I Know What You Did Last Summer: The Failure Of The Sixers 2019 Offseason
What they hell were they doing?
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He has been legally banned from covering the team in person, but that ban will be lifted in March of 2020. He is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
A lot can change in a few weeks.
When last summer began, we all knew how consequential it was. On the heels of a crushing game seven loss to the eventual champion Raptors, it seemed like Elton Brand and co. had identified the formula for putting together a contending Sixers team.
And now… we’re here. The Sixers have had a season bizarre and frustrating even by their own lofty standards. The fourth seed seems like their best case scenario, their massive free agent signing is now on the bench, they couldn’t make any meaningful additions at the Trade Deadline because of their lack of assets, the locker room chemistry seems suboptimal and Brett Brown is a dead man walking.
The Sixers were close. Now, they seem far away. What happened?
Matisse Thybulle is great. He is a legitimately special defensive prospect who has been by every measure a valuable selection at 20th overall. Of any of the mid-late first round prospects in last year’s Draft, Thybulle arguably made the most sense within the context of this roster. He will help the Sixers for many years to come.
With that being said, the Sixers’ performance in the 2019 Draft was brutal. I won’t even get into specific moves they should or should not have made. But from a pure process standpoint, think about it this way: coming off a series loss in which they failed to find three (3!) playable reserves, about to become a perennial luxury tax team in need of cheap contributors, and owning three picks in the top 35 of a deep draft, the Sixers came away with… one guy. They used picks #24 and #33 to get the 20th pick from Boston to take Thybulle, with Danny Ainge taking advantage of poor secret-keeping on the part of the Sixers, whose love for Thybulle was known across the league. They traded the 34th pick to Atlanta, and gave up the 42nd pick to shed the Jonathon Simmons contract -- just a $1 million cap hit.
In a vacuum, this was not a total failure. Again, Thybulle is the right prospect for this team. The Sixers got more value out of the trade with Boston. But you can say that most mistakes made by this front office over the last handful of years are not total failures. None in isolation seem like an extinction-level decision. But eventually this kind of trend adds up, and we saw the results a few weeks ago. With Thybulle considered untouchable in trade talks, the Sixers couldn’t attract any teams with major difference-makers because they just don’t have the assets anymore. The Sixers’ repeated negligence in the second round of recent drafts, especially in 2019, is one example of them cutting corners and paying the price for it later on.
Free Agency: The little stuff
Before we get to the decisions made on Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, JJ Redick and Al Horford, let’s tackle the more minor transactions.
The Sixers used their $4.7 million mid-level exception to bring back Mike Scott on a two-year, fully-guaranteed deal worth nearly $10 million. While I maintain that there is still a useful contributor somewhere in there, it hasn’t shown itself for most of the season. After knocking down over 40 percent of his three-point tries last season, Scott is just making 34 percent of his threes this year. Scott is a unitasker -- he simply must shoot the ball better if he wants to be back in this rotation. At this point, the smart money is on Scott either being salary-dumped over the summer to create some financial wiggle room or used as salary filler in a trade next season. I love Scott, and I think we all do, but he has not lived up to this deal whatsoever.
The other bench revelation from last season, James Ennis III, was also brought back on a one-year deal. Ennis ended up falling out of the rotation and being dealt to Orlando, but it’s hard to blame the Sixers at all here. Ennis was helpful last season, specifically against Toronto, and wanted to come back to compete for a championship. Yes, it’s fair to say this signing didn’t work out, but there was no real opportunity cost.
The Sixers needed to sign five players on minimum or rookie salaries to fill out the back-end of the roster. They came away with Raul Neto and Trey Burke to compete for the backup point guard job, Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz on multi-year deals to continue their development, and Kyle O’Quinn to help stabilize the team’s depth at center.
The Burke and O’Quinn signings were misses despite seeming reasonable in theory, but this is the case with most minimum contracts. When you have to sign a slew of them like this, you just hope for a few that work out.
Boy oh boy did the Korkmaz signing work out. Furkan has become an integral part of the rotation. He’s shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc on five attempts per game, and becoming more and more capable within other parts of the game. Not only has he been a positive contributor to this year’s team, but because the Sixers signed him to a two-year deal, he can also be one on next year’s team. This is about as good as it gets realistically when you sign minimum contracts, and makes the entire venture a success. In all seriousness, this signing was probably the most value the Sixers have found in a single transaction since… the Landry Shamet pick, maybe?
Free agency: The big stuff
For the sake of bookkeeping… the Sixers re-signed Tobias Harris on a five-year deal with $180 million, let JJ Redick walk, acquired Josh Richardson in a sign-and-trade when Jimmy Butler decided to go to Miami, and then gave Al Horford a four-year deal worth $109 million.
I won’t relitigate the entire Butler debate (we all have gone through that more than enough), and I won’t go on about the value Redick held within this team’s offensive structure. I will say that there were legitimate reasons to have concerns about those two, and I don’t blame the Sixers for having second thoughts when the entire fanbase wanted to run it back.
But here’s where I am completely perplexed by what the Sixers did: we talk a lot about the fit of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and how it isn’t ideal. And it isn’t. But those two players need similar complementary pieces around them -- most notably a reliable playmaker and quality shot-makers who can help space the floor. With the entire world knowing that they needed shooting and ball-handling, the Sixers replaced Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick with Al Horford. I didn’t think the Horford deal would go this poorly this quickly. But it is not some sort of newfound revelation that grouping your primary initiator who doesn’t shoot jumpers and superstar big-man who leads the league in post up possessions with another center is a bad idea. This was brutal roster construction, through and through.
Since we’re talking about the Sixers, it’s only fitting to end on a brutally painful note. So I will leave you with this list of just a small handful of players who the Sixers could have in theory used their cap space on this summer instead of Horford.
Bojan Bogdanovic (four years, $73 million)
Patrick Beverley (three years, $40 million)
Tomas Satoransky (three years, $30 million)
George Hill (three years, $28 million)
JJ Redick (two years, $26.5 million)
Marcus Morris (one year, $15 million)
The summer of 2019: not great.