Unterberger: Sixers Offseason Officially A Dud, Commence The #NoNewFriends Era
Was the Sixers offseason a dud?
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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Well, there goes the last "Yeah, but if..." of the summer.
San Antonio Spurs star forward Kawhi Leonard has been traded to the Toronto Raptors, in return for All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man prospect Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 pick. With Leonard off the market, the Sixers' last chance for a late-inning offseason home run is essentially off the table. Many Process Trusters had held out hope that an underwhelming Sixers offseason would be flipped by a late-game Leonard deal, but now that’s evaporated -- as has any talk of potentially settling for a DeRozan deal, or one for his former teammate Kyle Lowry, who’s now likely off the market as the Raps try to make another run at the East. There may be small moves still to be had, but the Leonard deal essentially closes the books on the big ones: This is your team, Sixers fans, and it will open the 2017-’18 season with the same number of All-Stars it closed the last one with. (Though at least, the protections placed on the pick swapped in the Spurs-Raps deal made for a very lovely tribute to INPWCATSR -- appreciate the acknowledgment as always, fellas.)
And now, we take a look at the SIxers' offseason and ask: If we didn't hit a home run, what exactly did we do? Did we straight up strike out? I'd tend to say: Yes, but only after a very patient at bat where we bled the pitch count, fouled off a bunch of pitches and eventually went down swinging. (Sorry, it's officially Phillies season now.)
Fact is, we can look at what the Spurs ultimately ended up trading Kawhi for and determine that the Sixers probably never really had a chance at landing him in the first place. Rather than look for picks and prospects to build for the future, or for modern complementary players to maximize their current core, San Antonio apparently coveted another All-Star to really build around in DeRozan. The intent there isn't hard to deduce; head coach and lead decision-maker Gregg Popovich isn't gonna be staying around forever, and for his last couple years on the bench he'd rather wrangle the last few seasons of true competitiveness out of his current roster than build a bridge to the next generation. It's not particularly noble, but it's understandable.
If what the Spurs wanted was a perennial All-Star to help them stay frisky in the West, the Sixers didn't really have one of those to spare. They have two future perennial All-Stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but it'd be legally actionable for them to actually trade one of those potential MVP candidates, both with at least a half-decade of prospective team control to go, for anyone who might leave after one season and might not be totally right in the interim. It's possible Markelle Fultz even Dario Saric could get there someday, but probably not next season, and that's what the Spurs appear focused on at the moment. Robert Covington is a great supporting player in such a deal, but not the centerpiece. It just wasn't going to happen.
And you could say that about the other big fish the Sixers were casting lines for this summer as well. LeBron James went to Los Angeles because he cares about his life beyond basketball. Paul George stayed in Oklahoma City because he enjoyed his season with the OKC team and culture and wanted to build on what he had already started. There was no case Philly's mannequin-not-yet-come-to-life GM could've made to either guy for signing in Philly, because what we were selling isn't what these dudes were looking to buy.
If there is an offseason acquisition that wasn't that might be worth hitting with the skeptical thinking face emoji, it'd be whatever the hell is going on with Nemanja Bjelica. The former Minnesota Timberwolf was reportedly signing with the Sixers for the room exception a couple weeks ago, essentially completing the team's free agency shopping and giving them a stretchy forward to help mitigate the losses of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Then this week, Bjelica pulled out of the deal, with claims that his heart remained in Europe -- only to reverse course the next day and now be possibly signing with old Process hero Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings. It's a perplexing series of events that makes it worth asking if it's not him, it's us.
So misses aside, what exactly have the Sixers accomplished this summer? We traded back at the draft for a longer-term prospect and a 2021 draft pick (which might not actually be as valuable as we hoped, if recent reports about the draft's age limit reduction getting pushed to 2022). We traded for Wilson Chandler, his expensive final season under contract, and some marginal draft assets. We re-signed J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson to short, team-friendly deals. Nothing self-destructive, necessarily, but not much to make the eventual 30 for 30 either.
That's not a huge problem, necessarily. Some of us here at INPWCATSR have been advocating for more or less exactly this -- for the Sixers to essentially sit on their hands this summer, give Joel and Ben their first season together after a (pleeeeeaaase) totally healthy and full offseason, see about some of the young guys we don't really even know well yet, and just kinda let this thing grow naturally. The Bjelica backtrack almost seems like an organic course-correction along these lines: Maybe he was just rejected by the Sixers' vital organs because at heart he didn't really belong in the team's bloodstream. Perhaps the same will happen with Chandler. The #NoNewFriends era of Sixers basketball has officially begun.
What's more, they have at least one more summer and as many as two more trade deadlines to get through before this really becomes anything of a serious problem, when extensions for Ben Simmons and Dario Saric kick in and take the Sixers out of financial flexibility. The Ballers are on schedule to have a staggering $42 million in cap room next season, enough to add a max star and still stay limber, and in addition to the number of players that will become free agents next summer (Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, even Kawhi again), there's no telling the number of high-level players who will become disenchanted with their current situation and start looking for new teams to jump to. Star Hunting season isn't over just yet.
Still, if you want to give the gas face to this overall offseason, that's fair. The Sixers went in betting big and are leaving with almost exactly the same chips they entered with. Toronto brought on Kawhi, Boston gets back Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, all we really get to (hopefully) add on is some better health and experience. That's a bummer, and Sixers fans may have to adjust their expectations for the team's performance in the East next summer accordingly. But you can't lose what you don't put in the middle, and the Sixers will get several other chances to go full Mike McDermott when the time is right. In the meantime, fuck a fake friend, where our real friends at?