The Sixers and a Summer Full of Questions

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“Those two players have the chance to be great,” Brett Brown said after the Sixers took a 3-1 lead on the road in Miami. “And they. Are. Ours.” 

That moment captured the spirit of the Sixers run better than anything. Brown was talking about Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, of course. And it was all there. There was the shared ownership that Sixers fans felt as four years of rebuilding became a real basketball team. There was Brown delivering the news in his thick accent and making sure it was impossible to root against any of this. And there was a basic observation about the future of Embiid and Simmons that was becoming increasingly undeniable as Philly win 20 of its 21 final games. Of course they had a chance to be great. At the end of the first round, Simmons fast breaks were running a good Heat team into the ground. Embiid was playing Hassan Whiteside outside of the league and towering everyone on defense. Greatness was beginning to look like a foregone conclusion.

The Celtics provided a reality check. Over the past 10 days Boston was faster, smarter, better, and every bit as young as Philadelphia. And if any of the above paragraph looks absurd in light of what just happened in the second round, just know that most every basketball fan on earth bought into the Sixers along the way. If nothing else, the collective willingness to suspend disbelief is a testament to just how great the Sixers were when they were good.

In any case, the Sixers adventures are now over. I’ll leave the specific autopsies of the Celtics series to others. I’m more interested in the summer. There are superstars on the market and Philadelphia has cap room. Brett Brown is likely due for a contract extension, while the team will have to decide whether it can afford to keep rented role players like J.J. Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli. There’s also a late lottery pick in the mix, and Kawhi Leonard may be available. 

So, there’s a lot in play. The next three months in Philadelphia could define the next five years of the Sixers. Here are three of the biggest questions as we move forward.

What will the Sixers do with Markelle Fultz?

The Fultz trade has never looked worse than it did for the past two weeks—good lord, Jayson Tatum—but the gamble made sense in theory. Fultz provided an additional ball-handler who could break down a defense and his perimeter shooting made him a perfect fit next to Simmons. There have been plenty of revisionists who’ve stepped forward to point out that Sam Hinkie never would’ve made that trade, but you could just as easily point out that Bryan Colangelo never would’ve drafted Jahlil Okafor onto a team that already had Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Every GM makes mistakes, and betting on Fultz, who was considered as close to a sure thing as anyone in the draft, was perfectly reasonable.

But obviously, it hasn’t worked out so far. The Fultz fit in Philly was predicated on his perimeter shooting, and that element of his game has flat-out disappeared. It’s one of the strangest NBA stories of the past 10 years, but for the Sixers, it also presents a real conundrum this summer. How much do they trust Fultz to rediscover everything that made him the number one pick? I’m not in Sixers practices and no one on the outside has as much information as Bryan Colangelo and Brett Brown do. They will have to make the call here, and they’ll have to do it sooner rather than later.

The rest of the Sixers have shown they are talented enough to begin contending very soon, but against Boston they also looked awful thin, particularly in the areas where Fultz was supposed to help. This team needs two-way players and they need a guard who can break the defense down and hit shots next to Simmons. They need exactly the player that Markelle Fultz was supposed to be—this is why the trade is reasonable even in hindsight. But if the Sixers don’t think he can get there, Fultz’s trade value is only going to diminish the longer they go without him looking like a credible NBA starter.

What are the superstar possibilities?

No matter how great the Sixers looked at their peak, it’s still pretty difficult to imagine LeBron James actually signing in Philadelphia for the final chapter of his career. He would be an awkward fit next to Ben Simmons, obviously, but it’s also just a strange partnership culturally, with a bunch of unknowns for both sides. I hope it doesn’t happen. But whether it’s LeBron or someone else, the Sixers have the cap space to chase everyone this summer.

Paul George would be a dream fit next to Simmons and Embiid. His shooting would pair perfectly next to both of them on offense, and coupling his skills with Robert Covington could give Philly the scariest perimeter defense on earth. It could be ideal for George, too, to spend the second half of his prime as a rich man’s Andre Iguodala rather than trying to be a poor man’s Kobe in Los Angeles. But landing George—stealing him from the Lakers, the Thunder, or some yet-to-be-determined power play with LeBron—will require some elite recruiting skills from Colangelo. His relationships within the NBA are one reason he was brought into to replace Hinkie. Now he’ll have an opportunity to prove that his value there is real.

And then there’s Kawhi Leonard. It’s impossible to know where that situation will go in San Antonio, but if he’s available, the Sixers will definitely be in the mix. Fultz, Covington, and Dario Saric are all reasonably attractive trade assets. There’s also a draft pick at the bottom of the lottery. And if he’s healthy, Leonard would be an even better fit than George. Or, he could also play next to George in the wildest version of the Process timeline. In any case, Kawhi is another situation to monitor for the next three months, and navigating these waters will be the biggest test Colangelo’s management team has had since coming to Philadelphia.

If they can’t find a third superstar, how do they build the team from here?

The Sixers have been very careful about remaining flexible through the past few years, but eventually they will have to commit to some long-term pieces. This year proved that Simmons is best when he’s surrounded by elite shooters—J.J. Redick was perfect—but those players are expensive. It’ll be difficult to build out the rotation with successful one-year rentals year after year. 

Redick will likely seek a long-term deal this summer, and that leaves Philly in a tricky spot. If they keep him, it could limit their ability to add meaningful help in the next few years. If they let Redick walk and can’t replace him with someone like George or Leonard, or some other knockdown shooter, it makes their second star (Simmons) less valuable. Meanwhile, if the Sixers don’t make any long-term commitments soon—to Redick, George, or anyone else—eventually they will owe big money extensions to players like Saric and Simmons. The window that’s open this summer won’t be open forever. 

Embiid and Simmons are not easy pieces to build around. Embiid’s size and lack of speed makes him a potential defensively liability against elite teams that can go five-out on offense—Houston, Boston, Golden State—while Simmons just spent the past five games getting contained in transition and exposed on offense in the halfcourt. Both of them will improve as they address their weaknesses, but there are certain limitations that will be there regardless. They’ll need the right pieces around them to thrive.  

The Celtics series may have been a failure of the stars in Philly, but it was a failure of everyone else, too. The rented role players were inconsistent. The homegrown supporting cast mostly struggled outside of T.J. McConnell and the final two games of Saric. Brett Brown couldn’t solve the problems that Boston was presenting with each passing game.

If the entire month of the April underscored how terrifying the potential of the Sixers can be, the first two weeks of May were a reminder that Embiid and Simmons need help to make that future a reality. Maybe that help is a revitalized Markelle Fultz. Or Paul George, or Kawhi Leonard. Or LeBron. Or maybe, eventually, it’ll be a new coach. The only thing that’s certain is that the Sixers are talented enough to make everyone pay attention to the next steps, and complicated enough to make obvious answers elusive.

There is, of course, tremendous irony to the way this is all unfolding. Among mainstream NBA fans and even throughout Philadelphia, on some level, this Embiid/Simmons era will always be a referendum on the general manager who built the foundation and began this process in 2014. But it’s becoming clear that the ultimate success or failure of the next four or five years will depend on whether his successor can devise blueprints of his own. 

“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Embiid said from the podium after Wednesday night’s loss. “Sam Hinkie did an amazing job. Looking at everything we got, he was a big part of it.” Now we’ll see if Byran Colangelo can do his part, too.

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