The Sixers Control Their Own Destiny This Offseason, It's Up to Ownership to Make It Happen
They said they’d pay up. It’s time to pay up.
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This is the worst time of year for the NBA. The draft is over and free agency is just an elbow jumper away, leading us to a week of desperation for news updates about action that isn’t actually happening before the end of June actually gets here. It’s a time for misinformation, for misdirection, for reading too much into everything and believing narratives put forth by well-meaning reporters essentially being played like shadow puppets. It’s helpless and it’s hopeless. It’s us at our absolute weakest.
Into this fray jumps Adrian Wojanrowksi and Zach Lowe, who reported yesterday that the Rockets are scrambling to execute a sign-and-trade for one Jimothy Butler, incoming free agent. Sixers Twitter has been so tightly wound this summer that Kevin Durant flapping his wings in the Bay Area has caused tremors all the way over here, so naturally when Woj drops a bomb like this about a player we’re actually involved with, it’s a nuclear meltdown. Jimmy is already gone. Tobias is next. We might be in full teardown mode by the end of Fourth of July weekend.
But I’m not convinced any of this Houston stuff matters. I’m not convinced that anything being reported these last few weeks -- Tobias flirting with the Nets, Jimmy being teamed with Kawhi somewhere, the Sixers’ “strange dynamics” leading to them possibly losing one or both guys -- actually matters. The situation between the Sixers and their two marquee free agents is really a fairly simple one, and one that the team is essentially in control of. If they offer Jimmy and Tobias max deals, they will take them. And if they don’t, things will get very messy very quickly.
While the Sixers have shown little aptitude of late to get the edge in any deals they’ve been involved with, they are in the position this summer -- for better or worse -- to have most of the details taken out of their hands. There is a maximum amount and number of years that they can offer to Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and they are the only team who can offer that much. Butler and Harris may or may not deserve that much money over that long a timespan, but that’s almost besides the point by now. The Sixers can give it if they want, and Butler and Harris will have very little reason to turn it down. Elton & Co. can either press the button on running it back or not. And whether or not they do it will almost certainly come down to whether ownership makes good on their longstanding promises, after years of funding at team closer to the salary floor than the cap, to actually foot the bill when the time comes.
Here, really, is what the entire offseason boils down to: The Sixers have the capacity to spend enough to keep Tobias and Jimmy -- and probably even J.J. and Mike Scott too -- in Philly for the foreseeable future. But do they have the willingness? Ownership reportedly signed off on the Butler and Harris trades with the commitment to keep them around long-term, and Josh Harris has long sworn that he and his buds would be willing to pay the luxury tax when the time comes. Well, now it’s time for them to put their money where their artificially whitened teeth is, and sign on the lines that are dotted. This ownership group has lied, meddled and actively hamstrung the Sixers at countless bends across the Process era, but they’ve always promised they’d come through with the duckets when called upon to do so. Finally, six years in, the time is now to prove they’re at least good for that much.
But what about all this Houston smoke? Well, as many intrepid Sixers spotters have pointed out, there’s one key thing missing in Houston’s grand design to ensnare Jimmy Butler via sign-and-trade: any reason (or expressed desire) for either the Sixers or Butler himself to help make it happen. Jimmy has never said he’s wanted to Houston, nor should he have any reason to: Yes, their team is a contender in the West right now with Golden State hobbled, but Houston themselves would have to gut their team beyond James Harden and Chris Paul. Even if you put stock in the “strange dynamics” reports with Philly, there’s hardly a paucity of that in Houston, where none of the coach, GM or ownership group seem to be on the same page and their two star players might hate each other.
Would GM Daryl Morey commit to moving assets just to clear space for a guy he wasn’t sure was coming? Yes -- he’s done it before with Chris Bosh in 2014, and the guy stayed home anyway. Butler is from the Houston area, true, but when he was demanding a trade from Minnesota last year and the Rockets were desperately packaging picks to land him, they weren’t even one of the three teams on his reported wishlist. (Bosh was from Texas too, for the record.) We have no reason to assume playing at home is something he even particularly wants.
What we know with reasonable certainty that Jimmy Butler wants, however, is the thing we are uniquely equipped to offer him. The main reason he fell out with Minnesota in the first place was over money -- he wanted a (relatively impractical) contract renegotiation and extension, and was peeved that his younger and (arguably) underachieving teammates were taken care of first. Whether it’s about the actual money or merely what it represents, Jimmy has shown that he wants all of it, and in a timely fashion. And the Sixers are the only team he can get that with: Even a sign-and-trade would not permit a five-year deal for Butler, as Bryan Toporek broke down for Forbes yesterday. In Philly, he can play for a winner, he can occupy the on-court role he’s best suited for, and he can get paid in full. Until we actually see him seriously looking elsewhere, there’s no real reason to think he’ll seriously look elsewhere.
As for Tobias -- I guess it’s physically possible that a guy who’s made under $60 million combined across his first two contracts and never made an All-Star team could turn down five years, $190 million, but color me skeptical that he’d be the first. Making comparable money over fewer years somewhere like Brooklyn or L.A. may hold some appeal, but this is a guy who’s already played for five teams in seven years and never for a true winner; this year was the first time he’d even won a playoff game. Is he passing on ungodly money -- more money than he could credibly argue he’s actually worth in a salary-cap vacuum -- to play for a legitimate contender so he can start over yet again? I don’t see it.
Of course, even if Butler and Harris would accept max deals, that’s not to say the Sixers would automatically offer them. But in all reality, if they want to keep them, they should. Cheap on the dollars or years and suddenly Butler and Harris have decent reason to start exploring their options, to talk themselves into bigger markets or smoother on-court fits. The money is not the only thing the Sixers have going for them as a free agency draw, but as far as Jimmy and Tobias are concerned, it’s the only thing unique to them. Other teams can offer strong culture, other teams can offer star teammates, other teams can offer winning -- and there’s a lot of other teams in the mix this season, more than there are max- or near-max-level players available to fill up their open caps. The easiest way to not be the team still standing when the music stops is to not let the music start playing in the first place.
And again, let’s be honest: Easy is good for this franchise at the moment, because complicated has not been kind to them lately. The disastrous second round of the draft was the latest and most pressing example, but the lopsided Harris trade and the ill-advised free agency veteran big man carousel from last year have also painfully illustrated just how not a strong suit working the margins has been for this front office. Every plan for this summer that isn’t Run It Back has infinitely more variables involved: Filling out the roster with Malcolm Brogdon, Danny Green and Dewayne Dedmon sounds like a fun backup option, but all three of those guys have to, y’know, actually decide to come here, and they all have their own priorities and price points and timetables, none of which might match up with Philly’s or each other’s. Kawhi is a pipe dream, even Al Horford is a long shot. Do you trust Elton Brand & Co. to figure it all out on the fly?
Even if the Sixers did have brilliant Plans B through Z at their disposal this offseason that don’t include Jimmy or Tobias, there’s a problem inherent with all of them: They’d require the team owning up to having traded away nearly all of the team’s non-Embiid/Simmons assets -- Covington, Saric, Shamet, two first-rounders and two second-rounders -- for nothing but cap space. Objectively, that shouldn’t matter: Those players and picks are gone, no matter what happens this summer. But this franchise has not exactly shown the stomach to take an obvious PR hit on deals they’d have to admit were failures -- they’d almost certainly rather double down on them. That’s why Tobias Harris in particular is the luckiest 18-a-game scorer in the world: He got traded to a team that badly needs him to stick around long enough so he can justify being traded for in the first place. He might not have another team interested in maxing him, but it doesn’t matter -- all he needs to do is present the credible whiff of another team providing him a viable alternative and the Sixers will hurt themselves to make him stay. He has all the leverage.
What do the Sixers have? Money to spend, and lots of it. Should we be confident that they will actually do so? Man, I dunno. Even the good owners are pretty tough to take at their word, and even the well-run franchises occasionally have to pinch pennies at the moneymen’s behest. You could look at the frugality on display in Elton’s maneuvering during this year’s draft in two ways -- either he’s saving every shekel because, as he implied afterwards, the team’s gonna need to use them soon enough, or he’s cutting costs because ownership generally believes that when it’s possible for them to save some money, they should do so. The latter thought would be particularly scary, because it’s that inherent belief that leads to questions like, “Well, if there’s a chance he’d only take $160 million, shouldn’t we at least try to negotiate him down to that?” And that leads to hurt feelings, wandering eyes, and ultimately heartbreaking summers.
This is not all to say that Run It Back at Maximum Expense is the perfect plan for the Sixers this summer. There’s a not-inconsiderable chance that they could return everyone and things could still go to shit fairly quickly, leaving us with an aging, overpriced roster that’s not particularly easy to reconfigure. But while it might not be the safest or even the smartest plan at our disposal, it’s by far the most achievable, and has one of the higher upsides. And regardless, it’s the one that the front office put us on the path towards when they traded for Jimmy Butler in November and then Tobias Harris in February. It’s all been leading to this: Taking the leap with a team we believe is good enough to compete for a championship, no matter the financial cost. And if ownership decides to pull the ripcord and parachute out come July 1, none of us -- not the franchise, not its players or its management, and certainly not Sixers Twitter -- may ever properly recover.