The most controversial rebuild in NBA history shifted into phase two last season. Equipped with top-tier young talent, versatile role players, and a solid mix of wily veterans, the Philadelphia 76ers were ready to push some chips to the middle of the table. Not many expected things to come together so quickly.
The Sixers reeled off 52 wins behind a stingy defense and two of the best under-23 players in basketball. Joel Embiid thrived in his healthiest campaign yet, punking fools on the left block and walling off the paint on the other end. Ben Simmons — the rookie — set the NBA on fire with a Magic-like flair. JJ Redick had a career year, while other pups like Dario Saric and Robert Covington chipped in with stellar seasons of their own.
Their roll continued in the postseason. They bumrushed the Miami Heat in the first round, looking more mature — and frightening — than a team that young should’ve. Murmurs of a surprise Finals were quieted by the Boston Celtics in the next round. The Sixers were victims of a gentlemen’s sweep, but it’s hard not to call their playoff run a success.
Whether or not The Process has been vindicated is up to you to decide. What is undoubtedly true is the Sixers have a real path to ruling the East in the very near future. Only Boston rivals their collection of young talent, coaching, draft capital, and cap flexibility — and the Sixers blow them out of the water on the last point as of now.
In short: it’s an exciting time to be a Sixers fan.
Here to talk to me about the state of the Sixers is our very own Bryan Toporek. You can follow him on Twitter at @btoporek.
8. ND: This isn’t even a question. Please vent about the Colangelo burner situation. The floor is yours.
I’m sure there were legal reasons the Sixers took as long as they did to fire Colangelo, but damn, what a bad look for the entire organization. The owners’ slow-drip leaks did nothing to quell concerns about the possibility of them keeping him around. Their bungling of the situation begs the question of whether they’re equipped to successfully guide this team from good to great.
Poorly run teams begin from the top down. An ownership group needs a unified vision of how best to assemble a championship contender, which then trickles down through the front office and the coaching staff to the players. At this point, Philly’s owners seem to be running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And if they don’t excise Jerry Colangelo from the organization next, they’re setting themselves up for disaster.
Also, Adam Silver should be ashamed that he foisted the Colangelos upon the Sixers. This is a black eye for his otherwise sterling legacy (pun intended).
7. Burner account foolishness aside, Philly’s season was an overwhelming success. The Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid duo is set to rip the East apart for years to come. Who is the Sixers’ best player now, and who will it be in three years?
Damn, bring the heat right away, why don’t ya?
Right now, Philly’s best player is Embiid. Simmons is a generational talent — more on him in a moment — but Embiid is their cornerstone. The Sixers had the league’s third-best defense this season in large part because of their 7’2″ man in the middle, as they allowed 4.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. While his number of blocks dipped from his rookie season, his deterrent factor remains real. Few challenge him at the rim and live to tell the tale.
Three years from now… well, it depends, but I’d lean toward Simmons. That’s in part because I remain in perpetual fear of an Embiid injury, but I also think the way the Celtics exposed Simmons in that second-round series will be the best thing for his professional growth long term. It gave me some 2007 and 2011 NBA Finals vibes, where the Spurs dared LeBron James to shoot and the Mavericks dared him to post up and he fell short both times. He then went back and added those components to his game and now he’s a literal basketball cyborg sent from the future to battle a historically dominant team.
As Simmons improves his decision-making, his finishing around the rim and his free-throw shooting — not to mention his jump shot — he’ll become even more of a two-way force of nature. Embiid may be the Sixers’ fulcrum on defense, but Simmons will be their head of the snake on offense.
Either way, what a great basketball first-world problem for Philly to have.
6. Non-Philly people finally got a glimpse of how good of a coach Brett Brown is. He was rewarded with a multi-year extension. What impressed you the most about his work this season?
On the court, his out-of-bounds plays were often exemplary. I also think he deserves major props for the adjustments he made throughout the Miami series. Erik Spoelstra is a damn good coach in his own right and could have easily negated the Sixers’ talent advantage by outfoxing Brown, but Brown swung the series in Game 1 when he started out the second half with Ersan Ilyasova at center in place of Amir Johnson.
But overall, what impressed me most about Brown is the culture he has helped foster throughout the past half-decade. The concerns about the Process dealing irreparable damage to the franchise and its players were always overblown, but that’s largely a testament to Brown. Going from a 10-win team two years ago to a 52-win squad now doesn’t happen without firm belief in what a coach is preaching.
Need proof? Look no further than the Sixers’ celebration of their series victory over the Heat.
What a scene.
The Sixers' locker room celebration was incredible after Brett Brown's first playoff series victory as he rings the bell while being showered by his team. pic.twitter.com/nBFfTq6F6t
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 25, 2018
Woj: Brett Brown was never Bryan or Jerry Colangelo's coach. Their plan was for Mike D'Antoni to become head coach. When MDA got the Rockets job, always a thought in the Colangelos mind they'd put their own coach in, and their choice was Jay Wright.
— Matt Carey (@RealMattCarey) June 8, 2018
5. Markelle Fultz went from consensus number one pick, to a guy who forgot how to shoot, to a dynamic spark plug, to a guy that was benched for T.J McConnell (who played well!) in the playoffs. How confident are you in Fultz moving forward?
Confident may not be the right word, but I’m still hopeful.
He showed flashes upon his return late in the regular season, including his triple-double against the Milwaukee Bucks, and I think that alone was a huge mental hurdle to overcome. I’m not surprised he (quickly) got played off the floor in the playoffs, as a rookie with 14 games of experience stood no chance against a physical Miami team, particularly with Justise Winslow serving as a secondary ball-handler and pushing the floor up in transition.
Fultz is working with famed NBA trainer Drew Hanlen this summer, who recently shouted out his form shooting on Instagram. Hanlen has also worked with Embiid, which immediately earns him my stamp of approval.
In his exit interview (before resigning in disgrace), Colangelo said Fultz was “a lot further along in certain areas” than he was at the start of the year, particularly with regard to finishing through contact. Whether his shooting stroke returns to its pre-draft form will make or break his upside, but much like Simmons’ struggles against the Celtics, I’m optimistic that this early turbulence fuels him to work that much harder over the offseason.
4. The Sixers have the 10th and 26th pick in the first round this year. What’s your dream scenario for those two slots?
Since Luka Doncic seems to be slipping down draft boards a bit, can I cheat and say him for No. 10? No? Fine.
In that case, it’s one of the Bridges for me at No. 10. I lean toward Mikal, if only because his drastic improvement as a three-point shooter in college and his 7’2″ wingspan give me confidence in his ability to fill a three-and-D role. With that said, I’d be perfectly fine with Miles, too.
Mikal seems to have a higher floor than Miles but a lower ceiling, so it comes down to whether the Sixers are targeting a safe double or a potential home run pick at No. 10. (Granted, I also doubt that both prospects are still on the board by the time they’re on the clock, so the choice may not be theirs.)
At No. 26, I’d love for Zhaire Smith or Kevin Huerter to fall that far, but I won’t hold my breath. Instead, I’ll plant my flag on Josh Okogie Island.
While he measured only 6’4.5″ in shoes at the combine, Okogie has an enormous 7’0″ wingspan, which should give him enormous defensive versatility in the NBA. He didn’t shoot a high volume of three-pointers at Georgia Tech, but his 38.2 percent clip from deep gives me hope regarding some three-and-D upside. Creating off the dribble isn’t his strong suit, but he shouldn’t have to do that much on this Sixers roster anyway.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Sixers use this pick to either a) dump Jerryd Bayless’ contract ahead of free agency or b) used it on a draft-and-stash player to shave that salary-cap hit off their books this year.
3. They also have 37 second round picks (okay, four). Are there any sleepers you’d like to see Philly snag?
Whether they get him at No. 26 or Nos. 38 and 39, Elie Okobo is the guy I’m eyeing the most in this range. A 6’3″ point guard with a reported 6’8″ wingspan who’s an above-average long-range shooter and can pull up off the dribble? One who already has professional experience in France’s top league? Yes, please.
With four second-round picks along with their two first-rounders, the Sixers don’t have enough roster spots to add six rookies. As such, I fully expect them to go the draft-and-stash route with guys like Okobo, Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs, Isaac Bonga, etc. Playmaking two-way wings are their biggest need — the same applies to just about every other NBA team — and adding more depth behind Embiid at center or in the backcourt wouldn’t hurt, either.
The Sixers also didn’t take full advantage of two-way contracts last season, so I’d hope they use one or two of their second-rounders for those purposes. Colangelo traded Jawun Evans (No. 39) and Sterling Brown (No. 46) to the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively, for cash considerations during last year’s draft, but I’d hope the ownership group doesn’t waste assets like that again.
I won’t pretend to know much about other second-round prospects, but other guys who’ve caught my eye include Shake Milton, Kevin Hervey, Bruce Brown and Anfernee Simons.
2. There is a non-zero chance that three of the top six small forwards in the NBA could be donning a new uniform next season, and the Sixers have been linked to all three. If the Sixers could only sign or trade for one, who would you like to see them get?
In general, I think Sixers Twitter (myself included) has overthought this one.
It’s LeBron James.
I get the concerns about him, particularly with regard to him operating as a shadow GM of sorts. If the early 2010s Heat and this current iteration of the Cavaliers are any indication, teams have a four-year window with LeBron, after which they’re too asset-poor to genuinely contend for a championship. And yes, his primarily strength as a passer does overlap with that of Simmons, raising the same type of “too many ball-handlers, not enough balls” questions that circled around the James Harden-Chris Paul Rockets.
The counterpoints: The 2014 Cavaliers didn’t have as much young talent as this year’s Sixers. Sure, he might angle to trade Dario Saric, Robert Covington or Fultz down the road, but Simmons and Embiid would be going nowhere. Having Simmons occasionally operate in an off-ball role wouldn’t be the end of the world, as it’d effectively force him to round out his offensive game. And James, who has been to eight straight Finals and counting, could impart upon this young Sixers core what it takes to win a championship.
I’d be thrilled with Paul George or Kawhi Leonard as well, don’t get me wrong. George is a better on-paper fit than James and would be significantly cheaper, while Leonard would give the Sixers a go-to perimeter scorer on offense and a lockdown wing stopper on defense. Then again, I also don’t expect either of those guys to be as obtainable as LeBron seems.
And let’s be honest: LeBron remains the best player on the planet. To beat the Warriors or the up-and-coming Celtics, it may be LeBron or bust for the Sixers.
1. If the Sixers don’t go star-hunting, who would you like to see them go after in free agency?
I’d hope they roll it back with JJ Redick, who seemed to be a consummate professional this season. Other than that, I’d want them to do what they did last summer: overpay players on one-year contracts to keep their long-term cap sheet clean.
Simmons and Saric are each due extensions that would begin in 2020-21, so the Sixers effectively have a two-summer window in which they need to use their cap space on an outside free agent. I don’t think Leonard or Klay Thompson will be in play as potential targets in 2019, and there are enough health concerns to steer me away from Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving.
Khris Middleton, however, would fit like a damn glove on this Sixers roster.
In case his coming-out party against Boston during the first round of the playoffs is but a distant memory at this point, keep in mind that he went off for 24.7 points on 59.8 percent shooting overall and 61.0 percent from deep. On a related note, the Sixers will almost certainly have to go through the Celtics to get to the Finals for the next few seasons.
So, while they keep their books clean for a run at Middleton, the Sixers should target players who are disappointed with their long-term markets this summer and reward them handsomely. Will Barton or Tyreke Evans come to mind as guys who may prefer a one-year deal if they can’t lock in a long-term contract to their liking. I’ll also forever remain a Seth Curry supporter, even though he’d have no place in a series against Boston or Golden State.
The TL;DR version: The Sixers have a golden opportunity in free agency either this summer or next. If they don’t eff it up, they’ll join Boston atop the Eastern Conference for the next half-decade.