NBA free agency preview: Could Sixers upgrade from Amir Johnson at backup center?

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NBA free agency preview: Could Sixers upgrade from Amir Johnson at backup center?

With the NBA’s free agency period beginning on July 1, the star-hungry Sixers are expected to chase LeBron James and Paul George. If James and George sign elsewhere though, the Sixers, who will start with around $26 million in cap space, will likely only be in the market for one-year deals, similar to last year, in order to preserve cap space for next summer (see story). With that said, they don't project to be players in the restricted free agency market.

Whether the Sixers sign a star or not they'll still have other needs on the roster, so what other unrestricted free agents could they target? We begin our free agency preview by looking at potential backups centers.


Under contract: Joel Embiid, Richaun Holmes

Pending free agents: Amir Johnson

Position overview
Amir Johnson was probably the most underrated Sixer last season.

While his traditional counting stats didn't jump off the page, he provided a stable defensive presence (101.3 defensive rating) as Joel Embiid's backup and the Sixers were actually a plus overall (2.3 net rating) with Johnson on the court.

But even as solid a defensive player Johnson was during the regular season, he logged just 17 total minutes in the first three games of the Celtics playoff series before being dropped from the rotation. Johnson didn't have the quickness to hang in space defensively and he isn't a factor to begin with on the other end. His lack of athleticism doesn't allow him to be a pick-and-roll weapon and he's not a threat to shoot from the outside.

After spending the season in and out of the rotation, the Richaun Holmes era in Philly could be nearing an end. Three years in, the story remains the same with Holmes: every exciting dunk comes with a defensive breakdown on the other end. While the Sixers exercised his fourth-year option earlier this month, his contract doesn't become guaranteed until Jan. 10, 2019, and he isn't a lock to make the team.

It sounds like Jonah Bolden is coming over next season, but it's doubtful the Sixers enter camp with a rookie and Holmes as the only centers behind Embiid. I wouldn't completely rule out Johnson returning because it might cost as low as the minimum to retain him, but the Sixers could upgrade with a backup that is more mobile and/or a weapon offensively while still providing some stability on defense.

Potential free agent targets

Brook Lopez
Lopez is one of the more interesting names here. He's coming off three-year, $63 million deal and has been a starter for his entire career. But it's going to be tough for him to find a landing spot where he'll be a starter making even half of his previous annual-average salary. Of the couple handful of teams that have significant cap space, only the Mavericks need a starting center and are more likely to chase bigger names (like DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins). Lopez could opt to sign a one-year deal to be a backup on a contender and try to get a bigger, multi-year deal next summer.

In a lower-usage role compared to his Nets days, Lopez averaged 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 23.4 minutes per game with the Lakers last season. As a pick-and-pop threat and floor spacer, he would be a great fit offensively with Sixers. The seven-foot center attempted just 31 threes in his first eight NBA seasons but jacked up 712 over the past two years, hitting on a 34.5 percent clip. Lopez can go down low and operate out of the post as well. But while he's improved throughout his career to become passable around the rim, he's the worst overall defender of these options. So there'd be some concerns as to how long he could stay on the floor deep in the postseason.

Aron Baynes
Baynes started 67 games for Boston last season, averaging 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds in 18.3 minutes. After making just three triples during the regular season, he shot 7 for 16 from beyond the arc in the Celtics' second-round win over the Sixers and 11 of 23 overall in the playoffs. It's a small sample size of course, but if he can add that corner-three to his game he's a much more intriguing player, as he isn't a very talented scorer.

Where Baynes earns his bread is with his interior defense, using his 6-10, 260-pound frame to bang with post players on the block. Baynes joining the Sixers after Embiid tweeted this during the Eastern Conference Finals would be hilarious.

Ed Davis
Not a household name but Davis, a former lottery pick by the Raptors in 2010, has turned himself into one of the better backup centers in the NBA. In 18.9 minutes per game off Portland's bench last season, Davis averaged 5.3 points and an impressive 7.4 rebounds. He does all his scoring in the paint off rolls to the basket and putting back offensive rebounds. Defensively, Davis has the length to bother shots at the rim and athleticism to defend in space. Compared to Johnson, Davis is more mobile and a better rebounder.

Kyle O'Quinn
Another under-the-radar player to keep an eye on. O'Quinn declined his $4.2 million player option with New York to become a free agent. In his sixth NBA season, he averaged 7.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18 minutes per game off the Knicks' bench. Like Baynes, O'Quinn's strength is his interior defense.

Nerlens Noel
Only half-serious here. It's not good when the highlight of your season is getting caught eating a hot dog during halftime of a game you were benched in and then having to explain yourself to the media, but that was truly the only thing worth remembering from Noel's fourth NBA season. Last July, Noel turned down a reported four-year, $70 million deal (confirmed by his former agent) from the Mavs and ultimately signed his qualifying offer ($4.1 million) to set himself up for unrestricted free agency this summer.

But Noel did nothing to improve his stock, appearing in just 30 games while racking up DNP-CDs. And to top it off, he was suspended for five games toward the end of the season for his third positive test for marijuana. At age 24, Noel's defensive ability and upside are still worth gambling on, but a reunion in Philly would be shocking considering how the first go-round ended. But never say never, right?

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With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

Even with 58 regular-season games to go, Brett Brown has “the end in mind” for his team. As he ponders how to best prepare the Sixers for playoff basketball, he's referred to that idea time and time again.

The end of the Sixers' 110-104 win Sunday night over the Raptors at Wells Fargo Center was ugly. The Sixers turned the ball over seven times in the final 4:14 against the Raptors’ full-court pressure, with Joel Embiid giving it away three times.

“It is disappointing the way that ended because I thought for the most part, we played good basketball,” Brown said. “It's just the way that it ended, you have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth. And then I'm reminded it was a good weekend, we just beat the NBA champs. And there's lots of good things that came out of it, just the last part wasn't one of them.”

The weekend back-to-back was indeed a fruitful one for the Sixers, who led the hapless Cavs by a franchise-record 41 points at halftime and played very well vs. the 15-7 Raptors with the exception of those final few minutes when it seemed everyone besides Toronto just wanted to hear the final buzzer. 

But, with almost anything this team does, there’s a natural instinct to consider the big picture.

Three of Simmons’ career-high 34 points Saturday came on a long range jumper, and Brown wants him taking "a three-point shot a game, minimum,” along with eight free throws a night. If Simmons gives Brown what he's looking for, what would it mean for the Sixers against opponents much better than the Cavs? 

In his last two games, Embiid has 15 turnovers, and he’s been an unfortunate combination of careless and oblivious against fourth-quarter pressure and double teams. Do the Sixers have a real chance to contend for an NBA title if he’s making similar mistakes when the games are higher stakes?

Rookie Matisse Thybulle is emerging as a three-and-D player, and his success at home has mirrored the Sixers’. He’s shot 65.4 percent from three-point range at home and has a plus-12.7 net rating at Wells Fargo Center. Those numbers plummet to 20.8 percent from long distance and a minus-14.1 net rating on the road. Can Thybulle and the Sixers — 12-0 at home, 5-7 away — eventually figure out how to win on the road?

Few of these larger questions lead to obvious answers at the moment, in part because of how often the starting lineup has been fractured.

Josh Richardson has missed six games in a row with a right hamstring injury. Al Horford is experiencing load management for the first time in his NBA career. Simmons was sidelined for consecutive games in early November with a shoulder sprain. And Embiid has sat out five games as a result of suspension, injury and load management. 

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” Embiid told reporters Sunday. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

Embiid’s time on the court is substantially down from where it was at this point last season, even if this path isn’t the one the Sixers would have meticulously mapped out before the year. He’s played 19 of the team’s first 24 games and 30.4 minutes per contest. In 2018-19, he played every one one of the team’s first 24 games — all of the first 26, in fact — and averaged 34.1 minutes.

The idea of a player feeling as if he’s “been going through the motions” might not be palatable for many fans. Embiid and the Sixers, though, aim to be healthy and the best versions of themselves when the games are more important.

Competing with that priority is Brown’s insistence that the Sixers are chasing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He said Saturday he hasn’t “recalibrated” that preseason goal.

The Sixers obviously want the best of both worlds. These first 24 games, however, seem to suggest that — should they be competing in the second round of the playoffs for a third straight year — they see being better equipped to advance as more important than seeding. They want to have their top players available and well-conditioned. They want to understand how to capitalize on their strengths — size, defense, rebounding — and either gloss over or eliminate weaknesses with turnovers and shot creation. 

Though Brown and his team have their ideas at this stage about how to reach those broad objectives, there’s no preset path to follow. One of the Sixers’ best players has a history of injury and conditioning problems, another is being asked to play point guard and doesn’t have a history of taking and making jump shots, and the three other starters are relatively new additions.

None of that prohibits everything from working out in the end.

The Sixers are 17-7, have won 10 of 12 games and have 58 to go before the fun starts. 

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'Big brother' Tobias Harris leading, rookie Matisse Thybulle following

'Big brother' Tobias Harris leading, rookie Matisse Thybulle following

So much of the focus ahead of the Sixers’ game against the Raptors Sunday was on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

And for good reason.

Embiid put up a goose egg the last time the teams faced off and has historically struggled with Marc Gasol. Simmons was coming off a career-high 34 points and made his second NBA three Saturday night.

While both players had roles in a 110-104 win Sunday night (see observations), it was Tobias Harris leading and rookie Matisse Thybulle following that kept the Sixers unblemished at the Wells Fargo Center.

Harris poured in a game-high 26 points, taking on the scoring load with Toronto head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan focused on stopping the Sixers’ young All-Stars.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” Harris said when asked if this is the most comfortable he’s felt here. “I think I’m in a really good rhythm of just going out and embracing and feeding off my teammates, and getting into a flow.”

Since a slump that saw him miss 23 straight threes, Harris has been pretty darn consistent. Over his last 12 games, Harris is shooting 41.3 percent from three and 50.6 percent overall.

If there’d been a knock on Harris outside of that tough stretch, it’s that he hasn’t looked as aggressive as a Sixer as he did during his stint with the Clippers. That hasn’t been the case recently. He’s averaged 16.3 field goal attempts per game over the last 12 games and has taken at least 22 shots in three of the last four.

Even during Harris’ up and down play, he’s remained a leader — a role he’s taken seriously since he signed the biggest deal in franchise history this summer.

And his teammates have responded.

“Aside from being an amazing example, he’s just been like a big brother,” Thybulle said. “We sit next to each other on every flight and he’s constantly giving me advice. I seek him for all my questions — whether it’s financially, on the court, off the court, I go to him. He’s done it at a very high level for a while now, and I really look up to him in that sense. He’s been able to be a huge role model for me.”

Whatever Harris has been telling Thybulle, it’s been working. When GM Elton Brand traded up in the draft to get Thybulle, nights like this are presumably what Brand had in mind.

Thybulle was his usual self on defense — annoying veteran Kyle Lowry, coming up with steals and contesting shots. On the other end, he continues to shoot the basketball at a high level. He hit a rookie career-high five threes and reached the 20-point mark for the first time. He’s now at 44 percent from beyond the arc, the highest percentage among rookies with at least 50 attempts.

In a contest that felt like it had a lot more juice than a regular-season game in December, Thybulle didn’t shy away from the moment — despite a couple late-game turnovers. The Sixers as a team had a brutal last few minutes as the Raptors went to a full-court press in desperation.

The thing Harris wants Thybulle to remember is that he was one of the main contributors in helping the Sixers build a huge lead. 

“Matisse is great,” Harris said. “I was telling him in there, ‘Don’t let the last minute and 30 seconds kill your vibe of the game, because you helped us secure that win tonight.’ He came in and his energy was amazing. He was able to knock down big shots, big threes that really pushed our lead each and every time they tried to make a run. He was amazing out there, man. He’s an amazing player, amazing person, amazing rookie. Every night I’m on him, each and every game, to continue to progress, continue to stay ready and locked in. He’s really catching his stride now.”

There is a refreshing vibe about Thybulle. He knows he has a job to do and he takes it seriously, but he also allows himself to enjoy it. He’s also not taking any of it for granted.

“That’s something I find myself thinking about a lot,” Thybulle said. “Even just six months ago, if you had told me I’d be in the position that I am today, it would have been really hard for me to believe you. I think I’m incredibly blessed. I’m so grateful. To have the guys that we have on this team and to have the opportunity that I have has been nothing short of a blessing.”

That’s a level of humility his “big brother” would approve of.

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