Kyrie Irving

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try again next summer

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

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

Maintain future cap flexibility 

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

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

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

Capitalize on a small marketplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much to spend?

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

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

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

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

Don't settle on running it back

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

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

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

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

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Boston fans who think LeBron James will be a Celtic must be suffering Super Bowl hangover

Boston fans who think LeBron James will be a Celtic must be suffering Super Bowl hangover

Our friends at NBC Sports Boston believe that the Celtics have a legitimate chance of landing LeBron James this summer. We think that's silly. Go read their take, and then see our response below. 

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Here’s the issue with Bostonians thinking they have a shot at LeBron James: You’re not living in reality.

Perhaps you’re all still suffering from a Super Bowl LII hangover?

See, in the NBA, there’s something called a “salary cap.” And when you sign an OK player like Al Horford to LeBron-like money, that salary cap starts getting eaten up pretty quickly.

Speaking of big contracts, remember when the Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving? Why were they able to get such a young, talented player? Hmmmm … Oh, right! Irving didn’t want to play with LeBron and forced his way out of Cleveland. But yeah, I’m sure everyone would magically just get along and be best buds again.

Speaking of people that actually get along, the LeBron-Ben Simmons bromance is an unbreakable bond and how dare you insinuate otherwise. They’re the King and the Fresh Prince. How could there be a more perfect fit? Oh, and by the way, he’s totally a rookie. Perhaps you Celtics folks need to learn the rules of the NBA a little more before debating these things? And he led a team to the Eastern Conference Semis during his ROOKIE season playing point guard for the first time in his life. Not too shabby.

From NBC Sports Bay Area: LeBron makes no sense for the Warriors

That leads me to the Sixers' other rookie. Celtics fans were drooling over the idea of Markelle Fultz when they still had the No. 1 overall pick. Jayson Tatum has the makings of a star. That doesn’t mean Markelle Fultz won’t be one. But yeah, let’s totally evaluate players solely on their rookie seasons.

There’s no way around it: The Celtics took care of the Sixers in five games. The Celtics are also on the golf course now, so whatever. But what LeBron likely sees is a dominant big man in Joel Embiid that is just scratching the surface of how great he can be. A point guard in Simmons with unreal court vision and plenty of potential. A player a year removed from being the No. 1 overall pick in Fultz. The Croatian Sensation, Dario Saric. And our newest Boston Strangler, T.J. McConnell (if you recall LeBron wanted the Cavs to trade for the King of Grit).

The Sixers’ situation is so great that the Bryan Colangelo debacle — though incredibly annoying—– won’t affect LeBron. The Sixers, unlike the Celtics, have an abundance of cap space. They can maneuver to acquire James and another elite wing player — say Paul George or Kawhi Leonard?

So you can go ahead and keep living in your fantasy — maybe Brandon Graham didn’t strip sack Tom Brady there — but here, in reality, the Sixers have the best chance to land LeBron James and 41-33 was the final score of Super Bowl LII in favor of the Philadelphia Eagles.

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