Following their heart-breaking loss to the Raptors in the 2nd round last year, Joel Embiid proclaimed, “I don’t give a damn about the process.” Clearly, the front office took Embiid’s words to heart as their 2019 offseason decisions perfectly exemplified their big man’s quote. Maxing Tobias Harris and Al Horford while letting Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick leave was a questionable strategy at the time, even without the benefit of hindsight. Now the front office’s decisions look astronomically worse, leaving the Sixers in a position they found themselves in for much of the mid-to-late 2000s: the land of mediocrity.
There’s no easy way to fix the dumpster fire that currently surrounds the Sixers organization. In possession of arguably the two worst contracts in the league, the team is capped out and they have very few assets (financial, player, or draft) to improve the team short-term. With the way the team is currently constructed, they’re destined to finish between 5th and 7th in the East each year en route to an almost certain first round exit. For those keeping score at home, the Sixers deliberately tanked for several seasons to get out of this exact predicament. As Kyle Neubeck so bluntly put it, the Sixers are screwed and there’s no clear solution.
There’s no realistic combination of moves that the Sixers can make this offseason to become a title contender overnight. Firing the coach won’t magically solve all the issues, and there aren’t many trade packages the Sixers can receive for Embiid or Ben Simmons (two of the three players on the roster that actually have significant trade value) that:
a) make sense for all parties involved
b) make the Sixers a better team in 2020-2021 and beyond
c) could conceivably take place.
That’s not to say that all the moves outlined below are 100 percent realistic. Admittedly, any of the steps could be considered a stretch. However, if the organization is indeed adamant about winning and bringing a championship back to Philadelphia, following this blueprint might be their best chance to salvage the Embiid/Simmons duo before they inevitably grow frustrated with the team and demand trades.
The six-step process below isn’t meant to make the Sixers a top-tier team next season; rather, it’s to increase their long-term roster and cap flexibility while giving them another chance to build a solid group of supporting players around their two stars, something they weren’t able to accomplish the first time around.
Fire Elton Brand et al., Hire Jeff Peterson
The Sixers supposedly conducted an “exhaustive” search for their new GM following the Colangelo burnergate scandal. That search included interviews with well-qualified individuals like Justin Zanik, Gersson Rosas, and Larry Harris along with Colangelo holdovers including Ned Cohen and Alex Rucker. It was ultimately Brand the organization settled on to take on the role of GM, though, citing his ability to, “operate in their desired collaborative method to run the front office.”
The decision was a bit perplexing and, after looking at Brand’s overall body of work over the past two years, it’s increasingly clear that the Sixers jumped the gun in giving the former NBA vet a promotion. Keep in mind, Brand had just retired from the league two years earlier in 2016 and in 28 months was suddenly qualified to be a general manager.
In fairness to Brand, not all of the front office miscues are solely his fault. Multiple members of the Sixers front office had input in signings and trades. In addition to Brand, this means that individuals such as Cohen, Rucker, CEO Scott O’Neil and even owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer all had votes and the ability to either voice their concerns or push for players to trade for and sign. In a vacuum it’s not necessarily a bad thing for front office collaboration; the problem is the people listed above clearly have very limited knowledge about the best way to build a basketball team in this day and age. It’s a pipe dream to expect Harris and Co. to sell the franchise, so the next best thing is getting rid of Brand and every other front office member in order to start fresh.
Enter Jeff Peterson, who the Brooklyn Nets hired as their assistant GM in 2019. Peterson, who turned 31 in January, had previously spent seven seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, the last three of which were as the team’s assistant GM. While in Atlanta, Peterson “was in charge of the scouting processes from the draft to trades and free agency.” He also formed positive relationships with Atlanta’s financial and analytic specialists, “[guiding] them into the areas we wanted to delve deeper into.” Peterson would be a smart and modern choice for the organization, and he could help bring the roster out of the 1970s into the 21st century. Allowing him to bring in his own guys would also give the Sixers a competent front office for the first time in years.
Fire Brett Brown, Promote Ime Udoka or Hire Becky Hammon
As a Brett Brown apologist since the day he was hired, it’ll hurt when he officially gets his pink slip. After seven years, though, it’s time for a new voice in the locker room. Brown undertook a daunting task back in 2013 when he agreed to oversee and coach a team that would have very little talent, and the team’s struggles over the past couple years (as with Brand) aren’t all his fault. He played a key role in the development of multiple players who have gone on to carve out respectable careers in the league all while doing the very best he could with the limited talent he had from 2013 to 2016. From the odd lineup decisions to an inability to adapt and counter opposing adjustments and everything in between, it’s not like Brown is being fired without cause—for this team to turn things around, a better coach is needed.
There are a number of coaches the Sixers could bring in to run the ship and please the fanbase, but the two names listed above could represent the team’s best chance to find an innovative coach that’s able to get the most out of Embiid and Simmons while designing a solid offense and defense around them.
If the new GM wanted to stay in-house for familiarity purposes, they might simply choose to promote Udoka. After losing Monty Williams to Phoenix last May, the Sixers decided to poach Udoka from the Spurs, where he had been an assistant since 2012. Udoka, who was in charge of the Sixers 6th-ranked defense this season, is seemingly well-liked by the players and has been mentioned as a candidate for multiple jobs including the Bulls, Nets, and Knicks (who eventually went with Tom Thibodeau). He was in the running for the Cavaliers job last season before they settled on John Beilein. As one of the league’s highest-paid assistants, the organization clearly thinks highly of Udoka and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a promotion in order to prevent other teams from hiring him.
If the team wants to go out of house for a Brown replacement, tabbing Becky Hammon would make sense. A six-time WNBA all-star and one of the best players in the league’s history, Hammon’s been an assistant coach for the Spurs since 2014, when Gregg Popovich praised her “basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills.” Hammon is one of the smartest minds in the sport right now and she’s more than earned the opportunity to lead her own team.
Pau Gasol wrote some powerful statements about Hammon in a piece for The Players Tribune, including this very telling statement: “Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.” Some of the fanbase might not be on-board immediately, but when they see Hammon making solid on-the-fly adjustments and pressing all the right buttons with the team both on and off the court, they’ll quickly change their minds.
Make Two Trades
It’s important to keep something in mind with these two trades: in part because of their performance and in part because of their contracts, Horford and Harris have very little (if any) trade value. The Sixers are not in the driver’s seat for trade negotiations regarding these two players, and they’ll have to give up more than they otherwise would in order to entice other teams to accept the proposal. There isn’t any scenario where the Sixers trade their current trash for some other team’s treasure; things don’t work that way. If it seems like the Sixers are giving up a lot in these mock proposals just to get rid of two players, that’s because they have to.
Philadelphia receives: Nicolas Batum
Charlotte receives: Al Horford, 2020 1st round pick (via OKC), 2020 2nd round pick (via NYK), 2023 2nd round pick (via Atlanta, Brooklyn, or Charlotte: most favorable)
This trade is all about prioritizing future cap flexibility in exchange for giving up a small number of assets. In order to make the salaries match, the Sixers can get back Nicolas Batum from the Hornets, who will only have one season left on his deal at $27.1 million. Batum struggled with injuries earlier in the season before eventually being benched by head coach James Borrego once the calendar flipped to 2020. He’s shown in the past that he can be a versatile wing who can be a jack of all trades but a master of none, and for only one season it wouldn’t hurt to see if Batum can get back to his old form and provide valuable minutes off the bench.
For the Hornets, Horford can provide a steady veteran presence for the younger players on their roster while not severely hampering the team’s chances at securing higher odds for the next couple draft lotteries. They’ll also get an extra 1st round pick this season that slots in at 21st overall, a 2nd round pick that will be 36th overall, and a future second which could prove to be relatively valuable.
Philadelphia receives: Buddy Hield, Cory Joseph, 2022 2nd round pick
Sacramento receives: Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, 2022 1st round pick, 2024 1st round pick (top-10 protected; if not, conveys as 2025 unprotected 1st round pick), 2020 2nd round pick, 2021 2nd round pick (via NYK)
This is about as big of a blockbuster trade as the Sixers can realistically expect to pull off this offseason, especially if they want to hold onto Embiid and Simmons. They’re giving up a lot in exchange for a couple guards and a future 2nd round pick, but this move also increases their future roster and cap flexibility while providing the team with a starter who should improve the offense and a back-up point guard that should help improve the bench. Giving up Thybulle, Korkmaz, two future firsts, and two future seconds is a rough way to allocate the few assets they do have, but it’s necessary in order to get off of the Harris contract (and, admittedly, even this package may not be enough).
The Kings are able to trade a disgruntled Hield to a more desirable location where he’ll receive the run in the starting lineup he’s looking for while getting an intriguing young building block in Thybulle who has thrived defensively in his rookie season. If he can continue to improve his offensive skillset, Thybulle seems primed to become one of the better two-way players in the league within a few years. Korkmaz gives the Kings a streaky sharpshooter off the bench, and the package of picks can either be used to draft young players or, theoretically, in another trade package to bring a big name to Sacramento.
Sign Two Free Agents Using the Taxpayer MLE ($6,003,900)
Bench Wing – E’Twaun Moore (1 year, $2,770,962)
Bench Big – Bruno Caboclo (1 year, $1,893,447)
These names are pretty interchangeable with other free agents depending on how you want to split up the MLE and if you want to sign other players to minimum deals, but Moore and Caboclo could give the Sixers solid minutes off the bench. Moore and the Sixers have been linked before; a prototypical three-and-D wing, Moore could be the sixth man for the Sixers in this scenario. Caboclo’s career didn’t start off very well but he began to show signs of life with Memphis a season ago before flashing some potential with Houston prior to the league shutting down in March; he could prove to be a pretty competent backup for Embiid.
Final Roster and Thoughts
By following this blueprint, the Sixers could enter the 2020-2021 season with a roster looking something like this (with a couple hypothetical second round picks included):
GM: Jeff Peterson
Head Coach: Becky Hammon
PG: Shake Milton / Cory Joseph (trade) / Ashton Hagans (2nd round pick via LAL)
SG: Buddy Hield (trade) / E’Twaun Moore (FA) / Marial Shayok
SF: Josh Richardson / Nicolas Batum (trade) / Paul Reed (2nd round pick via ATL)
PF: Ben Simmons / Mike Scott
C: Joel Embiid / Bruno Caboclo (FA) / Norvel Pelle
This is still a team that can secure the 6th or 7th seed in the East and, if everything goes according to plan, maybe sneak past the first round before bowing out in the second. More importantly, though, it gives the Sixers more roster and cap flexibility following the 20-21 season with a competent front office and solid head coach in place heading into that offseason. Their only salary obligations after next season would be:
Smith ($4,915,856, team option)
This comes out to a total payroll of $101,100,166 which is far less than the current total of $147,372,144 with Harris and Horford on the roster. Depending on what happens with the cap over the next couple of seasons and the other roster decisions that they make, perhaps the Sixers could be in a position to make a run at either an actual third star to pair with Simmons or Embiid or some less expensive role players that would fit around the duo. There’s also a chance that Simmons or Embiid is traded before the summer of 2021 if the front office believes that it’s no longer possible to build a championship-caliber roster around the two of them.
The Sixers have backed themselves into an unenviable corner, and it won’t be easy to get out of it. The organization will have many tough decisions coming up as they attempt to figure out how to recapture the title contention hopes that have all but evaporated over the past several months. Maybe they’re able to find some way to keep Simmons and Embiid and build a formidable roster around them. Maybe they’ll have to trade one of them in order to gain assets to build a championship roster. Maybe they’ll have to blow up the team and trade both of them, essentially restarting the process. Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: if they’re serious about bringing a title to Philly, the franchise can’t simply remain on the path they’re currently on—the path that falls off a cliff into the land of being good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to win it all.
(Cover Photo via Getty Images)