After nearly three seasons of radical rebuilding under Sam Hinkie, the Philadelphia 76ers started anew under Bryan Colangelo in the summer of 2016. Hinkie’s ambitious plan of building through the draft started to produce real signs of improvement, while continuing to be set up well for the future.
After another down season in 15-16, Philadelphia had the top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and predictably selected Ben Simmons. They used their two other first round picks on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz. Unfortunately, only Luwawu-Cabarrot took the floor for the Sixers in the 2016-17 season. Korkmaz was drafted with the idea that he would be stashed overseas for at least a year or two, but Simmons was expected to step in and play major minutes immediately. A broken foot scuttled those plans and, as they have with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, Philadelphia chose to be ultra-cautious with Simmons and held him out all season.
Luwawu-Cabarrot, after not playing much to open the season, came on in the second half. His game needs a lot of work, but all the signs are there that he can a contributor as part of the wing rotation. Korkmaz had another solid season in Turkey and only turns 20 in July. And Simmons has been cleared for full basketball activity and should be fully ready by training camp.
In free agency, Colangelo added relatively low-cost, short term veterans versus mining the undrafted free agent market as Hinkie had. Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez were all brought in to help solidify the backcourt and provide some stability for a young roster. Bayless got the biggest contract of the trio at three years and $27 million, but provided the least due to a wrist injury that cost him all but three games. Henderson bounced back and forth between starting and coming off the bench, but was productive for Philly in his roles. Rodriguez was given the starting point guard job after Bayless was hurt, but eventually lost it to T.J. McConnell. Nonetheless, Rodriguez gave the 76ers capable backup point guard minutes, which they hadn’t had for a while.
Colangelo continued some of his predecessor’s roster tweaking tactics, by eating a couple of contracts for future draft picks and making smaller roster moves. He dealt Jerami Grant to Oklahoma City for Ersan Ilyasova, in a move designed to help add some shooting and spacing to the frontcourt and to help clear some of the logjam of young big men. But it was the deadline where Colangelo would really start the process of deciding which bigs to keep.
Nerlens Noel was traded to Dallas for Andrew Bogut and Justin Anderson, and what ultimately became two second round picks. With Noel scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer and with Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Richaun Holmes in the fold, Colangelo decided to move on from the first prize of the Hinkie era. He also traded Ilyasova to Atlanta for Tiago Splitter and a second round pick, in a move that got an asset for a player that Philadelphia didn’t need any longer.
The reasons Colangelo could feel confident in moving Noel and Ilyasova? The development of Embiid (who finally played after two years of injuries) and Dario Saric (who signed after spending the first two years after being drafted overseas). After waiting two years, both rookies finally took the floor in 76er uniforms and proved they were worth waiting for.
Embiid dominated out of the gate, on his way to 20.2 PPG, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. The team was cautious and held him out of back-to-back games, but he showed everything that everyone had hoped for and more, including hitting 36.7% from behind the arc. Unfortunately, a torn meniscus ended his season after just 31 games, but he’s expected to make a full recovery. Recent news from Colangelo also suggests the team will be less cautious this coming season and will let him play in back-to-back games.
Saric took a little while to get going, but was productive later in the season. He showed the kind of all-around play that should blend nicely with Embiid and Simmons and an aggressive hard-nosed nature that won him a lot of fans in Philadelphia.
This summer, Colangelo should have more cap space to work with than anyone and there are suggestions that Philly might be ready to chase max free agents to add to their young core. The 76ers are likely to keep Robert Covington, as his production far outweighs his team friendly contract. Holmes and McConnell are likely to have their contracts guaranteed, as both are still young and productive. Henderson is a question mark, but you can see the team keeping him as a veteran presence on the wing. Rodriguez plays a position where the team would like to upgrade, but is also comfortable with running with McConnell and Bayless. He’s likely to be elsewhere this summer.
With the frontcourt stocked with young talent, the focus would seem to be on the wing and in the backcourt. While players like McConnell, Anderson, Luwawu-Cabarrot and Nik Stauskas had nice years, they probably aren’t ready for big minutes on a playoff team just yet. Because of that, and the need for more shooting, the Sixers could be in the mix for restricted free agents like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tim Hardaway Jr., or Otto Porter. A little under the radar could be a run at a player like Tony Snell, who would cost less, but is still a productive player. At the very least, Philadelphia can craft offer sheets for those players that put their incumbent teams in a tricky position to match.
At the point, Philadelphia insists that they are going to give Simmons a shot to run the offense and spearhead the defense. Doing so will allow them to play lineups that feature all of their best players together. It remains to be seen if Simmons, who has reportedly grown to nearly seven feet all, can handle that responsibility as a rookie. If not, he’ll play a point forward type of role, not unlike the one Giannis Antetokounmpo plays for Milwaukee.
If Philadelphia does want to add a point guard, a logical target is Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs. He can shoot and is comfortable playing off the ball. He also has experience with Brett Brown, both with the Spurs and Australian National Team.
Up front, they could sign a veteran or two, just in case Embiid or Okafor’s injury issues continue to persist. A short term deal for a player like Roy Hibbert or a return engagement for Splitter could make some sense. Ideally, you want a veteran who is ready to play when called upon, but understands his role is as a practice player.
It is a slightly longer shot, but if they wanted to, Philadelphia could engage in trade talks for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, if either is put on the market. They could also chase Gordon Hayward in free agency. Any of the three would be a huge addition and would likely propel the Sixers to the playoff, assuming health and development for the young players. Just being in the conversation to add such a talent is a major step forward.
And the NBA Draft Lottery bears watching. Not only does Philadelphia hit the draft with the fourth best odds, they also want to see the Lakers pick slide out of the top three. If it does, that pick will go to the 76ers to complete a trade from Los Angeles dealt for Steve Nash. No matter what, Philly is primed to add at least one more young talent to their stockpile, if not two.
Last season saw Philadelphia improve their win total by 18 games. Another jump that gets even close to that makes them a playoff team. Sam Hinkie had a plan in mind when he tore it all down and fans were encouraged to “trust the process”. The process is now ready to pay back that trust by delivering results in a big way. It’s just a shame that Hinkie has to watch it happen from the outside looking in.
Guaranteed Contracts (8): Justin Anderson, Jerryd Bayless, Joel Embiid, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons, Nik Stauskas
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (4): Gerald Henderson, Richaun Holmes, Shawn Long, T.J. McConnell
Potential Free Agents (4): Robert Covington (UFA – Team Option), Alex Poythress (RFA), Sergio Rodriguez (UFA), Tiago Splitter (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap (1): $500,000 (Tibor Pleiss)
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #4
Maximum Cap Space: $61,777,567
Projected Cap Space: $42,138,850