During the night of the 2018 NBA Draft, Philadelphia 76ers head coach and interim general manager Brett Brown set lofty expectations for the remainder of the offseason.
"We are star-hunting, or we are star-developing," Brown told reporters. "That's how you win a championship."
In the wake of those comments, the Sixers' inability to lure either LeBron James or Paul George in free agency may be viewed as a resounding disappointment. With the Toronto Raptors having traded for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard on Wednesday, Philly is now all but certain to leave this offseason empty-handed when it comes to the star players Brown openly lusted after.
However, the Sixers' offseason isn't a failure just because they couldn't accomplish their plan A. In fact, their refusal to panic-sign role players to long-term deals was strategic, even though it decreases the likelihood of them competing for a championship in 2018-19.
On the day after the draft, a reporter asked Brown about his confidence level in landing a star via free agency or a trade this offseason. In response, Brown took a far more measured approach compared to his earlier comments.
"I think it's gonna be difficult. I think it's gonna be a challenge," he told reporters. "… When you judge the marketplace and you sort of figure out 'Who is a star?', it's a tiny number of players. And as we figure out who we deem to be stars, we understand that that's gonna be a challenge."
"We don't have to solve all of this now," Brown added. "… If it doesn't happen - the star-hunting this year - we will continue our pursuit of star-developing and focus in on what we do have."
In other words: If the Sixers didn't land James, George or Leonard this offseason, running back the core of their 2017-18 squad was always the plan. Rather than blow their cap space on multi-year deals, they kept one eye firmly fixated on the 2019 free agent class while banking on minor external additions, internal improvement and roster stability to carry them through this upcoming season.
The offseason moves
The Sixers entered the offseason with roughly $26 million in salary-cap space, which made them one of the few teams capable of carving out enough room for a max salary. But once James committed to the Lakers and George re-signed with the Thunder, no other players on the market were deserving of such a hefty contract.
Instead, the Sixers quickly came to terms with J.J. Redick on a one-year deal worth between $12-13 million, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, a full $10 million less than what he earned in 2017-18. They then absorbed Wilson Chandler's $12.8 million expiring contract into their remaining cap space, picking up a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 second-round pick swap for helping the Denver Nuggets trim their luxury-tax bill. To round out their signings, they brought Amir Johnson back on a one-year, $2.4 million veteran's minimum deal.
The Chandler acquisition in particular proved contentious among the Philly faithful, as some took issue with the Sixers receiving only a second-round pick and a second-round pick swap for helping Denver to clear $50 million in luxury-tax payments. Here's the issue with that logic: a) Chandler will be helpful this season - i.e., he's not a Timofey Mozgov-esque salary dump; and b) those second-rounders could be abnormally valuable if the NBA does away with one-and-dones in 2021 or 2022 as rumoured.
By his own admission, Chandler struggled last season. With Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic gobbling up offensive possessions, Chandler was often an afterthought in Denver's starting lineup, which helps to explain why his scoring averaged dipped by 5.7 points compared to the prior season. In 2016-17, however, he was a revelation after he missed the entire 2015-16 campaign with a hip injury.
Chandler isn't likely to threaten Robert Covington or Dario Saric for a starting job, but he'll immediately become the Sixers' best wing off the bench. While he's nowhere near as potent of a three-point shooter as Marco Belinelli, he's also nowhere near as much of a defensive liability. Considering how readily the Boston Celtics targeted Belinelli in the playoffs, removing that weak link for a steady two-way presence is a sound trade-off for Philly.
Once James and George were off the table, retaining Redick became an utmost priority, as he averaged a career-high 17.1 points per game last season while shooting 42.0% from three-point range. In the press release announcing Redick's re-signing, Brown said his "leadership and professionalism add to the overall special package that he brings to our team," adding, "our ability to maintain continuity will strengthen the team's continued growth." That latter point likely helps explain why Johnson returned, too, as he's a valued locker room presence who won this year's NBA Hustle Award for doing the dirty work that often slips under the radar.
The Sixers also originally agreed to spend their $4.4 million room mid-level exception on Nemanja Bjelica, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, but the former Minnesota Timberwolves big man later backed out of that deal. Once he did, they pivoted to a three-team trade in which they sent Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Justin Anderson to the Atlanta Hawks for Mike Muscala, according to Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania. Muscala, a career 37.8% three-point shooter, will likely be ticketed for the same backup combo-big role Ilyasova played last year and Bjelica was projected to fill in his place.
Could the Sixers have gone after Tyreke Evans, Julius Randle, DeMarcus Cousins or Kyle O'Quinn in free agency instead? Sure, but who's to say they didn't? Restricted free agents such as Zach LaVine, Marcus Smart or Jabari Parker likely weren't under consideration because their offer sheets would have to span at least two years (not counting options), and the Sixers wouldn't want to jeopardise their 2019 salary-cap space.
Considering the ages of their young centerpieces - Joel Embiid (24), Saric (24), Ben Simmons (21) and Markelle Fultz (20) - running back the same core and rounding it out with a few complementary additions is a perfectly fine strategy for 2018-19.
The young guys
During his exit interview in May, Embiid said he entered this past season overweight because he spent all summer rehabbing from the torn meniscus he suffered in January. He expressed excitement about how entering this offseason healthy would enable him to work on his body, which will help him hit the ground running in October. Considering his two-way upside, an MVP-calibre season would be well within Embiid's grasp if he improves his conditioning, avoids the injury bug and cuts down on his unforced turnovers.
Fresh off a dynamic Rookie of the Year campaign, Simmons will likewise enter 2018-19 with bigger goals in mind. He was one of only three players last season to average 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, joining James and Russell Westbrook, but the Celtics exploited his lack of a jump shot during the second round of the playoffs. If he improves his finishing around the rim and begins firing mid-range jumpers with less hesitation, he'll become damn near unguardable in only his second NBA season.
Saric was the Sixers' biggest wild card coming into 2017-18, as he seemed to be a questionable fit alongside Simmons and Embiid. Instead, he banged home 39.3% of his three-point attempts - a marked upgrade from his 31.1% clip as a rookie - and became the quintessential glue guy in the team's supersized starting line-up. Though it's fair to wonder whether Saric will eventually price himself out of Philadelphia, the Sixers can table that concern for now and hope he further boosts his trade value with another do-it-all season in the meantime.
After forgetting how to shoot as a rookie, Fultz is now the Sixers' biggest question mark heading into 2018-19. He's spending the summer working with renowned trainer Drew Hanlen - who has trained Embiid and Jayson Tatum, among other NBA players - and he's reportedly "way ahead of pace" of where Hanlen thought he'd be at this point of the offseason. The Sixers desperately need a secondary shot-creator and off-the-dribble threat, but Fultz could conceivably fill both of those roles if he rediscovers the shooting form that helped make him the No. 1 overall pick in 2017.
The Sixers also have proven role players such as Covington and T.J. McConnell, a pair of first-round picks in Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet, and a few young, unproven guys like summer league legend Furkan Korkmaz and Richaun Holmes (who may not be long for this roster, either). It appears as though 2017 second-round pick Jonah Bolden will soon be joining that group, too.
Given how much faith Philly puts in its player development system, it isn't unreasonable to expect many of those young players to make strides this offseason. In turn, that could fuel the Sixers to even more success in 2018-19 despite their lack of a big free-agent splash.
Looking ahead to 2019
It's easy to forget in the wake of the Sixers' 16-win streak to close out the regular season, but they weren't expected to be a 52-win club and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference last year. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged them as a fringe playoff squad, right in line with the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets. Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated both suggested pounding the under, in large part because of Philly's youth.
Until Belinelli and Ilyasova arrived in February to give the bench a much-needed infusion of scoring punch, the Sixers were hovering around .500. They devoured an easy late-season schedule against mostly lottery-bound squads, which in turn inflated expectations heading into the playoffs. Their dismantling of the Heat in the opening round made it seem as though they were ready to fast-forward through the next stage of the Process, but the Celtics brought them back down to earth in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Though James has now left the East, the Celtics loom even larger with both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning. That's why Brown stressed the need for additional outside help during his exit interview in May.
"If that portion of the fanbase is still prepared to take this notion [of doing it organically] and that's going to equal a championship, it's noble but I don't agree with it," he said. "I think another high-level free agent is required. I feel like we have the ability to attract one."
The Sixers fell short of that this offseason, but they're projected to be armed with $42 million in cap space next summer, according to ESPN.com's Bobby Marks. More than one-third of the league may be able to carve out a max-contract slot in 2019, but the Sixers will be one of the few ready-made title contenders to do so.
Even if Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson spurn the Sixers next summer, a wing like Jimmy Butler or Khris Middleton could be a picture-perfect fit. If they strike out on all of their top targets again, that's when they'll begin to sniff around multiyear deals for role players such as Evans, Redick, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Jeremy Lamb. Extensions for Simmons and Saric will begin in 2020-21, which makes next summer Philly's last chance to strike big on the free-agent market before turning its attention to its own young players.
Just because the Sixers didn't add a long-term free agent this summer doesn't mean they'll punt on that strategy indefinitely. Whether they trade for Leonard or go out star-hunting in 2019, they're bound to make a splashy acquisition or two in the next 12 months. If their young guys continue to improve and they enter next offseason with $40-plus million in cap space, they should have little trouble finding good players to take their money.
In the meantime, Sixers fans should remain patient and enjoy watching Embiid, Simmons, Saric, Fultz and the rest of their young players stretch the limits of their games.