Now that Dec. 15 has passed, nearly the entire NBA is available for trade. Who should the Philadelphia 76ers target in their pursuit of a championship?
With about one-third of the NBA’s regular season in the books, it’s an appropriate time for teams to self-evaluate. Can we compete for a championship or a playoff berth? Are we close enough to contention that a move will get us there? Can we add without ruining our future?
The first question is especially difficult for contenders in 2019-20, as a wild offseason put more teams than usual on the map. The Philadelphia 76ers are in that group once again, and the front office will surely do its due diligence on the trade market.
Last season, Elton Brand’s first one as general manager, saw a huge roster overhaul. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris headlined the team’s acquisitions, and Mike Scott and James Ennis were also added via trade. If Brand and the gang have shown the league anything, it’s that they’re always on the prowl.
The front office will look for anything that makes sense. Though deeper than the last two seasons’ iterations by a longshot, this Sixers roster is nowhere close to perfect. The starting five is huge and physical, but floor spacing is scarce. Furkan Korkmaz alleviates some of those issues for now, but he might not be in the rotation come playoff time.
The players who will survive on that stage are as follows: Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Josh Richardson, James Ennis, Mike Scott, and Matisse Thybulle. Skeptics of Thybulle should recall that he’s near the top of the league in deflections while making nearly half the threes he takes.
Raul Neto and Trey Burke can somewhat hold their own against opposing point guards, but if forced to guard someone bigger, it’s probably curtains for both. Korkmaz has already been targeted this season, which will only worsen come playoff time.
Kyle O’Quinn has one of the worst Net Rating swings on the team (Sixers are 21.9 points better per 100 possessions without him), and it was assumed before the season that Horford would be the backup center spot when it mattered most anyway.
This setup also assumes Richardson can handle the point guard duties when Simmons sits or can’t run the show. It hasn’t been great so far, which leads many to think that could be a spot to upgrade at the right price.
Any addition of notable cost (i.e. more than a buyout) must be playable on that stage. The regular season is important for team chemistry, but the wins will come if they’re good enough. After all, it looks like the Milwaukee Bucks are well on its way to the top seed, rendering home-court advantage out of reach.
The price is significant for another reason as well: the need to match salaries with another team. Outside of trading one of the big four contracts (Embiid, Harris, Horford, Simmons), Richardson, Scott and Zhaire Smith are the only notable cap hits.
If a championship is the goal, giving up a second-round pick for, say, Marco Belinelli doesn’t add to the bottom line. Whoever the Sixers look to add has to be viable on both ends of the court while also not gutting the team’s already thin depth.
It’s unlikely that they’ll make any earth-shattering deals, but there are definitely players who could fill a need for Philly.
Jimmy Butler’s decision to leave this summer made things difficult, and Philly’s attempt to replace him was by getting Josh Richardson in the sign-and-trade. Throughout this season, Brett Brown has given Richardson backup point guard touches in an attempt to prepare him for the biggest stage.
The results have been poor. As the pick-and-roll ball-handler, something Richardson calls for 4.6 times a game (most on the team), he creates 0.85 points per possession (57th percentile, per NBA.com). In addition, he doesn’t draw fouls nearly as much as Butler did. Richardson has a Free Throw Rate of .192 so far, while Butler had an FTr of .407 as a Sixer (per Basketball-Reference).
Raul Neto and Trey Burke are passable for the regular season, but it’s unlikely they survive the playoff cauldron. Shake Milton was a bland point guard in Summer League and barely useful as a 2-guard right now.
Ideally, a Polymerization card is used on those three: Neto’s defense and I.Q., Burke’s scoring flair and Milton’s size would combine for exactly what the Sixers need. But that’s not realistic, and neither is Richardson getting a level-up before May.
Does a trade exist to fit this bill while staying within salary cap rules? Not really; the only guys worth trading anything for are either too pricey against the cap (Chris Paul), too costly asset-wise (Devin Booker) or already on a contender (Goran Dragic).
The only way Philly addresses its crunch-time ball handler issue is either in-house or through buyout market luck.
Assuming no Earth-shattering moves impact the backcourt, the wings aren’t going to change much either. James Ennis and Matisse Thybulle will be real contributors when it matters most; we’ll see if Korkmaz can hang like J.J. Redick used to.
Also, Al Horford’s shift to the backup center is obvious too. In marquee matchups, Horford has soaked up all the non-Embiid tick at center, and that will continue in minutes of importance. Mike Scott is a full-time power forward who shoots when asked to, and Tobias Harris splits his time between both forward spots
While the team will have its focus on May and June for the next 40-plus games, there is an impetus to focus on the present. Norvel Pelle’s emergence as the backup center will only go so far, as he is on a two-way contract which allows him only 45 days with the big league squad. Kyle O’Quinn, as mentioned before, has been a disaster.
Because of the way Simmons and Embiid are staggered, the only time O’Quinn or Pelle sees the floor is with Simmons. He needs shooters and defenders around him for those lineups to work. The type of backup big that makes sense is one that can shoot when asked to on offense while holding his ground on defense.
Can such a big be acquired for cheap? It’s wishful thinking.
Davis Bertans has been excellent for the Washington Wizards this season. He is on pace to hit over 300 threes this season and is currently hitting 43.4 percent of the ones he takes (12th in the league). His cap hit of $7 million, which only goes through this season, adds to his value.
The problem is that every fan base thinks he’ll be under the radar when he’s on everyone’s radar. The asking price will likely be one of Matisse Thybulle or Zhaire Smith, but can the Sixers afford that?
F Davis Bertans
SG Zhaire Smith
PF Mike Scott
2020 First-round pick (via Oklahoma City)
Nicolo Melli of the New Orleans Pelicans seems to be a distressed asset. Despite being a stretch-big for a bad team, New Orleans’ wavering rotation only gives him 14 minutes a game on average.
His 3-point percentage of 30.6 won’t entice many, but the stroke is pure and he only makes $8 million total through 2021. Matching his salary would require trading two of Burke, Neto and O’Quinn, which is easy from an outsiders’ perspective but may be difficult for the locker room.
PF/C Nicolo Melli
PG Raul Neto
C Kyle O’Quinn
2020 2nd round pick (via Dallas)
Most of the Sixers’ work for the roster was done in June and July. It’s difficult to see them giving up one of their few attractive assets unless a huge deal can be made. Thybulle’s injury clouds things a bit, but there’s little doubt he can hang on the biggest stage.
Philly’s demolition of Milwaukee plays into this too. It’s hard to not like what they saw on Christmas Day. Joel Embiid played like the world-class defender he is, stifling Giannis Antentokoumnpo and the team with the best record in the league.
Is one game in December everything? Far from it. But Philly’s current roster is built to compete with anyone, especially a team designed around one Goliath, and seismic changes are highly unlikely at this point.