Magic Johnson's exit proves Lakers no longer exceptional


Magic Johnson's exit proves Lakers no longer exceptional

It seems like something straight out of a “Saturday Night Live” spoof, only this was real. I’m not talking about Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation press conference. I’m talking about what happened on April 20, 2017.

Two months after he became the president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers during the trade deadline, Magic was a guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in Los Angeles and laid bare the ills that would portend his demise. 

While the NBA playoffs were going on, here was Magic in his element on the late-night television stage. The scene dripped in starry showbiz. As they spoke, the famous Hollywood Sign hung on the backdrop between the two.

Kimmel’s icebreaker question was about short shorts being the secret to winning basketball games. Then, Kimmel, an avid sports fan, got serious.

“As president of basketball operations, is that ahead of general manager? How does that work?” Kimmel asked.

“Well, Jimmy, it is a little bit above,” Magic explained, gesturing the hierarchy with his hands. “Rob Pelinka is our general manager and he’s doing a fantastic job.”

“And if he doesn’t, you fire him!”

“You fire him, and everybody else. Luke Walton, everybody gotta go,” Johnson said laughing.

The studio crowd laughed uproariously. Magic rocked back and forth and clapped. Little did he know that less than two years later, not firing Walton was reportedly a factor in his downfall, and no laughing matter.

The interview continued. Kimmel: “When you have to fire somebody, does it eat you up inside, is it something that you think about for days leading up to it?”

“No. Your butt’s fired. Get out,” Magic said shaking his head, motioning like an umpire in a strikeout call. He laughed again. Then he lowered his voice and shifted from Hollywood Magic to executive Magic.

“No, I think that you have to make decisions, it’s tough,” Magic said. “I’m a guy who is a ... just like I play basketball as a point guard, I do the same thing leading my company. I like to work around great people and empowering those people. But look, I’m a worker. So I want to work with people who are workers, too, who are smarter than myself. But you have a job to do. And if you don’t do that job, you gotta go. It really is that simple.”

Magic was seemingly speaking about firing others, not himself. And then, Magic delivered the Lakers pitch cloaked in exceptionalism:

“You have to remember this: The Lakers mean a lot. They’re the most popular team in the NBA. We have more fans around the world than any other team. We’re tied with the Celtics for the most championships. And that platform for any player, is an amazing and big platform. We’re going to be successful again.”

Kimmel asked Magic who he was looking to sign and named Paul George, Chris Paul and Teen Wolf. Magic laughed and then shifted back into exec Magic, saying he couldn’t talk about them because of tampering rules. Kimmel deftly countered:

“What constitutes tampering? Like, if you’re on vacation and you run into Paul George, are you not allowed to speak to him?”

Magic the charmer couldn’t help but play it up for the crowd.

“No, we’re going to say hi because we know each other. I just can’t say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers, even though I’m going to be like, wink, wink like.”

The crowd roared as Magic exaggerated his winks like only Magic can. Kimmel and the crowd were eating it up. Magic was rocking back and forth in laughter. He winked some more.

“You know what that means, right?”

The studio exploded in laughter and Magic couldn’t help himself from reaching out his giant hand and dapping-up Kimmel in a fit of unbridled joy. The laughs died down.

This interview says it all. Magic thought the Lakers would be above reproach. Stars and stars would line up. Neither was true.

The NBA issued a warning for that bit. Then later, it fined the team $500,000 for tampering with George, who later spurned the Lakers in free agency. Paul didn’t come either. Both are contending for the title in other cities far from Hollywood. The Lakers missed the playoffs.

Now, everyone’s laughing at the Lakers. They’re the punchline. Lakers exceptionalism has gotten them here. And until they realize the Lakers don’t mean that much anymore, they won’t get out of this mediocre existence.

* * * 

Time and time again, the Lakers have fallen back on their “Hey, we’re the Lakers, stars come to us” M.O. and hoped -- and prayed -- that this time, this time, it’ll work. Free agency will bring salvation and restore the once-proud Lakers franchise back to the glory days. 

But since the infamous “Is this going to be fun or what?” Sports Illustrated cover in 2012, the Lakers are one of five franchises who have yet to win a playoff game over that span. Two of those other teams, Detroit and Orlando, are poised to end that streak in coming days.

Luring LeBron James to Los Angeles was supposed to be the mic drop for Magic and owner Jeanie Buss. Instead, they surrounded him with misfits on one-year deals to kick the can down the road to the summer of 2019. With Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson in tow, Magic Johnson went on a Summer League broadcast to lay out his plan to not surround James with shooters, a formula that got James three championships and eight straight Finals trips.

The Lakers started the season 20-14, underwhelming but certainly not catastrophic. Unfortunately, things devolved from there. James hurt his groin on Christmas and missed 17 games. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart all suffered significant season ending injuries, leaving their roster void of any depth even upon James’ return. 

Perhaps even more damaging than the injuries was the toxic locker room environment after a public trade demand by Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis. Davis’ agent Rich Paul, who also reps LeBron, went on the record ahead of the trade deadline to say Davis wanted out of New Orleans. With the Lakers’ iffy star-chasing behavior front of mind, the Pelicans organization demanded the league look into possible tampering violations and the Davis-Lakers saga hogged headlines for weeks. There was collateral damage. Pelicans general manager Dell Demps was fired and the Lakers’ chemistry never quite gelled as the young players’ names hung in trade talks. 

Getting LeBron was supposed to legitimize the Lakers. Instead, with multiple improper conduct violations and ill-fitting roster construction, the Lakers plummeted to further depths and descended to become the laughingstock of the league. 

* * * 

Winning in the NBA is hard. The path takes years. There are no shortcuts. Let this be a lesson to both the Lakers and the New York Knicks, a team that has also fallen prey to free agency exceptionalism: Champions are built through the draft, not free agency. It doesn’t happen overnight.

History is clear on this. Just about every champion dating back to the dawn of the league has featured a drafted superstar who became the backbone of the franchise. There is no skipping this essential first step. 

The Golden State Warriors aren’t building a dynasty without Stephen Curry, nor Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. The Miami Heat don’t assemble the Big Three without its leader Dwyane Wade. The Mavericks don’t sniff the Finals without Dirk Nowitzki. The San Antonio Spurs won championships in three separate decades with one trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Boston Celtics didn’t win a title before they drafted Bill Russell and then again with Larry Bird and then a third round with Paul Pierce. The Chicago Bulls weren’t the Chicago Bulls before David Stern called out Michael Jordan’s name on June 19, 1984.

Heck, the Lakers just need to look up to their own rafters. Does the three-peat with Shaq happen without Kobe Bryant? No. Magic Johnson should know the power of the draft as much as anybody. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to the Lakers in 1975-76 and didn’t even reach the Finals for four years until they drafted a kid named Earvin from Michigan State.

* * * 

The Lakers’ pursuit of finding their next superstar has been a disaster, beginning with the 2012-13 season where they tried to fast-track a championship. They traded four draft picks for a 38-year-old Steve Nash, traded Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard (defensible), fired coaches Mike Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff midseason and brought in Mike D’Antoni on the fly. To no surprise, the Lakers’ season fell far short of expectations. Kobe tore his Achilles late in the season and the Lakers were swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. 

Undeterred, the organization continued living in the past in the name of Lakers exceptionalism. 

After D’Antoni stepped down, the Lakers hired Lakers legend Byron Scott to coach the team and handed Kobe a two-year extension for $48.5 million while he was rehabbing from the torn Achilles at age 35, making him the highest-paid player in the league. 

The message was clear: Sure, this isn’t the smartest basketball move, but we’re the Lakers and we’ll figure it out. 

They didn’t. From 2012-13 to the end of that contract, the Lakers lost more games than every team not named the Philadelphia 76ers. However, the Sixers had a plan famously coined The Process, while the Lakers tried free agency … again.

Once Bryant’s contract fell off the books in 2016, the Lakers were supposed to land their next big fish in free agency and start a new chapter with a superstar. Instead, every star passed. They fired Scott and dipped into the purple-and-gold well again, inking Luke Walton. They fired Mitch Kupchak and hired maybe the biggest Lakers legend of all, Magic Johnson. Again, it seemed that they were going to “Lakers” their way out of this.

* * * 

Everything in Magic’s tenure was about freeing up cap space and waiting for a star to jump at the opportunity to join one of the league’s most-storied franchises. He sacrificed the team’s best shot at a homegrown hero -- D’Angelo Russell, a 21-year-old budding star who had averaged 18.5 points and 5.0 assists after the All-Star break in 2016-17. Instead of bringing back Brook Lopez and 2014 seventh overall pick Julius Randle, Magic showed them the door, choosing to prioritize precious cap space this summer. Unfortunately, each move backfired. Both Lopez and Randle enjoyed career years with their new teams and Russell became an All-Star at 22, tied for the youngest in this year’s All-Star Game with the Sixers’ Ben Simmons.

Magic was supposed to be the savior, the legend who could charm his way through anything -- even a league hellbent on not letting the Lakers win. But it has become clear that he underestimated the amount of work the role would take and the seriousness of the job.

It’s no secret that Johnson and Pelinka -- who was Kobe Bryant’s long-time agent -- weren’t perfect fits in that front office. Lakers staffers openly told reporters at every turn how absent Johnson was during his tenure. When LaVar Ball questioned Walton’s grip on the team, Johnson was off in Hawaii, nowhere to be heard from as his coach was hung out to dry. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Walton and Johnson hadn’t spoken in weeks. 

* * * 

It’s time for Jeanie Buss to recognize that the Lakers are not exceptional. They are one of 30 teams who are trying to win a championship and they need to operate like one. They can’t untie this gargantuan knot by pointing to their 16 championship banners. They evidently can’t look at James and think he’ll solve every problem. 

“They’ve run that organization the same way since 1984,” said one longtime executive. “Turning that around is the most extreme challenge in the sport.”

Maybe they sign a co-star for James. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus Cousins and Klay Thompson can all be free agents this summer (Durant, Leonard, Irving and Butler are expected to decline player options). It sounds like hope, but it’s really a delusion. 

Tuesday was a night that will be remembered for a long time in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade’s teary last-hurrahs were the stuff of legend, Jamal Crawford became the oldest player to score 50 points in a game, the Pistons came back from down 22 to rescue their season and Paul George’s clutch shot over the Rockets may have knocked Houston from the No. 2 seed. 

All that reduced to mere footnotes because of the Lakers circus. After Magic’s fit-for-Hollywood exit and the organizational mess he left behind, the Lakers are in no better position than they were before. Missing the playoffs with LeBron James is an indictment of the Lakers organization, a group that has fallen short of the playoffs for six straight seasons. Once it happens so many times, the exception becomes the rule.

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2019 NBA Draft Lottery Winners and Losers: Pelicans, Tanking for the W; Bulls, Knicks take an L

2019 NBA Draft Lottery Winners and Losers: Pelicans, Tanking for the W; Bulls, Knicks take an L

And there you have it. The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, the most bizarre ritual in the four major American sports, has taken place and the New Orleans Pelicans have won the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.

But that’s not the only ramification from Tuesday night’s ping-pong grab. The entire NBA landscape shifted when the Pels came out on top. 

Here are the winners and losers from draft lottery night in Chicago:


New Orleans Pelicans

In early February, former Cavs general manager David Griffin tweeted that the Pelicans should drive a hard bargain in trade talks for Anthony Davis because the Pelicans, in Davis, “have a Top 3 most attractive trade asset in the league.” At the time, Griffin was an NBATV analyst and SiriusXM host, and was responding to an ESPN report that the Lakers had upped their offer to the Pelicans.

I bring this up because Griffin is now the decision-maker for the Pelicans and might have an even bigger asset on his hands. In addition to inheriting Davis, Griffin won the right to select uber-prospect Zion Williamson. Before Tuesday’s lottery prize went to the Pelicans, I asked another general manager how valuable drafting Williamson is for an NBA franchise. 

His response: “A top five asset from Day 1.” 

So, in a hypothetical world, if he was a free agent, he’d get the max, right? 

“Yes,” the GM told me. “Way, way more than the max … if allowed.”

In just two months, Griffin managed to land in a position where he controls two of the most prized assets in the NBA. Davis, as Griffin outlined, is one of the best players in the world and is just entering his prime. While Williamson isn’t at that level, the value on him is mind-boggling.

In addition to potentially being a better prospect than Davis was when he entered the league (as outlined on this week’s Big Number!), Williamson will be playing on a contract that can pay him $9.7 million next season, just about Matthew Dellavedova’s salary. For the next three seasons, Williamson is is set to make $30.4 million total, which is basically the same as Toronto bench wing Norman Powell’s contract. Considering the buzz, the eyeballs and the marketing value he brings to New Orleans, Williamson will be an absolute steal before he steps on the floor.

But will Davis ever step on the floor with Williamson as teammates? Executives around the league are skeptical. It may be hard for outsiders to understand, but established stars aren’t always thrilled at the prospect of co-starring with a rookie phenom. Not only is it not overly appealing to share the spotlight with a teenager, but they want to win now.

Griffin knows this first-hand. Shortly after Cleveland won the lottery in 2014, Griffin and the Cavs’ front office traded No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Why? LeBron James, who had just signed in Cleveland, wanted to win now.

In this case, the situation is flipped. Executives around the league expect the superstar veteran in Davis to be traded before next season, not No. 1 overall pick. The safe bet is that Davis won’t play a game with Williamson. 

Like the Wiggins situation with James, it’s not ideal that Davis and Williamson play the same position; again, stars typically aren’t fans of splitting roles. If Williamson was a star point guard or wing, maybe Davis thinks twice about his trade demand. But it’s unlikely that Williamson’s starpower and positional overlap will make Davis change his tune and want to sign a supermax extension in New Orleans. If anything, it might hurt the Pelicans’ chances of keeping Davis.

For the record, I love the idea of Williamson and Davis playing together. Williamson is a bruising big man with a high motor and can do just about anything on the floor athletically and skill-wise. Davis is similarly skilled but with longer limbs and a smoother touch. While at Duke, Williamson shot 44 percent on 3.3 3-point attempts per game in conference and tournament play. Put those two guys together and they could terrorize the league.

I just wouldn’t bank on it happening. So where will Davis end up, if not New Orleans? It’s too early to say. A lot depends on what happens with the rest of the playoffs. If the Warriors win the title, does Kevin Durant stay? And what does that do for Kyrie Irving? If the Toronto Raptors reach the NBA Finals, does that change Kawhi Leonard’s thinking? 

Don’t count out Boston. Their Memphis pick rolled over to 2020 and is top-six protected, but becomes fully unprotected in 2021 if it rolls over again. That pick became extra tasty on Tuesday night because the Grizzlies may be more motivated to trade Mike Conley and make room for expected No. 2 pick Ja Morant. In other words, an unprotected 2021 pick could be headed Boston’s way … or whomever they want to trade it to.

Would the Celtics trade Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for Davis if it knew they could pair him with Kyrie Irving? Would New Orleans bite if the Memphis pick isn’t tossed in? After Irving’s disappointing finish to the season, would Boston fans revolt or rejoice at the prospect of an Irving-Davis pairing?

The Knicks remain an intriguing suitor for Davis, despite not winning the lottery. Would the Knicks’ No. 3 pick in 2019, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and the Dallas 2021 first-rounder get it done? The Pelicans would likely want an established young player with star potential. Knox has a long way to go before he’s considered that, but Robinson is intriguing and wildly productive.

Another team to watch is the L.A. Clippers. With the Miami 2021 unprotected pick, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Montrezl Harrell in tow, the Clippers are a real contender for Davis’ services. Remember, teams in glamour markets are more likely to fork over appetizing assets for Davis because they have an inside track to signing him long term. The Clippers have generated a lot of buzz around the league. Wouldn’t that be something if the Pelicans traded Davis to the other L.A. team? Oh, this is going to be a fun summer.

Los Angeles Lakers

Be honest: you thought about LeBron and Zion in purple and gold, didn’t you? That was quite the commercial break on Tuesday night heading into the final reveal. The most important thing about this pick might be its impact on potential Davis talks.

The Lakers may think they have the missing piece after jumping up to the No. 4 pick in the draft on Tuesday. But from what I’m told, the Pelicans’ brass still feels icy toward the Lakers after what went down last season. And more importantly, holding the No. 4 pick in a two-, maybe three-player draft is not some golden ticket. If this was 2003 and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were sitting there, it would be a different story. But this isn’t the draft to be in the No. 4 slot. Still, it’s a huge win for the Lakers to jump from No. 11 all the way to the top-four, the biggest leap of the night by sheer distance.

Memphis Grizzlies

I love Morant for the Grizzlies. He’s a sensational talent that would be a worthy No. 1 prospect in a non-Zion draft. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., is a tremendous building block for a franchise. Now, they just have to figure out who will be the head coach to lead that tandem.

There’s also the Conley factor. I expected the Indiana Pacers to get in on Conley last year at the deadline, but I still think they could be suitors for the former Mr. Indiana Basketball. The Pacers will have loads of cap space this summer and will have the ability to absorb his contract. If not Indiana, keep an eye on Detroit and Utah, two other teams that may be looking to make a splash after first-round exits this postseason.

The Sneaky Tankers

There's a lot of talk out there that Tuesday's lottery results have effectively killed tanking. Team sources say such talk is premature. If anything, Tuesday confirmed what I wrote back in January: There's going to be tanking, just not at the very bottom. When the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, I said that the Pelicans could really get Williamson, but only if they were serious about tanking to get from the 11th spot down to the sixth spot. Right around there is the sweet spot, where odds of getting the No. 1 pick had just about doubled from the previous system.
The team didn't shut down Davis outright. That would be a blatant violation of league rules. But the New Orleans star sat the bench for 77 percent of the team's minutes after that post on Jan. 31, thanks mostly to some timely load management (he didn't play a single fourth quarter after the All-Star break) and late-season "back spasms" that caused the team to list the disgruntled big man as "probable" for each of the team's final seven games; he didn't play in any of them. I'm sure the betting markets loved that.
With Jrue Holiday (abdominal surgery) and Davis effectively out since early March, the Pelicans went 3-13 in their final 16 games and earned the No. 7 slot in the draft lottery. That late-season slide tripled their odds of getting the No. 1 pick and tripled their odds of landing in the top four spots. Memphis, who landed the coveted No. 2 overall pick from the eighth slot, sat its star Mike Conley for the final six games with an ankle sprain and started a glorified G League team down the stretch. The Lakers, who jumped from the 11th slot to the fourth pick, shut down LeBron on March 30 once the playoffs were out of reach.
To recap, the teams that jumped in the lottery -- Memphis, New Orleans and the Lakers -- didn't play their stars in April and ended up with big rewards. If the league doesn't want teams to rest its stars at the end of the season, Tuesday's draft lottery results did nothing to dissuade them.


Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns

Hey, you got John Beilein and Monty Williams. That’s … not nothing.

New York Knicks

The Knicks held the top odds to land the top pick of the NBA draft, but as I pointed out on Twitter, 14 percent is not a lot when you consider that it’s … the same percentage as Ben Wallace’s career 3-point rate. Putting it that way, it’s a wonder Knicks fans got their hopes up at all. 

The Knicks could have had it much, much worse. You could be Cleveland or Phoenix. Landing at No. 3 isn’t a horrible outcome if you’re an R.J. Barrett fan (I’m not). As I mentioned up top, falling to No. 3 likely won’t preclude them from getting into the AD sweepstakes this summer. If that pick dropped to No. 4 or No. 5, that might be a deal-breaker. That’s how top-heavy this draft class is. 

Big picture, nothing that happened on Tuesday night hurt their chances of getting a top free agent or two this summer. That’s something to rest your flat-brimmed hat on.

Chicago Bulls

Well, that’s unfortunate. The Bulls had dreams of landing No. 1 overall just like they did in 2008 when they turned a 1.7 percent chance into Derrick Rose. Instead, they fell to No. 7. Again, it could be worse. You could be the Cavs and the Suns.

A lost season for the Bulls didn’t lead to the reward that many would have liked. You have three ways to build a contender in this league: Through the draft, through free agency or through the trade market. The Bulls may be striking out in the first two, but they did get Otto Porter Jr., last February, and he showed out in the 15 games he was in uniform. Not all is lost. 

With their hole at point guard, there might be some motivation to target someone like Coby White to fill a need. But this far down the draft, there’s no sense in drafting for position. Just pick the best player available. For them, I really like Brandon Clarke out of Gonzaga. He fits head coach Jim Boylen’s defensive-minded system and has the maturity to step in right away.

Washington Wizards

A list for bummed-out Wizards fans: Dirk Nowitzki. Tracy McGrady. Shawn Marion. Kemba Walker. Amar’e Stoudemire. Gordon Hayward. DeMar DeRozan. Andre Iguodala. Andre Drummond. Joakim Noah. All former No. 9 overall picks.

The Wizards should be targeting a high-upside player like Bol Bol or Kevin Porter Jr., here. Evidenced by the names above, this is the sweet spot for top-five talents that have question marks related to NBA-ready skills and immaturity. 

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Philadelphia 76ers enter offseason at a critical crossroads

Philadelphia 76ers enter offseason at a critical crossroads

And so the most fascinating offseason in the NBA begins.

The Philadelphia 76ers lost Game 7 in Toronto in heartbreaking fashion, falling in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season, this time by the hand of Kawhi Leonard. With 4.2 seconds left, after evading Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Leonard hit a fall-away go-ahead jumper from the corner that brought tears to Embiid’s eyes and the Sixers’ season to an abrupt close.

Embiid was emotional for good reason. The Sixers put up a much better fight in this series compared to their five-game loss to the Boston Celtics last year. These Raptors are a much stronger team than last year’s Celtics, and still, Philly extended it to the very last possible second.

It’s a cold, harsh ending that perhaps only the steely Leonard could bring. And now, the next chapter begins. With seven of the Sixers’ top nine players able to be free agents this summer, including Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick, this figures to be an explosive summer in the City of Brotherly Love.

Let’s go through the three big questions surrounding this franchise.

1. What happens to Brett Brown?

By NBA coaching standards, Brett Brown is an elder statesman. Only six coaches have longer tenures with their team than the Sixers’ coach. Among them, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle have won championships with their their respective clubs; they’ll coach their teams as long as they please. Terry Stotts, Brad Stevens and Doc Rivers are the others, and they have only missed the playoffs once each in their six-plus years with their clubs.

And then there’s Brown, who hasn’t had nearly the same success as the six ahead of him. Part of that was by design. Hired by a different decision-maker than the current one to oversee one of the biggest teardowns in NBA history, Brown accelerated the playoff timeline by getting the Sixers to the playoffs in Simmons’ rookie season in 2017-18. But even still, Brown might be the first domino to fall after the Game 7 loss to the Raptors, a team that also shouldered enormous expectations going into these playoffs.

It’d be extremely hasty to evaluate Brown’s capabilities over one Game 7, but there’s been plenty of smoke surrounding Brown’s position and no one has extinguished it. Owner Josh Harris, speaking at the MIT Sloan Conference in early March, made headlines by saying it’d be “very problematic” if the Sixers lost to Boston in the opening round of the playoffs. He later told ESPN, “we have enough talent on our roster that if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat any team in the East.”

It’s not hard to read between the lines there. Brown’s job security seemed even more tenuous after Harris and general manager Elton Brand held an impromptu press conference before Game 1 of the first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. Harris wouldn’t commit to Brown beyond the season in that surprise session. When asked if Brown would keep his job no matter the outcome of the playoffs, Harris credited Brown for “a tremendous job” after two 50-win seasons and then later summed it up by saying, “right now, we’re supportive of Brett.”

Executives around the league have been surprised by the lack of external support Brown has received from the organization -- most alarming is Brand’s silence on the matter. Said one long-time executive: “Elton could have killed all that talk and hasn’t.”

It’s reasonable to wonder if Brand has that kind of power at all. It took the Sixers three months to decide that Brand was the right replacement for Bryan Colangelo after his resignation in June 2018 amid a social media scandal. Brand had just been named the vice president of basketball operations and ran the G League affiliate Delaware Blue Coats before being hired to run the big-league club.

Brand was chosen, in part, because he would be a collaborative decision-maker whose relative inexperience (he was playing for Brown in 2015-16) would lead to stronger partnerships in the organization. In other words, Brand wouldn’t have full autonomy. League sources have long suspected that if Harris feels disappointed this postseason, organizational changes may be in order, going deeper than just the head coach.

It’s been a confusing power structure ever since Colangelo stepped down. Remember, it was Brown who was the interim GM in Colangelo’s place and was heavily involved in the hiring process that led to Brand becoming the full-time leader. Some around the league saw it as a cost-effective placeholder move that would be, as one executive described it, “easier if you have to do a total reset.” From that perspective, the question is not whether Brown is let go, but if Brand’s job may be in jeopardy, too.

Said one source with knowledge of the situation: “I think there’s a chance it’s wholesale changes top to bottom. It’s a strange situation.”

In that pre-playoff press conference, Harris did call for Brand to be voted as the NBA’s Executive of the Year, which is notable considering the non-committal he gave for Brown.

But the real question is whether Brown is the right person for the job. Yes, the Sixers didn’t make the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s hard to blame Brown for that unless you want to accuse him of infecting Embiid with multiple illnesses. Really, Embiid’s gastroenteritis and upper respiratory issues, which clearly limited him and his minutes in this series, are what separates the Sixers from this exit and reaching the conference finals. The Sixers were plus-90 in the 237 minutes with Embiid on the floor this series and minus-109 in the 99 minutes he sat.

Against Brooklyn, maybe the Sixers survive their best player getting what amounts to the flu. But Leonard and the Raptors are too good to not capitalize on Embiid needing overnight IVs. The Sixers were expected to improve the depth of the roster with buyout candidates, but the front office didn’t land any significant pieces this season like it had with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in ’17-18.

Though Brown wasn’t handpicked by this front office, he deserves another shot next season. The Sixers remade the roster twice midseason on the fly. The starting lineup -- without a preseason or training camp -- ended up being the most effective starting five outside of Golden State. Maybe the organization determines he’s not the right person to lead the next phase. But give any coach the cards he was dealt, and I’m not sure they do any better.

Even if Harris believes Brown did a fine job, he may want a different voice than Brown to lead the team in this next chapter. Toronto did that last year, and look at where it got them. Like Dwane Casey, Brown wouldn’t be without a job long if that’s the direction Philly goes.

2. Will Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris be back?

Though Josh Harris hasn’t extended a strong vote of confidence toward Brown, the owner has made it clear: He wants Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris back. At every turn, he’s all but said he will offer max contracts to both of them.

Harris will be an unrestricted free agent and figures to be a max guy in this seller’s market. Sources around the league expect Brooklyn, Dallas and New York to be in line for his services if he decides he wants out of Philadelphia. Like Butler, Harris is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million contract with the team. Outside suitors can only offer him, and Butler, a four-year contract for less annual money.

It’ll be costly, especially in 2020-21 when Simmons’ expected max-level extension kicks in. Keeping Butler, Simmons, Harris and Embiid will cost about $130 million that season, when the salary cap is projected to be at $118 million. That’s the cost of keeping four All-Star players in their prime.

Butler, who will be 30 years old next training camp,  won’t be in his prime for long. How quickly he ages will determine how prudent offering a max contract will look. But right now, he deserves it. Depending on who you ask around the league, Butler is a top 10-to-20 player in today’s NBA, excelling on both ends of the floor. ESPN’s real plus-minus metric placed Butler as the 18th-most impactful player in the league this season and one of just three wing players who registered at least 2.0 RPM rating on offensive and defense (Paul George and Pascal Siakam were the others).

Butler didn’t pick his trade destination and may have his sights set on brighter stages in Los Angeles and New York. But Philadelphia offers him a chance to be, as Brown reminds every other game, “the adult in the room” while not having to play 40 minutes a night. He can age gracefully next to Simmons and Embiid rather than having to play the alpha gunner role that can grind a body to a pulp. It’s not my money, but I’d be confident in paying up for the Philly Phive going forward.

Yes, there’s considerable risk in giving Butler a five-year max. He has played more than 67 games in just two of his eight seasons in the NBA. Those seasons have been riddled by injuries that may or may not be related to the fact that no player has averaged more minutes per game than Butler since he became a full-time starter in Chicago in 2013-14. That’s a lot of mileage on those tires.

But the Sixers have taken matters into their own hands, slicing his minutes down to 33.4 minutes per game, considerably lower than it was in Minnesota before the trade (36.1) and last season (36.7). The Sixers are certainly not playing him like a rental. They have the long-term in mind. With Chris Paul, John Wall, Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin all making more than $30 million in each of the next two seasons, Butler’s contract would hardly be untradeable if he drops off.

As for Harris, it’s a myth that max players have to be No. 1 options on a championship-caliber team. What is true is that every championship team needs three or four max guys on its roster. Harris’ skill set as a big pick-and-roll scorer and an elite shooter is befitting of that role, even if his percentages dipped in the short 39-game stint with Philly. He’s better than he showed in the playoffs. At 26 years old, Harris has improved his scoring average in each of the last four seasons and still has room for improvement.

If the starting five hadn’t been so successful this season, I’d save the money and move on. But with it already being a top five-man unit despite Simmons’ age and no training camp, it’s worth paying well into the luxury tax.

3. Is Ben Simmons still a franchise pillar?

Simmons is one of the best young players in the NBA. He’s an All-Star at 22 years old, capable of one day being the NBA Defensive Player of the Year and already a nightly triple-double threat.

It’s also true that he took zero shots outside of 12 feet this entire postseason, per Basketball-Reference. He took eight such shots last postseason. It’s not that he doesn’t have a reliable jump shot. It’s so raw that he hasn’t had the confidence to even try on the playoff stage.

For some league executives across in the NBA, this is not just a flaw in his game; it’s a sign that he isn’t serious about improvement. This was the one thing that he had to work on this past summer, the one skill he lacked in the sport. How can someone be so talented and yet so limited in this vital area of the game?

Well, he’s 22 years old and already one of the best players in the game. Fair or not, Simmons failing to add some semblance of a jump shot in Year 2 of his career is seen as a reason that Philadelphia has to put him on the trade block. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking by rival executives. There has been no indication from the Philly side that Simmons is being floated or will be this summer.

It’s early in that process. Leonard’s shot just fell through the net. But one Western Conference executive brought up a name that could be a Simmons trade target: LeBron James.

“I think they very well might explore that,” said a rival executive of Philadelphia.

James doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but he shares the same Klutch Sports agent with Ben Simmons in Rich Paul. James has two seasons left on his deal before he can become a free agent. After a disastrous offseason in which their president of basketball operations abruptly resigned and they struck out on their top two head coaching targets in Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue, do the Los Angeles Lakers honestly believe they can put together a championship contender in the next two seasons?

If the answer is no, trading James has to be on the table. And if you’re going to do that, there’s a short list of players that would be worthy of being traded for the King. Simmons is certainly good enough to be on it.

A Simmons-James swap becomes tricky because Simmons makes $8.1 million next season, before his rookie extension kicks in beginning in 2020-21 (he will be eligible for extension this summer). Because of that comparatively low salary, Simmons will have to be packaged with another max-level player, or near it, to match James’ huge $37.1 million salary for 2020-21. The Sixers could ink Harris to a sign-and-trade, but not for the five-year max. The new collective bargaining agreement removed that option from the toolkit. Harris would only agree to that if the Lakers were over the cap, which they’re not currently, and Harris desperately wanted to go there. The same goes for Butler in a potential blockbuster trade. Again, this is tricky.

There’s another wrinkle to this: Ty Lue turned down the Lakers job for a reason. He felt he could get a better job elsewhere. He’s holding out for something. Could that job be Philly? It’s not available at the moment. But there’s more than just a little chatter about the Sixers and the Lakers being potential trade partners this summer. Crazier things have happened in this league than Lue and James on a Sixers sideline next to Embiid.

Several executives see a major shakeup in Philadelphia this summer. Harris has already signed off on two blockbuster moves in the past seven months and a third blockbuster if you count trading former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. Is another on the way? Many around the league believe so. Said one long-time executive: “Harris won’t be able to resist.”

The safe money is that the Sixers brings the Philadelphia Phive back for redemption. The opinion here is that Simmons is too good and too young to bail on now. We just saw Portland break into the Western Conference Finals with their same core after two humiliating postseasons.

But then again, Toronto traded their beloved star in DeMar DeRozan this past summer and look where it got them. Which way will Philly go? There may be no bigger question in the NBA this summer.

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