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It's still kind of weird, isn't it? Some of the best players in the NBA may be switching teams this summer, and the Philadelphia 76ers are mentioned in connection with basically every single one of them. And not just by pipe-dreaming fans still wondering why we didn't get into the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes seven years ago: Even the NBA's wisest eggheads agree that the Sixers are among the top contenders to land the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George through free agency or trade this offseason.
For a team that's only had the assets, cap space, marketability and projectable potential to land already-busted veterans like Elton Brand and Andrew Bynum over the past decade, it's pretty wild to actually be in play for the NBA's most legit prizes. (Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are also technically out there, but are mostly assumed to be returning to their current teams.) But as fun as it is, it's far from a guarantee that it's actually gonna end with us actually getting one of these guys. The Sixers may be in the mix for all of them, but they're not necessarily favorites for any of them. It's entirely possible, maybe even likely, that we end up with none of them. And faced with that possibility, I gotta say... cool.
It's exceedingly difficult to process the closing stretch of the Sixers' 2017-'18 season. They went from being a fun young team starting to turn the corner, to a legitimate contender for the NBA finals, to an underachieving disappointment -- all in less than two months' time, thanks to a stunning 16-game winning streak to end the regular season, and the ensuing whiplash of a five-game second-round loss to the undermanned Boston Celtics. That eight-week span so jumbled our perception of the Sixers' timeline that it's pretty hard to see where the team is actually at going into this summer.
And where is that? Well, ahead of schedule, certainly -- you could've sold Brett Brown a bridge before you sold him 52 wins and the second round before last season -- but maybe not that far ahead. The Sixers are a very loaded team with much still on their side: youth, upside, trade assets, cap space, and (one very public and very strange scandal excepted) organizational stability. But are they in a spot where they should be compelled to do what it takes this summer to plausibly compete for a title next season? For the Eastern Conference? I don't see either as a must.
Which is not to suggest, by any means, that the Sixers would be somehow remiss or negligent in pursuing these guys as expected. It's just to say that the Sixers have a pretty good thing going right now already: Two star players under 25 who project to be top 15 guys in the league next year, a three-and-D glue guy signed on a reasonable deal through essentially the remainder of his prime, an extremely heady and versatile forward with two years left on his rookie deal, and a former No. 1 overall pick who's a rediscovered jumper away from being the missing piece to practically all of it. And then there's the goodies Brett Brown picked up at the draft: a long-term two way wing prospect as exciting as nearly anyone in the draft, and an unprotected 2021 first that's as valuable as any pick that's changed hands in the league since... well, the one the Sixers themselves gave up last summer.
Is that player-and-asset core guaranteed to one day congeal into a perennial contender? Absolutely not: There are concerns of fit, of health, of unrealized potential, all of which are very real. But one thing they don't really need to be overly concerned about is time. Their valuable assets will stay valuable in the years to come -- and while injury risks, pay raises and general Sixers Weirdness may end up biting into that, it's also entirely possible that further blossoming will make players like Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith more valuable in future summers than they are currently as relatively unknown quantities. You're never on totally secure long-term footing in the NBA, but the Sixers right now are about as close as a team can reasonably hope to get.
And I still kinda wanna see how it pans out with these dudes. Adding Paul George to the mix would be exciting, and obviously LeBron is LeBron, but I'm worried about what happens if George stays in OKC and LeBron decides to go to the Lakers. Then do we end up desperately outbidding the Lakers for Kawhi Leonard? Reports have (or at least suggest) the Sixers surrendering most, if not all, of their non-Simmons/Embiid assets for Leonard: Fultz, Smith, the 2021 Miami pick, Robert Covinton and Dario Saric. That's basically the team's entire safety net for the future, for just one player.
And if that player is 2016-'17 Kawhi Leonard, and we get him for the next five years? Eminently justifiable. Of all the items in the aforementioned Sixers bag of tradeable goodies, one thing not included is a proven MVP-caliber star, as Leonard is at full-strength. A team with him, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as a core should be able to compete with anyone healthy, and is worth nearly whatever the price tag ends up being.
But there's the hitch, or at least half of it: Leonard played just nine games last year. After a quad injury kept him out for much of the season, squabbles over his recovery and timetable for return led to him ultimately being ruled out for the season's remainder, and may have permanently soured his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs. It's possible Kawhi's late-season absence was more about lost trust and protection of personal interests than any chronic ailments, but the Sixers won't be able to know for sure until he takes the floor next season.
Compounding the concerns there is that next season might be all they'd be able to get with Kawhi. The two-way star appears to be attempting to leverage having just one year left on his currently contract into the Spurs having no choice but to trade him to his current team of choice, the Los Angeles Lakers: Trade for Leonard, and you'll only get him for a year before he heads to L.A. anyway, his people seem to be putting out in the world.
That could very well be empty bluster, and a year playing with two young, complementary, spotlight-splitting stars for a coach players love (and who he has a pre-existing relationship with already) might change his mind anyway. But to trade up to four or five high-level assets for a player who says he's gonna leave first chance he gets, simply in the hopes that he's bluffing -- and whose health might already be compromised anyway -- gotta say, it just doesn't seem like the kind of risk that smart teams take.
Now, as Godner and other NBA sages would undoubtedly point out, there's risk in letting an opportunity to land a player like Leonard slip away. Dudes like him don't come on the open market terribly often, and to pass on dealing for him now might ultimately be losing the only chance to add a player of his fit and caliber to an Embiid/Simmons core that we get in the next three-to-five years. And the counter-example here would be Oklahoma City's trade for Paul George last summer with just a year remaining on his deal, in the hopes that a season in OKC would ultimately persuade him to sign longterm: a gambit still without resolution thusfar, but with George clearly wanting to explore his options.
A couple things to remember there, however. First, players like Kawhi don't become available often, true, but at least one should next summer as well: Kawhi, again. Assuming he doesn't sign an extension with the Spurs (a possibility looking more remote by the day), he'll be an unrestricted free agent a year from now, and the Sixers can in theory attempt to pitch him then at no cost. Fellow UFA Klay Thompson could also become a target that offseason, or whatever other disgruntled star wants to force his way from his current team -- an increasingly common occurrence in this star-driven league.
And the Thunder/George situation isn't necessarily comparable, since the Pacers dealt him for just two assets, both of which the Thunder viewed as relatively fungible: most notably Victor Oladipo, who'd appeared overpaid and largely incompatible in a backcourt alongside franchise star Russell Westbrook. (Both he and center Domantas Sabonis proved far more valuable than expected in Indiana, but for fit reasons, OKC would probably still rather have George.) Most importantly, though: The Thunder basically had to take a swing at George. Without another star, their team appeared all but stuck, fated to another 40-something-win season of Westbrook & Friends ending in a first-round exit, without any other obvious paths to notable improvement in front of them. (Of course, with George in tow their season still basically went the exact same way, but at least there seems to be a higher ceiling on the team there now.)
In any event, that's not where the Sixers are currently: They don't have to do anything. They can try to land a big fish in free agency or trade. They can bide their time for a better-fitting, more-available star to come on the open market in years to come. Or they can focus on developing the formidable core they already have, and use their cap space to fill in the margins around them. None of those paths is guaranteed to be the right one, but none of them are particularly undesirable, either.
This is probably a lot of focus to place on the possibility of a Kawhi Leonard trade when it would probably only be the Sixers' third-most preferred outcome this summer. But it does seem to be the most likely one at the moment: LeBron and George seem largely motivated by factors beyond basketball fit and potential, while the latter is really the best thing the Sixers have to offer them. (Kawhi does too, but the choice isn't entirely his to make yet.) And if we try our damnedest to land Kawhi and the Spurs either hold onto him, grant him his Lakers wish or (lord forbid) deal him to Boston instead? What then? Do we double down on the next-best trade target or free agent, just so we don't have to face the humiliation of going to bat for the three best players currently available and coming away completely empty-handed? Does this end with us overextending ourselves to sign DeMarcus Cousins, or trading a Kawhi-like package to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan?
Again, there's nothing wrong with the Sixers going star hunting, as Brett Brown promised to on draft night. If they believe they can get LeBron James or Paul George to sign on the line that is dotted, it absolutely makes sense for them to go after them as hard as possible this summer. And if they can get Kawhi Leonard for a price in keeping with both his elite talent and the fact that he's an injury risk with just a single year remaining on his contract, they should certainly pull the trigger on that too. Hell, they could zero in on a restricted free agent they think fits an on-court need -- do-everything Magic forward Aaron Gordon, perhaps, or bruising Lakers big Julius Randle -- and tender them an offer sheet that gets their current team thinking long and hard about whether or not to match. Those are all great options.
My only point is that they're not the only options -- not even the only good options. Going into next year with a core of Embiid, Simmons, Saric, Covington and Fultz, supported by McConnell, Smith, a shooter (Redick again?) and our current bench phalanx of unproven late first-rounders -- that's a good option. Maybe not good enough for the Sixers to contend for a championship next season, maybe not even good enough for them to keep pace with Boston, but one that keeps the door wide open for us to do so in a year or two's time, or whenever the team is ready.
And speaking of the Celtics: Remember that the C's themselves balked on any number of rumored trades for star-type players (including George himself) before signing Gordon Hayward in free agency last summer, then finding a deal they liked for Kyrie Irving shortly after that didn't cost them any of their young high-upside players. Now, they have a trio of established All-Stars in Hayward, Irving and Al Horford, as well as a trio of blue-chippers coming up behind them in Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, and they're set to basically contend forever. That's not a team outpaced by taking shortcuts, and the Sixers would be wise to extend their view to as long and wide as possible -- as our venerated coach/GM did with the Mikal Bridges trade on draft night -- to keep from getting totally lapped by them.
This offseason could be a pivotal one for the Sixers, but summer is never the season to rush anything. If Brett Brown & Co. survey the situation and decide the best move is to not even bother getting off the hammock, Sixers fans should be prepared to accept that as a reasonable outcome. Can't say Brett wouldn't have earned himself the lazy summer, certainly.