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Fixing The Philadelphia 76ers

Benny Nadeau breaks down how the Philadelphia 76ers can capitalize on their promising future.

Ben Nadeau

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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.

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

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NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk

Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.

Lang Greene

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In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.

There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.

The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.

The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.

But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.

Think about this for a moment.

While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.

Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.

Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.

Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.

Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.

At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.

Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.

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NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available

Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.

As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.

The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.

Available Restricted Free Agents:

Clint Capela

Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.

Rodney Hood

Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.

Available Unrestricted Free Agents:

Dwyane Wade

The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.

“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.

Honorable Mentions

A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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