Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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The toughest part of watching your team grow up from rebuilders to contenders is also the toughest thing about aging in general -- the older you get, the fewer options you start to have. When you’re young, anything is possible: You can do anything, go anywhere, be anyone you want to be. But as you move into adulthood, that flexibility starts to slowly slip away, as life locks you into professions, relationships, living situations, personas, commitments. Eventually, one morning you wake up and realize that your life sorta is what it is. Hopefully by then it’s a pretty good life, and you’re happy to largely be stuck with it -- but if it’s not as good as you hoped, you might kinda be in trouble, since you’re not getting a totally new one anytime soon.
The Philadelphia 76ers are a pretty good team, no doubt. As we’re pretty much reminded every second of every day at this point, they came one quintuple-doink away from very likely beating the team that is currently two wins away from securing the NBA Finals -- and they might be getting better, given how much room to grow their twin franchise pillars still have. Generally speaking, it’s a very, very good place to be in as an NBA franchise.
But gone are the days when it was Joel and Ben and a bunch of other Process buds and all the time in the world to build a winner around them. Last June, we could still fantasize about taking it slow and smart, or hitting a home run in free agency, or dealing for a superstar like oh I don’t know Kawhi Leonard. But after a dissatisfying summer and slow start to the regular season, we decided to grow up real fast, with megatrades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and now three years into the team not being total garbage, we’re already in the NBA’s version of middle age. It’s time to make some tough decisions, and potentially live with the consequences forever.
And if there’s one thing I’ve realized the more I’ve grappled with the big questions of this Sixers summer, it’s that we might not be giving these decisions credit for just how tough they are. Some folks are preaching that Run It Back should be a foregone conclusion, while others posit that signing Butler and/or Harris to a max deal would be franchise ruination. But as Spike and Mike have begun to dig into on the podcast, there’s a lot about going both directions this summer -- or one that sorta splits the difference between them -- that leads to undesirable outcomes. This is a “Should I uproot my life and take that well-paying job across the country?” kind of summer: Even the “right”-est decision will end up leaving us with some degree of regret.
On the one hand, it should be obvious to re-sign Butler and Harris to max contracts, and lock in the supporting cast to smaller deals. The team showed in the playoffs that it was good enough to hang with the best teams with its current core, the starting five demonstrated that they could be the league’s best, and Mike Scott and James Ennis III proved they were reliable in the biggest games. Plus as good as the team was in the postseason, they had only had a couple months’ worth of games -- many of which were interrupted by injuries to key players -- to build chemistry together. As good as the Sixers are, they’re not terribly likely to attract other marquee free agents who don’t already have one foot through the door. Viewed that way, it would be management malpractice to not give them a chance to build on what they started, and see just how good this team can be with 82 games to grow together before next playoffs.
On the other hand, it seems fairly unlikely that both Butler and Harris will be worth their max contracts for the duration of their deals. Butler proved in the playoffs that he’s currently a max-caliber player, but such a deal would also pay him over $40 million in his year 34 season, and we might not much enjoy what a Jimmy Butler whose body can no longer do what his mind tells it to do looks like. (If his body even makes it there in the first place.) Harris is younger, but he simply hasn’t shown max-player capabilities for this team: He has to get notably better over the course of his deal to be worth anywhere near the $190 million we may end up paying him. And because Harris would be overpaid right away and Butler would be overpaid on the back-end, neither contract would be all that easily traded once signed. Viewed that way, it seems just as irresponsible to pay them as to let them walk.
Halfway it by signing one and letting the other walk, and try to make up the difference by spreading the wealth over a couple free agency signings for depth? It’s an option, but one that doesn’t come without its own considerable risk: The Sixers largely struck out in free agency last summer, and they don’t have the same level of trade assets at their disposable to potentially make up for doing so again mid-season. More teams have high-level cap space and money than there are elite players to spend it on, which means that even role players may end up getting hugely overpaid. Redistributing one massively bloated contract over three deals of smaller-scale bloat isn’t necessarily all that prudent. There isn’t a safe strategy for the Sixers to take this summer.
And at the risk of being repetitive and annoying: This is why you don’t cash in your remaining trade chips for ⅓ of a season and one playoff run’s worth of Tobias Harris. Don’t deal for him and maybe you can still sign him in the summer for a lesser max anyway -- and if not, you can pursue other free-agency possibilities, while knowing you have those assets in the arsenal as a backup to put together a package for an actual max-caliber player should they become available. (Or just hold onto them, let Shamet grow into Redick’s successor, and use the picks to develop starters to grow into role-player replacements when our incumbents become too old/difficult/expensive.) Maybe you’re not as competitive last playoffs or this season as you would be with Harris -- though maybe you are -- but regardless, you still have time, and you still have some pretty solid options.
But now, the Sixers are locked into a now-or-never scenario where they’ve put incredible pressure on themselves to re-sign two guys who can’t be expected to be worth all the money they’d have to give them, lest they lose them for nothing after spending a small fortune’s worth of players and picks to get them in the building. You can’t throw good money after bad just to save face -- that’s probably what led to the urgency behind the Harris deal in the first place, after Butler was looking to be on shaky midseason ground -- but you also can’t just sit out the summer and shrug off building a contender around Embiid and Simmons as they near their prime years. Every option available has a considerable amount of bad to it. And pretty soon, they won’t have many remaining options at all: They’ll wake up one morning and realize their team is what it is. We just better hope they like what they see in the mirror at that point.