Make Up or Break Up: Philadelphia 76ers

For the last four years the motto in Philly has been “Trust the Process,” but at times that slogan was difficult to embrace as one of the NBAs most iconic franchises willingly became bottom feeders—trading away its top players, amassing draft picks and gambling on hitting home runs in the draft lottery. Sure, there were some bad misses using this strategy—trading for Nerlens Noel who was the sixth pick in 2013, and taking Jahlil Okafor No. 2 overall in 2015 and then banishing him to the bench by his third season—but there were draft moves the team absolutely nailed—grabbing injury risk Joel Embiid with the third pick in 2014, tanking hard in 2015-16 to land the No. 1 pick to get Ben Simmons, and hopefully, Markelle Fultz. With a team full of young guys and a few veterans, Brett Brown guided the Sixers to a 52-30 record and third place in the East this year. If you’re wondering, those 52 wins were a +14 from the previous season and the most victories since 2000-01 when Allen Iverson was the man in the City of Brotherly Love by taking the team to the Finals.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Miami Heat proved to be no match for the young Sixers and many thought Philly had a good chance to beat the depleted Boston Celtics and make the teams first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in 17 years. But it was not to be. Philly succumbed to its youthful inexperience and Brad Stevens coached circles around Brett Brown. But for the Sixers faithful, this is all part of “The Process” and Philly, if they can stay healthy, are on their way to becoming one of the better, if not the best, team in the East.

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What’s Wrong

There aren’t very many trouble spots on this team. Embiid, one of the most talented big men in the League, was an All-Star this season and Ben Simmons, who should’ve made the team, will be one soon. These two have all the talent and the tools to carry a team as we saw, but they could always use more firepower, especially on the perimeter. J.J. Redick, Philly’s $23 million sniper was solid during the regular season—second on the team in scoring at 17.1 PPG (a career high for him)—but struggled in the Boston series, especially after Marcus Smart returned to action. During the regular season, Redick’s outside shooting ability opened up the floor some, but he wasn’t the impact player you would expect a guy making more than $20 million to be. Covington, another bright spot from the process, was a dependable 3-and-D swingman who saw his production dip in the postseason. Forward Dario Saric didn’t get much shine this season, but had a sophomore jump season where there was improvement in almost every area.

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If there is something you can point to as being a problem in Philadelphia, it’s the second unit. The bench was good talent-wise, but suspect on production. Rookie Markelle Fultz, who should’ve been a key reserve (or even a starter), missed roughly two-thirds of the season with a mysterious shoulder injury, came back and got some run the last 14 games of the year, showed flashes of brilliance against the Heat in the first round and was then relegated to the role of spectator in round two. Fultz figures to be a part of the team’s future going forward and if his health holds, will be a major component for the Sixers, sooner rather than later. T.J. McConnell brings a steady hand and underdog fight to the guard rotation. Outside of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, offense on the second unit was hard to come by, a problem that can easily be addressed this summer in free agency.

Philly will also need to find a capable backup for Embiid. The combo of Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes leaves a lot to be desired and the Sixers will need to lock down someone who can effectively spell their promising big man to help reduce concerns over the injuries that have plagued him in his short career.

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Lastly might be Simmons jumper—or lack of one. Simmons was the team’s primary ballhandler but his shot chart reads like a traditional center. He essentially eschewed anything outside of the paint. Amazingly, his obvious lack of trigger outside of 10 feet did not prevent him from finding success all season. Simmons’ 15.8 PPG, 8.2 APG and 8.1 RPG season should net him the Rookie of the Year and will scale up if can even develop an average jumper.

How To Fix Things

Philadelphia will go big game hunting this year. It’s no secret that LeBron James is on the team’s radar this offseason along with the seemingly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard. Philly will certainly have the money to go after at least one of them this summer. Redick’s $23 million and Johnson’s $11 million salaries will both come off the books as unrestricted free agents on July 1. Adding a player the caliber of James or Leonard will instantly make them legitimate title contenders and one of the favorites in the East.

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If the Sixers can find a way to shed Covington’s nearly $17 million salary and rarely used Jerryd Bayless’ $9 million, they’ll have all the flexibility they need to hit not just a home run, but grand slam this summer. Of course, they do have some in-house decisions to make, such as what to do about Ilyasova. The veteran forward was a solid backup to the ever-improving Saric. Will Ilyasova want to cash out or come back to Philly for a chance to compete for a title on a cheaper deal? Then there’s Redick, another player in an upgradeable position. Given his age (33), Redick won’t likely see another contract like he got last season, and it’s fair to wonder if he’s more backup than starter given his defensive struggles. If Philly can manage to snag James or Leonard, secure a backup for Embiid—possibly Greg Monroe or even Brook Lopez—and secure a marksman at two guard, it’s safe to say they’ll be well on their way to being a force as Simmons and Embiid continue to develop and blossom. With the salary cap expected to top out at $101 million and the Sixers having the flexibility to shed at least $44 million in salary and possibly more with the right deal, the sky is the limit in Philly.

Trust the process indeed.