If no LeBron James or Paul George, how should Sixers proceed in free agency?

If no LeBron James or Paul George, how should Sixers proceed in free agency?

When the clock strikes midnight on July 1 and the NBA’s free agency period commences, there’s no mystery as to who the Sixers’ first two phone calls will likely be made to.

In star-hunting mode, the Sixers will pursue LeBron James and Paul George.

But the excitement of potentially adding either James or George to the existing talented young core should be tempered with the real possibilities of either superstar re-signing with their current team or heading elsewhere.

If LeBron nor P.G. signs with the Sixers, what should the outline of their plan-B look like?

Try again next summer

The Sixers have a two-year window when they can access max cap space without sacrificing core pieces. If they whiff this offseason, they should get another chance in the summer of 2019 when Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler project to be free agents. Irving, Butler and Leonard (unless he's dealt somewhere he 100 percent intends to re-sign) should test the waters, but Thompson could sign an extension this offseason.

If there were high-end complementary players on the market that would fit in, like Khris Middleton or Tobias Harris who coincidentally are both free agents next offseason, there would at least be an argument for pursuing those kinds of players rather than hoping Thompson or Leonard actually hit free agency and then banking on either of the four stars to actually sign in Philly. But since the drop-off after the stars is significant, there isn’t much of a debate on how the Sixers should conduct their business.

Maintain future cap flexibility 

The Sixers will almost certainly keep most, if not all, their powder dry for next summer when they project to have over $40 million to spend. With a 30 percent max contract slated to start at $32.4 million in 2019, they won’t want to commit too much money beyond this season. So, like last offseason, they'll likely only be in the market for one-year deals.

Typically, teams have to pay a premium on one-year contracts. We saw this when the Sixers signed JJ Redick for $23 million and Amir Johnson for $11 million last summer. Since the Sixers weren’t offering any long-term security they paid an above-market price for both, probably around double what their average annual salary would’ve been on multi-year deals. Because of this, the market for them tends to be slim and they’re rare for starter-level free agents.

Although, this summer could be different and work in the Sixers’ favor.

Capitalize on a small marketplace

With the league's salary cap expected to be $101 million, look at Spotrac’s active salary list showing the least committed money for 2018-19 excluding cap holds for pending free agents. It’s important to note that these numbers are fluid and first-rounders selected in last week’s draft aren’t included because they haven’t signed their rookie-scale deals yet, so the Sixers really have around $26 million in space. 

There are two big takeaways here. First, there won’t be a ton of money out there. From the numbers above, we’re talking 13 teams with at least $10 million in space. As of right now, 22 teams project to have at least $20 million in space next summer.

Secondly, there's only a handful of playoff teams besides the Sixers with significant space and one of them, the Rockets, will operate above the cap with three starters hitting free agency.

As for the non-playoff teams, the Lakers will chase stars and try again next year if they strike out. The Bulls and Hawks are rebuilding, thus more likely to use their space to take on bad salary for assets. Dallas needs a starting center. Phoenix and Orlando need starting point guards. Brooklyn will likely lay low as it finally gets its pick back. And the Kings are the Kings.

With such a depressed marketplace, some of the top secondary free agents could take inflated one-year deals, and then try again for that multi-year, eight-figure deal next offseason when there will be more money and competitive teams in the marketplace.

For free agents looking to improve their stock on an inflated one-year deal while aiming for a big payday next summer, the Sixers could be an attractive destination.

How much to spend?

The Sixers' spending limit in free agency will depend on two things: the cost of getting off Jerryd Bayless' $8.5 million expiring contract and Redick's willingness to take a discount.

If they dump Bayless, and waive Richaun Holmes' non-guaranteed deal, they would have over $36 million in space. Now, if the Sixers needed to create the necessary max cap space for a star, they wouldn't have an issue with stretching Bayless' cap hit over the next three years or trading him with an asset into another team's space. But if that's not the case, is it worth surrendering a future asset (say a lottery-protected 2019 first-rounder) to create space for one-year rentals?

That could depend on how much of a pay cut Redick is willing to take. Re-signing Redick will be a priority and while the Sixers gave him a big payday last season, he proved to be a valuable starter and may want his next salary to still reflect that. Say he gets a multi-year offer in the $24 million range from another team and won't re-sign for below $18 million, that leaves the Sixers with just $8 million in space (around the value of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception) without any corresponding moves. If they move Bayless and cut Holmes, that space goes up to $18 million.

But if Redick is willing to sign a cheaper deal, let's say $12 million, so the Sixers can add more pieces, they'd still have $14 million in space and could get up to $24 million.

Don't settle on running it back

The free agency plan B shouldn't be as simple as running it back. Whether James heads West or not, there will be a legit path to a top-two seed and the conference finals. But, as the Celtics exposed in the playoffs, that won't come without improving the roster's depth.

The Sixers shouldn't sacrifice future cap flexibility or dump Bayless for significant assets, like first-rounders beyond 2020 with the looming abolishment of the one-and-done rule, but that doesn't mean they can't strive to improve upon their other three pending three agents.

Johnson, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were all key pieces to the 52-win season, but the Sixers could stand to upgrade, specifically getting younger and more athletic at those positions off the bench (center, wing and stretch-four). Again, a lot of this will depend on how much space they have after re-signing Redick and whether Bayless is still on the roster, but the Sixers could have a real shot at adding one or two substantial upgrades to their bench. 

Even if the Sixers don't get James and George, they could still have the ability to build a stronger team than last season's.

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Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

In the wake of the absurd scandal involving Bryan Colangelo and burner Twitter accounts, the Sixers searched for their next general manager and handed Brett Brown the job on an interim basis. Eventually, they promoted Elton Brand.

He was certainly not their first choice, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

“When they opened that job up, when Colangelo was gone and before they promoted Elton Brand, they went after any number of high-level, accomplished executives around the league,” Wojnarowski said on The Woj Pod. “They were willing to offer Daryl Morey, Bob Meyers, Dennis Lindsey, Sam Presti. There may have been more.”

Brand’s only previous executive experience was as the GM of the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats (formerly the 87ers). It makes sense that the Sixers would have preferred more established candidates.

The Sixers were “rebuffed” in their efforts to hire Morey, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported in July of 2018. A mentor to former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, Morey won the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award in 2018 and is still GM of the Rockets. 

Stein also reported the Sixers “commissioned a clandestine run at prying Myers away from the Warriors that was likewise rebuffed.” Myers has served as the Warriors’ general manger since 2012 and won three championships with the team.

Lindsey is the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Jazz, while Presti has been GM of the Thunder franchise since 2007. 

The Sixers had an interview with former Cavs and current Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin but, according to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, “felt he wasn’t a good fit for their front-office structure” and wanted to “make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say.”

In July of 2018, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Amy Fadool, “It’s very consensus-oriented, there’s a lot of people in the dialogue, and we want to make sure we find the right fit for that.”

Wojnarowski noted on the podcast that Harris and the Sixers’ leadership above Brand remain influential.

“Ownership’s got a lot of say in Philly," he said. “You’ve got a group of owners that are involved, that are there. How many team have multiple owners courtside each corner of the arena, each night?

Brand has made several major moves since assuming the GM job in September of 2018, including trading for Jimmy Butler, shipping Markelle Fultz to Orlando, trading for Tobias Harris and then signing him to a five-year, $180 million deal this summer, and giving Al Horford a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed. At 37-23 this season and 9-21 on the road, Brand’s roster has not performed the way he envisioned. 

Wojnarowski and Max Kellerman also talk about expectations for the rest of the Sixers' season, the history of Sam Hinkie’s Process and more on the podcast, which you can listen to here

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Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

When you’re given the largest contract in the history of a storied franchise like the Sixers in the city of Philadelphia, you’re going to face scrutiny.

Tobias Harris has gotten his fair share since inking a five-year, $180 million near-max deal this past offseason. The 27-year-old hasn’t consistently provided the scoring needed to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Though at times, like Thursday night against the Knicks, Harris has looked like the player GM Elton Brand traded for and then chose to re-sign as a franchise cornerstone. 

With Embiid and Simmons both on the shelf, this is the version the Sixers need to see a lot more of.

“At the beginning of the game, had some good looks going,” Harris said. “We had good pop to our flow, to our offense, and was able to get some just in-the-flow plays. Once I'm able to get into the flow and the ball is able to move around, that's where I'm at my best. And I just carried that throughout the game.”

Harris, who was one off his Sixers high with 34 points, has said since he arrived before last season’s trade deadline that he flourishes in systems with good ball movement. That’s likely why he’s shot the ball better from three with Simmons on the floor (37.5) than off (29.5).

Simmons leads the NBA in assists on threes whereas with Embiid, his methodical approach in the post can make the offense stagnant at times. With both off the floor, Harris will have to do more to get his own shot.

Brett Brown admitted after Thursday’s game that he’s simplified the offense with his two All-Stars out. Against the Knicks, Harris just attacked mismatches all night, punishing smaller defenders in the post and driving on New York’s bigs.

“With those two out, we'll have to find our identity of how we're going to play,” Harris said. “You saw tonight, we had a lot of just wide-open looks out of the initial pin down action either between Al [Horford] and [Josh Richardson] or Al [Horford] and [Alec] Burks so we got a lot of easy ones going and just were able to go at different mismatches that we felt.”

The trio of Harris, Horford and Richardson struggled in Cleveland, going 12 of 35. They all had bounce-back games of some sort, but it was Harris who likely got the most heat and responded in the biggest way.

Does he feel like it’s his responsibility to carry the team right now because of the large investment the they made on him?

“I would be naive to think there’s not a hint of that,” Brown said. “I think he’s really competitive and if you paid him a nickel or $170 million, I think that you’re going to get a highly competitive player. ... He’s very prideful. That’s why he’s good. 

“He’s trying to do his part obviously to earn his keep, but I think it’s way deeper than that. I think he just wants to be on a winning team for a long time and try to help steer this program to trying to find, at some point, a championship.”

With the fans, there's a sentiment of Harris being overpaid, so not much is made when he hangs 34 on a bad Knicks team. It makes sense. Fans would rather root for an underdog like Shake Milton, who's come out of nowhere to earn important minutes.

Harris has become a leader and a respected player in the Sixers’ locker room. That’s his only concern.

“There's obviously outside noise that comes involved with [signing a big contract],” Harris said. “I always look at it like the only noise that really carries weight for me is noise in our locker room, and with the guys on our team and coaching staff. I truly believe that you can ask every single one of them in the locker room, the value that I bring to this team, on and off the floor, and they will vouch for that. That's the credibility that I go with. ... So I just try to do my job on a daily basis, be a professional every day and go to work.”

With 22 games left and the Sixers trying to claw their way up the East with their All-Stars banged up, Harris will have ample opportunity to show his value to everyone else.

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