With the NBA playoffs behind us, the 2017 off–season is here and many teams must make massive decisions.CBA expert Danny Lerouxbreaks down the major challenges and opportunities for thePhiladelphia 76ers in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.
It may be surprising to some considering they finished the year with a 28-54 record that equaled their combined win total for the two prior seasons, but the 76ers are in a very good place. Center Joel Embiid was a force in his 31 games and Philadelphia was able to secure another top-three pick thanks to Sam Hinkie’s ingenious pick swap that was an underappreciated part of their heist of the Kings on July 1, 2015. They then combined that selection with either the 2018 pick from the Lakers (which they send to Boston if it falls between pick Nos. 2-5) or the Kings' 2019 first round pick (which Hinkie acquired from the Sacramento in the aforementioned trade) in Saturday’s blockbuster trade to move up to No. 1 in Thursday's draft. With last year’s No. 1 pick Ben Simmons hopefully returning to the fold next season, the league may finally see the early stages of a tantalizing young team on the court. This summer, general manager Bryan Colangelo will have to figure out what to do with extraneous center Jahlil Okafor and their absolutely massive amount of cap space, decisions which matter more since the team’s bright future provides real stakes.
Here are three key storylines to watch for 76ers this off-season:
Cap space: This summer will be a fascinating test for the front office and ownership alike. While the 76ers have significant cap room at their disposal, they are also looking at a massive pay raise for Embiid next season and a much higher rookie scale for their myriad draft picks. As such, spending long-term money this off-season likely carries a significant cost in a few years, though overpaying a talented veteran for two seasons or so makes sense as a way to give their young core experience on a more competitive team before their primes. With Fultz presumably in the fold, it looks like the best place for the front office to spend short-term money would be on the perimeter, ideally a player who runs in transition and hits open shots.
No. 1 Pick: Jumping from No. 3 to No. 1 less than a week before the draft was dramatic but took most of the intrigue out of where the 76ers were going with their choice as Markelle Fultz is the prohibitive favorite. The talented guard combines a strong handle with intriguing physical tools in a way that makes him a natural fit with Simmons and Embiid. Fultz should be able to play on and off-ball with Philadelphia and securing another franchise building block means the Sixers can invest more of their resources into filling a narrow set of remaining gaps.
Robert Covington: The most intriguing use for some of Philadelphia’s cap space would be a renegotiation and extension with Covington. In effect, what the 76ers can do is use some of their 2017-18 cap space to give the talented swingman a raise for this season where he would otherwise make his minimum as a part of a longer agreement, effectively a lucrative signing bonus that counts on the books for a year they have space to burn. While they could reduce their available money by spending on free agents, the 76ers could allocate up to $23.7 million for this purpose and then drop Covington’s salary by up to 40% for the 2018-19 season, creating significant room to make a mutually agreeable deal happen.
Potential Free Agents: Gerald Henderson (Non-Guaranteed), Sergio Rodriguez (Unrestricted), Tiago Splitter (Unrestricted) and Shawn Long (Non-Guaranteed)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: $43 million
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): $53.5 million
2017 Draft Assets: First overall pick (from Brooklyn via Boston) plus second round picks from New York (No. 36), Dallas (39), Miami (46) and Atlanta (50).
Potential Targets: Talented restricted free agents make the most sense for Philadelphia, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope being a perfect fit since he can play off-ball next to Simmons and Fultz but defend opposing point guards. Unless Gordon Hayward is interested, they could also consider making competitive offers for less ideal players like Tony Snell but there are fewer clear-cut values this year on the restricted market. Instead, the 76ers should consider making a lucrative but shorter-term offer to a shooting guard like JJ Redick in the hopes that he can bridge the gap between the present and when Embiid, Simmons and their other remaining picks can be dominant themselves. They should also continue looking for values at the lower end of the market but it will be harder to secure future TJ McConnells with so many teams scrounging for bargains. While less likely than previous years, Philadelphia could also use some of the prodigious cap space to extract assets from other teams by taking on onerous contracts in exchange for young talent or draft picks. That could be a better way to improve than signing expensive free agents, depending on how the market shakes out.
Pressure Scale: 6. This could finally be the summer where the 76ers put it all together. Embiid impressed during his time on the floor and Philadelphia’s armada of draft picks has become a fascinating young roster with some well-fitting veterans like Henderson already under contract. Colangelo could easily interpret that as the rationale for spending this summer, which would make their roster less flexible but ideally more capable moving forward. What dissipates their pressure is that they can easily wait until the trade deadline or next season. Embiid is extension eligible but a deal may be hard to come by, Okafor still has two more seasons on a rookie scale contract and the team can elect to use a significant portion of their cap space on a new Covington deal to reduce his cost in future seasons.
State of the Franchise: Building at a speed to be determined. After all the “Trust the Process” references, it is worth taking stock of where the 76ers are in the grand scheme of things. Beyond their current young talent and the No. 1 pick this season, they will have a first–round pick from either the Lakers in 2018 or the Kings in 2019 along with their own selections for all future drafts, giving Philadelphia one of the best sets of draft assets in the entire league after this off-season. While nothing is ever guaranteed, those later selections from other teams could inform the front office’s decisions this off-season in a few different ways. One approach would be to see the team’s ceiling as a long way off, pushing them towards a more judicious use of cap space this year. However, they could also see those same inputs and understand that a continual flow of cost-controlled talent makes spending on the right players now a much more reasonable proposition than for most young teams that will eventually get expensive. Interestingly, that distinction may matter less than the simple supply as spending this summer requires the right players accepting their offers and that is always an unknown proposition. After years as a contract dumping ground, seeing a new kind of 76ers off-season will be an adjustment and an exciting experience.