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Fixing The Philadelphia 76ers

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To put it lightly, the Philadelphia 76ers have (partially by design) had a difficult time staying afloat over the last four years. Since their last playoff berth in 2012, the Sixers have accumulated a brutal record of 105-289, and are set to miss the postseason for the fifth straight campaign. Over that time period, thankfully, the 76ers have collected some of the league’s best young players and assets and will add another in June’s draft. But after injuries to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid slowed down the team’s collective development this season, the question is where can they go from here?

Following the calculated plan of former general manager Sam Hinkie, the Sixers have plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future — though there are still significant hurdles to overcome. Fixing a roster like the Sixers’ is much like buying a bottle of wine: the urge to uncork it is ever-present, but the longer you wait, the better it’ll taste. With that in mind, here are four things the 76ers and general manager Bryan Colangelo should do this offseason.

Define The Roster Before Drafting

When Ben Simmons’ fractured his fifth metatarsal, early expectations for the 76ers dropped significantly. With the No. 1 overall pick shelved for the entire season, the 76ers were officially unable to answer one of the roster’s biggest questions in 2016-2017: is Simmons a point guard?

Last week, head coach Brett Brown said that the franchise still sees Simmons as the point guard next season and that he’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove himself up to the task. This type of firm decision-making will shape the 76ers’ future, but in a draft that’s brimming with point guard talent, they’ll have to make another tough decision when they’re on the clock.

As Dennis Chambers noted last week, the 76ers’ upcoming options are endless. If Simmons is indeed the floor general of the future, Philadelphia could easily add one of the final missing pieces to their starting five. Whether that means drafting Kansas’ Josh Jackson, Duke’s Jayson Tatum, Kentucky’s Malik Monk or Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, it’d be hard to argue against any of those choices.

However, if the 76ers aren’t truly committed to Simmons at point guard, that’s a decision they’ll need to definitively make before June’s big night. Missing out on a potentially franchise-changing stud like UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz — although they’d need some lottery luck to be in a position to draft either player— or any of the other highly-touted prospects at point guard would be tragic if the Simmons experiment is eventually abandoned.

Additionally, the Sixers will need to decide if Dario Saric is the go-to power forward — and if so, what does that mean for Jahlil Okafor next season? Saric has averaged 12.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, but he’s blossomed since Embiid’s season ended prematurely. In fact, over his last six games, Saric has upped his averages to 21 points and 7.5 rebounds and recently became the newest frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.

Is T.J. McConnell a one-year wonder? Can the 76ers squeeze more out of Nik Stauskas? Is Robert Covington a piece for the future? Until the 76ers know how these players fit into their rotation and plan moving forward, they likely won’t know what the team needs most going into draft night. Remember, if the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick falls outside the top three, it will go to the Sixers, which would be a much-desired solution to the draft dilemma ahead of them.

Be Extra Careful With Handling Injuries

Staying healthy is an obvious goal for any team, but considering that short-term health issues weren’t a major concern in recent seasons, it needs to be stated. As the Sixers set in motion their multi-year tanking effort, they used some of their highest selections on players with injury concerns and European stashes. Now that the 76ers have finally solved their big man logjam, it’ll be up to Embiid, Simmons, Saric and Okafor to stay on the court and continue their collective progression. Add in tempered, but hopeful, expectations for both Timothe Luwawu-Cabaret and Justin Anderson — the latter of whom was acquired at the trade deadline in a package for Nerlens Noel — and the Sixers will have a young core to march into 2018 and beyond with.

Of them all, the crown jewel is certainly the aforementioned Embiid. Drafted way back in 2014, the 76ers knew the circumstances surrounding the center and his potentially career-altering foot issues, but selected the talented Jayhawk anyways. Part of what would eventually be dubbed “The Process,” Embiid missed two straight seasons as the Sixers racked up countless losses. However, when he finally made his debut in 2016, the return on investment was immediately better than expected.

The runaway leader for Rookie of the Year was averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in just 25 minutes per game before injuries reared its ugly head. Although it’s a meniscus tear that has shelved Embiid for the remainder of the season, rather than that pesky foot, the 76ers must know that they’re approaching dangerous territory again. When healthy, Embiid is one of the most talented centers in the entire league — but staying on the court has been the one major issue that has plagued him so far. Considering this, the team should be very conservative in treating Embiid and its other players with serious injuries. The long term goals to this team must take priority over rushing players back into action after rehabbing an injury.

The rise or fall of the 76ers depends entirely on Embiid and, if he can stay healthy, he and Simmons could eventually form one of the league’s next great dynamic duos. If he cannot, the 76ers will suffer a major, major setback and will have to start searching for a new set of answers.

(Continue To) Trust The Process

Following the New Year, Embiid and Saric had the Philadelphia faithful thinking about the playoffs after going 10-5 in the month of January. For a franchise that’s in the middle of its worst playoff drought since the late 90s, the excitement was palpable. Was Embiid really doing all this? Is McConnell the next great discovery at point guard? Could the Philadelphia 76ers actually find themselves staring down the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers come playoff time?

Unfortunately, the 76ers won’t make the playoffs this season, but this campaign has undoubtedly been a significant improvement over that 10-72 season.

However, the worst thing the 76ers’ front office could do now is attempt to accelerate the process. The Lakers, for example, saw some great things from D’Angelo Russell during his rookie season, drafted Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 overall selection, and got a healthy Julius Randle back from his devastating leg break. But what did they do in free agency? Of course, they signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng for a combined $34 million per year until the end of the 2019-2020 season.

With new head coach Luke Walton in town, the Lakers’ front office immediately thought about pushing for the Western Conference’s eighth seed and now will pay for it. As franchises have learned time and time again, there are no shortcuts to success — just ask the Brooklyn Nets. Growing a winner takes time and the 76ers would be well-served to keep this in mind.

Avoid Long-Term, Inflated Contracts

Thusly, this summer, the 76ers must avoid giving out bloated contracts to veterans that will only steal playing time from their young, budding stars. The Sixers did well in this area last year, opting to sign veterans Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez to short-term contracts that would help guide their cornerstone youngsters. Instead of getting their money tied up in restricted free agents like Allen Crabbe or shooting for the stars with DeMar DeRozan, Colangelo kept things in perspective, and now he must look to maintain that approach once again.

The Sixers will need to look for free agents that complement the unique skill sets of their core players moving forward, so a focus on a perimeter scorer could be key. Colangelo should forget about the possibility of the Washington Wizards not matching an offer sheet for Otto Porter Jr. and it’s unlikely that a veteran like the Los Angeles Clippers’ J.J. Redick would leave a contender for the 76ers, but aiming somewhere in between could be beneficial for all parties involved.

Adding a reliable shooter like Patty Mills to the backcourt behind Simmons is the type of shrewd, economically responsible signing that Colangelo should chase when free agency opens. Mills is shooting 42 percent from three this season, but he’ll turn 29-years-old in August and the opportunity for one last major NBA payday could be enough to sway him away from the San Antonio Spurs.

Some other intriguing options for the 76ers this summer could include Tim Hardaway Jr., Kelly Olynyk and JaMychel Green — three restricted free agents that’ll look to cash in after strong seasons. Whether it’s three-point shooting, floor spacing for Embiid or rugged toughness, any signings must work in sync with the system, not take it over.

For all of Hinkie’s once-polarizing decisions, he clearly built the foundation of a potentially great franchise — now it’s up to the new leadership to capitalize on their fantastic draft position, grow their young core and, most importantly, stay patient. While the NBA world will forever cross their fingers for Simmons and Embiid’s collective health, the Sixers have an extremely wide margin of error this summer. Whomever the Sixers pluck out of free agency and the draft may not address all of the team’s concerns or needs, but, just as Hinkie imagined and designed it, there’s plenty more room to grow.

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About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.