to their influence on overall team success, it’s clear that Butler has had the more positive impact. During the regular season when Jimmy Butler was on the floor, Philadelphia outscored opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions, while that number decreased to only 0.2 with Tobias Harris. This trend continued during the postseason, with the respective margins becoming 11.9 and 6.7 for each player. Perhaps this can be explained by Jimmy’s evolution into a playmaker, as his playoff assist percentage of 23.2% (Harris’ playoff assist percentage was only 16.4%) showcases his ability to make the people around him better. With that being said, it appears that if Brand has to choose between the two players that Butler should be his first option.
Another thing to consider is that letting Harris walk would create future financial flexibility. This development would enable Brand to address areas of need such as a backup center and 3-point shooting. Additionally, it would allow him after this offseason to turn the focus to Ben Simmons and locking him down long-term with a lucrative contract extension.
Option 3: Making Ben Simmons Available
Speaking of Simmons, perhaps making him available for trade could be the solution to all of their problems. Financially speaking, it rids the franchise of the looming extension they will have to give him, giving them more room to commit to Butler, Harris, and a supporting cast. Additionally, the potentially massive return they could get for a team desperate for a star talent like Simmons could set up Philadelphia not only for the present, but for the future as well.
On the court, Simmons’ primary role has been as a distributor, and he has thrived by averaging 7.9 assists per game throughout his career to go along with his 35.8% assist percentage. However, as noted above, Jimmy Butler’s rise in that role could hint that Simmons could become expendable, and the playmaking duties could be fully transferred to Butler. Another potential benefit of removing Simmons from the equation is that it could unlock Joel Embiid’s post game. Simmons shot a whopping 89% of his shots from less than 10 feet away from the basket this past season, and this was mainly due to the fact that he doesn’t have a reliable jump shot at all. This makes life tougher on Embiid, as opposing defenses are able to sag of Simmons and double team Embiid in the post knowing that Simmons can’t capitalize when being left open. With Simmons gone, Embiid can have his way in the paint, and when teams do decide to double him he can find his open teammate, who will certainly be a better shooter than Simmons.
The downside of this, of course, is that the Sixers would be giving up on a guy who has the potential to be a superstar in this league for a long time. Even without a jump shot, Simmons makes an incredible impact on the game with his ability to push in transition, attack the basket, facilitate, and lockdown on the defensive end. If he can somehow find a way to add a jumper to his arsenal, there is no limit to what he could potentially become.
What Should They Do?
With all of that being said, it’s clear the Elton Brand can take the Sixers in a number of different directions this summer. All of his options have their pros and cons, but to me their best options seems to be sticking with what they know works. Letting Tobias, Jimmy, or Simmons go would certainly change the dynamic of the team, but who knows if it will be for the better or worse at the end of the day. If they bring back their core, they can go into next season knowing that they have the best lineup in the NBA and can just figure out the rest of the roster later. That being said, in case that plan doesn’t end up panning out when free agency kicks off in less than a week, the other two options mentioned above could provide some fallback for Brand if things go awry.