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.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

The bubble has revived a lot of the NBA's best rivalries and helped flame some new ones but one thing that's been missing during the regular season restart is elevation. 

Everyone seems to be a little less bouncy since they've arrived at Disney World, and that shows in the number of dunks per NBA game in the bubble being down 25%. 

What's causing this deflation in elevation? The biggest factor is NBA players not having their legs quite yet. 

Another big factor is how teams are responding to certain opponents. 

Don't buy that? The Lakers led the NBA with 7.8 dunks per game before March 11, but the bubble environment has sapped that element of their attack -- down to just 4.7 per game.

And perhaps most notable, the Lakers finished with 0 dunks for the first time all season against the small-ball Houston Rockets. 

Seems like someone is changing their plan of attack. 

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

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NBC Sports

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

With no fans in the building and extraordinary measures in place to keep a global pandemic out, wonky stuff was bound to happen inside the Orlando bubble. 

But T.J. Warren turning into peak Kevin Durant? This is an entirely different idea.

The 26-year-old North Carolina State product set the Orlando bubble ablaze. In his first three games, the 6-foot-8 small forward scored 53, 34 and 32 points, respectively, while shooting a cumulative 65.3 percent. A popular pick to slide in the standings due to injuries, Warren’s Indiana Pacers have flipped the script and are 3-0 in the bubble.

Welcome to Warren-sanity. First, he shredded Philadelphia’s sixth-ranked defense, exploding for a career-high 20 field goals. For an encore, Warren compiled 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and four blocks against the Washington Wizards, the first player to reach that stat line this season, per Basketball Reference tracking. On Tuesday, he delivered yet again, pouring in another 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting.

Warren has scored 119 points in three games. This is a hot streak that normally only belongs to Hall of Famers. And yet, Warren has never sniffed an All-Star Game. So how good is he? Is Warren a flash in the pan or is this the beginning of a Kawhi Leonard-type breakout? Let’s dive in and try to figure out what’s fluke and what’s for real.

While Warren is a known bucket-getter, a scoring spree of this magnitude has come out of nowhere. On Tuesday night, after being the story of the bubble, the Orlando Magic -- fighting for a non-Milwaukee matchup in the first round -- simply had no idea what to do with Warren. With Orlando’s defensive ace Jonathan Isaac lost to a torn ACL, the Magic assigned athletic marvel Aaron Gordon to Warren duties. It didn’t thaw Warren one bit.. Warren unleashed deep threes, seering basket cuts and soft floaters in the lane. By the time Warren went to the bench with 1:27 left in the first quarter, he’d scored 17 points in about 10 minutes of action, not missing a single shot from the floor or at the line. Indiana was up 40-18 and never looked back.

Before the bubble, Warren averaged 18.7 points per game, but he was a metronome in the purest sense. He had never scored at least 30 points in consecutive games in five-plus seasons in the NBA. His FiveThirtyEight list of statistical comps is a roll call of players who were borderline All-Stars at their peak -- names like Tim Thomas, Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier  -- but never got invited to the ball.

But there’s reason to believe the Pacers have something more than that in Warren. 

For starters, Warren’s scoring abilities aren’t new. The Durham native averaged 24.9 points per game at NC State, earning 2013-14 ACC Player of the Year honors and showing enough talent to be the No. 14 overall pick in the 2014 draft. But even then, Warren’s largest point total in any three games at the collegiate level was 107. He’s at 119 in the bubble entering Thursday night. 

So what unlocked this version of Warren -- that scores with the confidence and tools of Leonard and Durant? Is this another version of Linsanity?

Like Jeremy Lin, Warren has taken team adversity and flipped it into an opportunity. Linsanity only started when Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were sidelined and the other three point guards couldn't run Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Necessity, it turns out, is the mother of invention. When Lin was inserted into the starting lineup as a last resort, the Knicks went on a seven-game winning streak, all without Anthony and Stoudemire. 

With Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Malcolm Brogdon sidelined by injuries, and Victor Oladipo basically playing on one leg, the situation was ripe for an ambitious Pacer to fill the void. Enter Warren. Like Lin’s 12-game run before the All-Star break in which he averaged 22.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in the Big Apple, Warren capitalized on the situation and he did it at a time when many players might have said, “eh, let’s pack it in for next season.”

Warren is one of 12 players to score at least 50 points in a game this season, but only the third to do it with a scoring average below 20 points per game, joining Houston’s Eric Gordon (14.5 points) and Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert (18.1). Warren’s sustainability is worth noting, especially when compared to those comparable players. Once a player drops 50, he instantly becomes the headline on the opponent’s scouting report, making encore performances harder to come by. In the game immediately following his 50-plus eruption, Gordon scored eight points on 2-of-10 shooting. LeVert scored 14 on 6-of-19 shooting. But Warren? He put up 34. And then another 32 just for good measure.

While the opportunities have helped, Warren’s also adding new elements to his game, particularly by expanding his range. A master of the mid-range area, the Warren has attempted 23 3-pointers in three games, matching his total for the entire month of February, in which he played nine games. 

Warren is a bit late to the 3-point party, but it’s better to be late than never. This is where Warren can realize his upside. Look at the careers of Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam and Chris Bosh. These are all mid-range mavens that literally took a step back, set up behind the arc and embraced the 3-point shot. 

Warren can unlock the same bag of tricks. The former Suns wing is shooting a toasty 48.7 percent on 2-point jumpers beyond 10 feet this season. Only C.J. McCollum, Chris Paul and Khris Middleton have been more efficient in that mid-range area, per Basketball-Reference. Those three marksmen have spent years terrorizing opponents from deep, with McCollum and Middleton competing in the 3-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend. 

Warren, on the other hand, used the 3-point shot only sparingly, entering the bubble averaging only three 3-point attempts per game, even though he was making a healthy 37.5 percent of them. The percentages were there, but the appetite wasn’t. 

If you’re looking for the next great 3-point shooter, this is the starting point. Find the guy who rules the mid-range game and convince him to move back a bit and get the extra point. Not only does it add more points to the team’s total, but it creates space for others. Now, when Warren parks himself beyond the arc, that’s one less help defender to collapse into the paint. Threes aren’t just good because they’re worth three points; they make 2s easier for others.

This is why Warren’s bubble performance doesn’t feel like a fluke. He was always a great shooter and a pure scorer. The question was whether he’d ever feel comfortable shooting from deep, and sometimes, a player just needs to be pushed to go there. Bosh wasn’t known as a stretch five until injuries and playoff urgency made it a necessity. In the same way, injuries to Sabonis, Brogdon, Lamb and Oladipo propelled Warren’s evolution.

Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and general manager Chad Buchannan deserve credit for taking a chance on Warren when the Suns dumped him for essentially nothing (cash considerations) in a three-team deal involving the Miami Heat. At the time, Warren was only an insurance plan on unrestricted free agents Bojan Bogdanovich and Thaddeus Young, both of whom ended up getting richer deals elsewhere. 

Warren’s scoring has gotten the headlines, but it’s the rest of his game in Orlando that offers the most intriguing long-term potential. Warren’s been much more active defensively in the bubble, tallying seven blocks and six steals in three games. Here’s the last time he’s tallied 13 combined steals and blocks over a three-game span: Never.

The blocks are especially uncharacteristic. In a 14-game stretch before the New Year, Warren registered one block total. Because of the way he defends, some of these might register as steals. Rather than meet shooters at the mountaintop, Warren uses his nifty hands to strip a player’s shot on the way up ala Andre Iguodala. These are basically stocks -- a steal and block hybrid. Whatever you want to call it, it often gets the desired result, a turnover.

While Warren is unlikely to continue to score at this level, a more well-rounded game with consistent 3-point ability would make him one of the best bargains in the NBA. The Pacers are on the hook for just $11.7 million next season and $12.7 million in 2020-21 for Warren  -- less than what the Chicago Bulls are paying Young over the same timespan. Three games doesn’t make a star player in this league, but considering Warren was already an elite jump-shooter inside the arc, it’s not unrealistic to think he can become a Middleton clone, albeit with less playmaking ability.

I’ll admit that I didn’t see this coming, but perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a big wing finds himself at the age of 26. Middleton wasn’t an All-Star until he was in his age-27 season. Danny Granger, another former Pacers wing, made his first All-Star appearance at the age of 25. Siakam turned 26 in April. Warren could simply be a late bloomer.

So where does this development leave the Pacers? Ultimately, they need superstars to break into championship contender status. Sabonis and Oladipo have the potential to get there, if they can keep their leg injuries at bay. Warren’s sudden change in status could change their ceiling whenever the 2020-21 season happens, including as a potential trade asset when the next disgruntled superstar comes on the trade market. And if Oladipo struggles to regain his form after tearing his quad tendon, Pacers could hand the keys to Warren and save the cash elsewhere. 

The good news is Indiana has time. The Pacers’ loaded lineup -- with Brogdon and Oladipo in the backcourt and Warren alongside Sabonis and Myles Turner -- has only played in six games this season, but the returns are promising, outscoring opponents by 10.3 points every 100 possessions. If I’m the Pacers, I sit tight this fall and see what they can do together next season and then evaluate the trade market at the deadline. 

Meanwhile, Warren continues to have his own Linsanity moment inside the bubble. The only thing that could make this Disney run more magical would be a dream matchup against the team that dumped him, the Phoenix Suns. 

And wouldn’t you know on Thursday, the Pacers are playing the Suns. In January, Warren scored 25 points in a revenge game win against his former team, but a closer look at the box score shows that Warren took zero 3-pointers in that game. Something tells me Warren won’t ignore the long ball again this time. The Suns better be ready. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.