Sixer Off-season Compendium: Was the off-season a failure or success?

For the third installment of the Sixer Off-season compendium, I examine the off-season the Sixers had and whether or not it should be considered a failure given the expectations going in.

"We are star hunting or we are star developing, that's how you win a championship"

That phrase was etched in Twitter infamy the minute Head coach -- and acting General Manager -- Brett Brown said those words during his media availability following the draft on June 21st. Prior to that, Brown actually had made his desire for a superstar free agent well known during his exit interview on May 11th, when he strongly hinted at maybe, kinda, sorta, adding LeBron James without saying his name. 

The "star hunting" ship has sailed, at least for now. The big three ticket names have all made their moves. LeBron went to the Lakers, Paul George stayed with the Thunder, and Kawhi Leonard was sent off to Toronto via trade. It was pretty obvious that the Sixers had no chance at LeBron, who was linked to the Lakers for an entire year, and Paul George, who didn't even take a meeting with any other team and stayed with OKC. The Sixers were in the mix for Kawhi Leonard during the initial reports of his trade request, but it became clear that the Spurs ultimately did not want long-term assets or prospects with long-term upside, they wanted trade package tailored to win now and there was no package the Sixers could put together to usurp that desire, outside of involving Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons according to Zach Lowe, which had a snowball's chance in hell of happening.

The Sixers missed out on the big names, or rather, they never really had a shot, and Brown's "Star Hunting" remark has already started to turn into a meme for the Basketball Internet to chew on. Instead, the Sixers brass has had to make do with improving the roster in marginal ways. Making trades that will add to the roster while keeping cap flexibility --around $40 million dollars-- for the loaded free agent class of 2019.

  • On draft night the Sixers traded Mikal Bridges (10th pick) to Phoenix for Zharie Smith (16th pick) and an unprotected Miami Heat first-round pick in 2021.
  • JJ Redick Re-signs with the Sixers for a 1-year $12.5 million dollar deal.
  • Nuggets unload Wilson Chandler to the Sixers along with a 2021 second round pick and swap rights for a 2022 second round pick.
  • Amir Johnson re-signs with the Sixers for the Veteran Minimum
  • Sixers acquired Mike Muscala in a three-team trade that sent Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to OKC and Justin Anderson to Atlanta (The long-awaited Melo trade)
  • Suns acquire Richaun Holmes from the Sixers in exchange for Cap Considerations
  • Sixers sign 2017 second round pick Jonah Bolden for 4 years/$7 million dollars (last two years are non-guaranteed, per the Athletic's Derek Bodner)

Not the offseason moves fans had hoped for. A lot of the transactions was on the fringes and involved bringing back some of the players from last season's squad. I get it, the Sixers had a chance to sign a top-two player of all time, or even trade for Kawhi Leonard, a perennial MVP candidate. From that standpoint, it has been a disappointing off-season. I also think it's worth pointing out that the Sixers are still well positioned with talent and options to build this team long term. While people continue to make their internet jokes, the little factors that could help the Sixers improve next season, fly right over their heads.

Embiid and Simmons will improve

I think it's important to note, that this is the first healthy offseason for Joel Embiid in FOUR years. He has spent summers in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, rehabbing injuries, and after making it through the 2017-18 season with his lower extremities unscathed, he has been living in the gym with noted trainer Drew Hanlen working on his game. If Embiid averaged 23 and 11, made the all-NBA second team, and finished 2nd in Defensive player of the year voting, all while hardly practicing and not playing back to backs until February then what does he look like in 2018-19? Improved conditioning, improved skills, and further work on his lower body to handle the burden of the NBA season --something he did last summer-- could unlock another level of play.

Ben Simmons has also been in the midst of a healthy offseason, and while it's obvious that the glaring flaw he needs to work on is being able to shoot outside of 10 feet, he has other parts of his game that have room to grow as well. He can improve on his off-ball skills, improving his inside game to punish smaller players who switch on to him, his off-ball defense, and improve his finishing at the rim with his left hand. In theory, Simmons' historic rookie season is the worse he'll ever be as an NBA player, and that should have fans very excited. Simmons was absolutely putrid in the Celtics series, but that doesn't erase what he did all regular season or what he did in the first round against the Miami Heat, who had the 7th ranked defense in the NBA. 

"Star Developing" was the second part of Brown's quote that will be swept under the rug but it applies here with the team's two best players having played less than 200 combined NBA games.

Markelle Fultz

Markelle is considered by some to be a bit of a wildcard but he fits into the "Star Developing" category as well given that he was a number 1 pick. He had one of the more strange rookie seasons in recent memory, basically forgetting how to shoot a basketball which can be attributed to a combination of the yips and a shoulder injury, or just the yips depending on which tin foil hat you want to ask. He returned for the final 10 games of the season --playing in 14 total-- and showed everything that made him a number 1 pick besides... well, the jumper. He displayed athleticism, passing, flashes of point-of-attack defense, getting to the rim, and a really good handle. 

The work Fultz has been putting on his jump shot this summer with Hanlen this summer --who was recommended to Fultz by Embiid-- will be the key to his second season. All we have seen are photos of his follow through and heavily edited video clips that hide his jumper, but by everything that I've read, he has made considerable progress. The jumper is what will unlock upside people projected in Fultz coming of college, and if he is back to Washington Fultz, his fit next to Simmons and Embiid will be a puzzle piece that fits together perfectly. It's a big if, but I have faith in someone who JUST TURNED 20, and still has huge upside. Fultz wasn't a great shooter high school and turned himself in a great shooter in college. With his work ethic, which has been well documented, why can't I have confidence that the jumper will come back? 

Bench Improvement

It has been well documented that the Sixers starting lineup gave opposing teams the Team Rocket treatment and blasted them out of the gym. The issue to start the year was the bench unit which was bolstered by the additions of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Bellineli from the buyout market. Both pickups proved to be ineffective against the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs. Ilyasova lacked the athleticism to stay on the court and shot poorly, while Bellineli also shot poorly as he was being picked on relentlessly on defense by The Celtics.

In comes, Wilson Chandler who while 32 years old, is still 6'8, long, and a definite upgrade over Bellineli on the defensive end. Chandler will be able to play both the small forward and small ball power forward in smaller lineups at a decent rate. Chandler also shoots the three-point shot at 36%, which is around league average, but if you dig deeper into the shooting numbers, Chandler shot 38% on catch and shoot three-point attempts, the type of shot he should see plenty of as he plays off of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, and Dario Saric. 

Mike Muscala should serve as an upgrade over Ilyasova, even if it's just in spot minutes as the backup power forward or center. He can stretch the floor, shooting 39% from three on average over the last two seasons. The Sixers also brought back Amir Johnson, who was effective at backup center last season, but you wonder at this point if age will catch up to him and the younger guys start chipping away at his minutes.

I will go more in-depth on Zhaire Smith in another piece soon, but I believe he will be able to get rotation minutes from the jump because of his defense. The Sixers lacked like-sized guards to be able to defend quicker guards at the point of attack, and not only was that one of the 18-year-old's strengths heading into the draft, he can switch 1 through 4. Despite being 6'4, his elite athleticism, frame and his history playing power forward at Texas Tech and playing CENTER in high-school give him the ability of switchability. Smith is also a very smart player on offense with his explosive cutting, offensive rebounding and even showed some passing ability in Summer League. If you frame the question as "would you rather have Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot or Zhaire Smith playing those bench wing minutes?", I'd rather have Smith playing those minutes.

The Sixers got a lot younger on the bench and have more upside, with Jonah Bolden filling in for Richaun Holmes, Furkan Korkmaz still only 21 years old, and you have the 2018 rookies Landry Shamet, and Zhaire Smith. With the departures of Justin Anderson, TLC, and Holmes, minutes should be available for those players. 

Another question that needs to be answered is whether Dario Saric or Fultz comes off the bench. The original plan at the start of the 2017-18 season was to have Fultz in the lineup with Saric coming off the bench, then, of course, the whole forgetting how to shoot thing happened, and Saric excelled as a starter. I would opt to have Dario come off the bench as the super 6th man and insert Fultz into the starting lineup. One reason being that Saric, while he made strides as a defender, and he has always competed his ass off, but he was still not good on that end. 

One of the reasons the Sixers catapulted to a top 5 defense last season was because Brett Brown decided to shift to a more switch heavy philosophy around the month of January, but having JJ Redick and Saric in the starting lineup proved to be one of the fatal flaws in the Celtics series. Simmons and Robert Covington got roasted by the quicker Celtic guards, especially having to guard them possession after possession instead of in a pinch at the end of a shot clock. It left Saric and Redick on an island with the more athletic and long wings or Al Horford. Having Fultz in the starting lineup balances out the defensive assignments and makes the Sixers more switchable. Simmons and Covington get to guard more 3's and 4's while also having another shot creator on the court who can guard quick point guards, something the Sixers desperately needed. 

Verdict

There is no way around the fact that because the Sixers didn't land LeBron, Paul George or Kawhi, it was, in turn, a disappointing offseason. Was it a failure? Does this mean the Sixers are stuck? Absolutely not. The team should improve through the internal development of their young stars and bench upgrades. On paper, I wouldn't put them ahead of the Celtics or the new-look Raptors, but there is an absolute path to where the Sixers can improve off of a season that exceeded expectations. 

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