Philadelphia 76ers begin 2021 offseason in familiar position

The 76ers find themselves in a similar situation

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The Philadelphia 76ers, battered and tested by injuries, seemed poised for a franchise-altering playoff run. However, inconsistent play, questionable coaching, and superstar performances from the competition led to a devastating Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

That paragraph describes Philadelphia’s best playoff runs of the post-Process era.

Two years ago, Kawhi Leonard crouched in front of his own bench as a game-winning shot improbably bounced on the rim several times before dropping. Trae Young didn’t bury the 76ers with a buzzer-beater, but he led multiple double-digit comebacks and averaged 29 points and 10.9 assists during Atlanta’s upset against Philadelphia.

After all of their tanking, drafting, trades, hires, and fires, the 76ers are no closer to winning a championship than they were 20 years ago. Only drastic improvement this offseason can finally break the nearly 30-year championship drought.

Accepting Failure Again

The 76ers are once again back home on their couches, watching the Eastern Conference Finals. Previously, Philadelphia threw blame for its postseason shortcomings on forces the players couldn’t control. Brett Brown’s coaching style received daily lashes over the years, and fans always pointed to injuries as a safety blanket excuse. Surely the team would be healthier next year and avoid a disastrous repeat.

There are fewer scapegoats this year. Brett Brown is gone, replaced by former championship-winning coach Doc Rivers. Joel Embiid battled a partially torn meniscus while Danny Green missed the final four games against Atlanta. However, the meniscus didn’t prevent Embiid from playing at an MVP level, and Green only had 14 points in the three games leading up to his injury.

So far, 76ers fans are content pointing the finger at Ben Simmons and his woeful performances on offense and from the free throw line. In previous years, pundits claimed Philadelphia would’ve won the championship if Brown wasn’t the coach. Now fans believe the team would’ve made the conference finals if Simmons wasn’t on the roster.

What if the 76ers trade Simmons this offseason, and they lose again next year? Is Rivers next on the chopping block? Tobias Harris? Embiid? The finger-pointing and excuses must stop at some point. Philadelphia was a better team than Atlanta this year but failed to close out several games in the playoffs.

Philadelphia’s issues run deeper than Rivers and Simmons. One or two men can’t shoulder the burden of the team’s complete collapse. It’s time to accept defeat and begin searching for in-depth answers.

Philadelphia 76ers Free Agents

Most of Philadelphia’s key contributors are signed through the 2022-23 season. Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and Mike Scott are the team’s only unrestricted free agents this summer. Gary Clark and Rayjon Tucker are restricted free agents, but the two former undrafted prospects only combined for 81 minutes played this season.

The 76ers might try to re-sign Green, but it’s hard to imagine them investing too much energy into reaching a new deal.  Philadelphia paid Green roughly $15.365 million this season. The 34-year-old three-time champion made 40.5% of his three-point shots and started 69 games, but he’s due for a significant pay cut.

Don’t underestimate what Howard meant to Philadelphia during the regular season. The 35-year-old center played 1,196 minutes (17.3 per game) while averaging 14.5 points, 1.9 blocks, and a career-high 17.5 rebounds per 36 minutes.

Howard’s 102 defensive rating was the best among all 76ers players that played at least 200 minutes. He also hauled in about 17.8% of the available offensive rebounds while on the floor. In comparison, Embiid only corralled 8.0% of offensive rebounds that went up for grabs.

Howard only cost Philadelphia $2.564 million this season. That’s a bargain, and 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey would be a fool not to prioritize re-signing the future Hall of Fame center.

Scott made $5.005 million this season in his 51 appearances and 12 starts. The soon-to-be 33-year-old had his worst shooting season since 2016 and posted a -3.1 box plus/minus score. His time with the 76ers is at an end.

Cap Space & Free Agent Targets

Estimates put Philadelphia’s payroll for 2021 between $127 and $131.8 million. That’s a significant difference because the NBA’s luxury tax is set at $132.6 million for next season. The salary cap is at $109 million. Getting rid of George Hill’s inconvenient contract could open more space, but the 76ers don’t have much room to maneuver.

Hill’s deal is non-guaranteed for next season, and it makes all of the sense in the world for Philadelphia to dispose of the $10.047 million remaining on his contract.

“None of those determinations have been made,” Morey replied when asked about Hill’s remaining contract. “I will say that we really like what George brought. He’s the kind of guy you want on a team trying to win the championship. He’s gone very deep in the playoffs many times.”

Assuming the 76ers release Hill, they’ll have some chances to fill out the bench behind their stars. According to Spotrac, Philadelphia’s three best players make roughly $100.5 million in 2021. That’s a top-heavy roster that needs some depth, especially at forward.

Morey can’t chase any of the NBA’s top free agents this summer, but some players could catch his eye.

If Philadelphia fails to re-sign Howard, the organization could turn to a familiar face. The 76ers drafted Nerlens Noel sixth overall in 2013, but the Kentucky product only recently found his niche as a defensive specialist. Noel turned in a league-leading 3.5 defensive box plus/minus score this year while only earning five million dollars with the Knicks.

Kelly Olynyk is extremely different stylistically than Noel, but the lackluster rim protector is a good three-point shooter. Olynyk made over $12 million in 2020, but it’s unlikely he gets a deal on that level again.

Jeff Green is a much cheaper option but can still provide help from beyond the arc. Green only made $2.564 million this year. The center/forward hybrid is already approaching his 35th birthday. Signing Green to a short-term deal gives the 76ers some offensive versatility and cap flexibility in future seasons.

Serge Ibaka, who carries a $9.72 million player option for next season, is a more expensive option at forward. The 31-year-old recently underwent season-ending back surgery and only appeared in 41 games this year. When healthy, Ibaka offers defensive upside and is capable of splashing in threes.

Ibaka likely won’t opt to hit free agency this summer because of his surgery.

The 76ers could also inquire about shooting guard/small forward hybrids Reggie Bullock and Josh Hart. Hart offers defensive upside with previous success as a three-point shooter, although his touch has faltered in recent years. Bullock made 40.0% of his threes over the past six seasons. He’s a candidate to replace Green as Philadelphia’s outside scorer.

Three veteran guards with offensive upside pop out in the free agent pool. J.J. Redick has a history with the 76ers and is coming off his worst season in a decade. The 37-year-old is potentially a massive bargain.

Lou Williams also has a previous relationship with Philadelphia. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year is on the downside of his career but can inject offenses with an energy Simmons can’t match yet. Williams made eight million dollars in 2020 and is due for a pay cut.

Derrick Rose is the final veteran guard Morey could pursue. The former MVP made $7.682 million this season, but his emergence as one of the NBA’s best sixth men might necessitate a raise. The Knicks don’t want to let Rose walk out the door either.

Examining Ben Simmons

Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 76ers remain committed to Simmons and getting the young point guard back on his feet. The soon-to-be 25-year-old had an offensive meltdown in the playoffs, but he’s made three All-Star games for a reason. Philadelphia won’t kick Simmons to the curb without exhausting all possible options that involve keeping the Australian.

Rivers revealed that the 76ers plan on working with Simmons this offseason to improve his shooting touch, especially from the free throw line.

“I am positive in Ben,” Rivers told reporters. “I’m very bullish on Ben still. But there’s work. There’s work. There is. And Ben will be willing to do it. Sometimes you have to go through stuff to see it, and be honest with it.”

“He has so much greatness in all the things around him that he does, and there’s areas he can fix quickly, in my opinion, and get better, that will take him to another level. And you know, sometimes you don’t know why you’re in different places, you know what I mean? But this may be one of them, and I look at this as a great challenge but definitely a doable one.”

Rivers publicly stands by Simmons, but the developing star’s reputation as one of the NBA’s best young stars took a massive hit. With Morey claiming the 76ers “need to be a better offensive team,” keeping Simmons might not be a long-term option.

“Ben’s the type of kid, if he’s not encouraged, and he’s not pushed or forced to do it, he’s not the type to take that risk,” Danny Green recently said on his “Inside the Green Room” podcast.

“Obviously, he’s a high IQ guy. You can tell, he gets a lot of assists and pushing the pace and he gets paid to do what he does, because he’s so good at it, but he doesn’t step outside that box because he knows well enough ‘I’m good at this. I don’t need to step out. It’s not like I’m encouraged to do this, or I’m kind of afraid to do this kind to do this’ type of thing.”

Simmons hit the metaphorical wall against Atlanta. He can no longer afford to stay in his comfort zone. If he doesn’t feel “pushed” to improve his game this offseason, he’ll never take the next step as a player.

Green never doubted Simmons’ effort, but the veteran admitted his younger teammate didn’t answer the call on offense.

“He still fought, he showed up, he still played, he still worked hard, he still tried to give us his best chance for us to win with doing what he does with screening, rolling, rebounding, defending, and he did to the highest capability could,” Green said. “Just offensively he wasn’t the Ben Simmons we needed him to be at the time.”

Simmons made an All-NBA team less than 12 months ago and is perennially in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Let’s not throw him to the wolves yet.

The 76ers gave their star point guard a five-year, $177.2 million max rookie extension last July. That deal began this season.

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Trade Options

Embiid is Philadelphia’s only untouchable asset right now. Harris and Simmons have large contracts and offer significant upside. Morey also has the 28th pick in this year’s draft and first-round selections in 2022, 2023, 2024, and 2026. Most 76ers fans hope some crazy combination of players and picks will net them Damian Lillard. That’s a pipe dream.

Portland could easily ask for three first-round picks, Harris/Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, and Matisse Thybulle for Lillard. Morey wants to make a run at the future Hall of Fame point guard, but it’s a fool’s errand unless Lillard demands a trade.

Philadelphia missed out on its chance to have two top-ten players when Houston traded James Harden to Brooklyn. That opportunity to build a superstar duo won’t emerge this offseason.

Any deal beginning with Harris or Simmons is only good enough to land a second-tier player unless it includes an insane number of draft picks and depth pieces. Philadelphia has a better chance of landing Malcolm Brogdon, Kyle Lowry (sign and trade), CJ McCollum, or D’Angelo Russell than a superstar.

Even Zach LaVine isn’t on the table after Chicago went through the laborious process of pairing him with Nikola Vucevic this season.

Insane trades jeopardize the future of a decade-long “process” by shipping off picks and young players for aging stars. Meanwhile, swapping second-tier pieces doesn’t create a clear path to the NBA Finals.

For now, Philadelphia’s best plan of action is to make minor additions through the draft and free agency, bank on continued player development, and run things back next year.

That said, sign and trades for Kawhi Leonard or Chris Paul are fun to consider. They’re about as likely as the 76ers acquiring Lillard after all.

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