Ben Simmons

Sixers will find plenty of challengers in attempt to take over Eastern Conference

Sixers will find plenty of challengers in attempt to take over Eastern Conference

“Run it back.”

After striking out on the big fish in free agency, the Sixers essentially appear to be going this route for next season.

They have reportedly agreed to a one-year deal to bring back JJ Redick and a trade for Denver Nuggets swingman Wilson Chandler to help offset the departures of bench standouts Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. A little juggling to add a reserve center, and you will be looking at your 2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers (barring a blockbuster deal for Kawhi Leonard, in which case all bets are off).

And there’s no reason to believe that won’t be enough to take another leap next season. Think about it, from a personal standpoint the Sixers had Joel Embiid be named a starter in the All-Star Game and finish as the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. Despite all of the noise, Ben Simmons snagged Rookie of the Year in a landslide. Plus, the team had Robert Covington (first) and Embiid (second) each be named to All-NBA defensive teams.

All of those individual accolades helped propel the team to a 52-win campaign (24 more than the previous season), a playoff berth for the first time in six seasons and a first-round series victory.

With that level of production under their belt, there is no reason to believe the Sixers won’t continue climbing up the Eastern Conference ranks.

Just don’t think it will be easy.

Even with LeBron James’ exodus to the West, the Sixers’ path to the NBA Finals won’t all of the sudden become a cakewalk. Some other squads will have a say about that, starting at the top.

Toronto may have ditched its head coach, but the Raptors appear to be sticking with the core that won a franchise-record 59 games last season. That group beat the Sixers in three of the four regular-season meetings by an average of 18.3 points.

Of course, the Boston Celtics had the Sixers’ number all season long. Between the preseason, regular season and playoffs, the C’s won nine of the 11 matchups by an average of 9.2 points. Plus, you’ve likely heard they’ll be getting a couple All-Stars back in the lineup come next season in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

Even the teams a step below have reason for hope. The Indiana Pacers have faith in their own young core led by Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo. The Milwaukee Bucks have one of the game’s best players in Giannis Antetokounmpo and boosted their bench by swiping Ilyasova from the Sixers and drafting Villanova standout Donte DiVincenzo. The Washington Wizards (John Wall, Bradley Beal) and Detroit Pistons (Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond) have prolific tandems that could cause trouble for anyone.

It’s all wide open in the East now that the King’s throne has shifted to Hollywood. And the Sixers have to feel as good as any team about being able to secure the crown, but it definitely won’t be an easy task.

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Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons reportedly off limits in Kawhi Leonard trade talks

Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons reportedly off limits in Kawhi Leonard trade talks

The Sixers still believe in Markelle Fultz.

They've never publicly wavered in their support of last year's No. 1 overall pick, even throughout the mysterious saga involving his right shoulder injury and broken jump shot. And with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reporting Sunday that Fultz, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are off limits in trade talks for Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, it sounds like they're keeping their faith in Fultz.

Sports Illustrated's Jake Fischer reported Thursday that the Sixers were batting around a combination of Dario Saric, Robert Covington and the Heat's unprotected 2021 first-round pick (see story). Fultz was conspicuously absent from that trade package, and he's apparently still not someone the Sixers are willing to part with.

There are compelling arguments to be made for making Fultz off limits, and for including him in trade discussions. On one hand, if Fultz would be the piece that seals a deal for Leonard, it would be tempting to include him. His future, especially his jumper, is still a major question mark, and he could help the Sixers land a known star (when healthy) in Leonard.

On the other hand, Fultz was the No. 1 pick for a reason, and he could still end up turning into a star. He's just 20 years old and he did show flashes, albeit very brief ones, of his handles, athleticism and explosiveness last season. If his offseason work with trainer Drew Hanlen helps him rediscover his shot, he could make a lot of the people who have written him off look pretty foolish.

It's also worth noting that Fultz's value might not be the highest in trade discussions given that the Spurs would be banking on the potential of someone who has only played 14 regular-season games.

As for Embiid and Simmons, it's obvious why they would be excluded from any trade. Those two are the kind of special talents you just can't afford to give up easily.

Saric and Covington are both valuable players for the Sixers, but it makes plenty of sense to include them in trade packages. While Saric's "glue-guy" qualities and improved long-range jumper are integral to the Sixers, he's never going to be a star. He's the kind of guy you unfortunately need to part with if you want someone like Leonard. Covington, though much-maligned, is a first team All-Defensive player and capable three-point shooter. However, Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Sixers likely wouldn't have much of a problem replacing Covington.

Especially given ESPN's Ian Begley's report Sunday that "there are several people with Philadelphia who feel confident that Leonard would strongly consider re-signing there next summer if they traded for him," it makes sense for the Sixers to pursue Leonard aggressively.

It appears that they're trying to do just that while still prioritizing their trust in Fultz.

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How do Sixers stack up in competition for LeBron James?

How do Sixers stack up in competition for LeBron James?

So the mad news bomber, Adrian Wojnarowski, dropped some napalm Sunday morning. The ESPN NBA insider extraordinaire is reporting that the Sixers will meet with LeBron James' representatives in Los Angeles on Sunday. James apparently will not be on hand.

What does this mean?

So, you’re saying there’s a chance?

First off, they are in the game. This may not be much of a consolation prize if the Sixers don’t reel in the biggest fish in the sea, but you’ve got to be in it to win it. It also speaks to how far the club has come from a 10-win laughingstock to one of less than a handful of teams he would even consider.

Kawhi tie

Marc Stein of The New York Times is reporting part of the Sixers' sales pitch to James is they believe they have a real chance to land Kawhi Leonard in a deal with the Spurs. With Paul George opting not to go home to L.A. and staying put in Oklahoma City, Leonard could be the piece that sways James. Both the Sixers and the Lakers have the assets and cap space to pull off a Leonard deal. The Spurs hold the cards here for now. The Lakers could offer Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and more. The Sixers have reportedly discussed a trade package internally that involves Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Miami's 2021 unprotected first-rounder. Slight advantage: Lakers.

Brett Brown spent 15 years in the Spurs organization working alongside Gregg Popovich and with Leonard for a couple of years. There is a strong relationship there on both fronts. Also, San Antonio may not want to move Leonard in the same conference. Advantage: Sixers.

If you use the George/OKC blueprint, it’s worth the gamble of giving up quality players and picks just to get Leonard (who can opt out of the final year of his contract next summer) in-house to show him what this franchise and city are all about (see story). Playing alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, being coached by Brown and embraced by a city that is obsessed with this basketball team could be intoxicating enough to make Leonard want to stay in Philly long term. James believing Leonard to Philly is a legit possibility with Embiid and Simmons, that’s how a possibly made-up mind changes.    

Home-court advantage

Unfortunately for the Sixers, James' decision may not come down to basketball. It may be as simple as he and his family want to live full-time in Los Angeles. If that’s the case, all bets could be off. Conversely, if it is about hoops, winning titles and furthering his legend, James needs to ask himself, if Leonard isn't dealt to the Lakers then how far is he going in the Western Conference with Ingram, Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and possibly a DeMarcus Cousins? Can they even reach a conference final? The East would be an easier path and Simmons, Embiid, Saric, and Markelle Fultz are a better core. Cleveland shouldn't be written off but considering their personnel and cap situation, this has the feel of a two-horse race with the Lakers and the Sixers.

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