• Alec Liebsch

Sixers 2022 Offseason Primer

Death, Taxes and the 76ers being knocked out in the second round. With their biggest bullets already unloaded, how can they turn themselves from "pretty good" to legitimate title contenders?


Nearly a week has passed since the Sixers' season came to a close, and the reality of the situation remains as harsh as ever: they're ways away from seriously competing for a championship, but short on the means to get there. That sounds doom and gloom, but it's a major improvement over where the franchise was a year ago.


Given how nightmarish the Ben Simmons situation played out, the Sixers definitely punched above their weight this season. They finished with a record of 51-31, good for 4th in the Eastern Conference, behind a spectacular season from Joel Embiid. He was an MVP award finalist (and in many people's eyes, the winner) for good reason, as he led the NBA in scoring (30.6 points per game), made a substantial leap as a playmaker (4.2 assists per game, 6.5 AST/100 possessions, and 23.5% assist percentage, all career highs) while also helping an otherwise putrid defensive roster be above-average (109.8 defensive rating with Embiid on the court, which would rank 8th overall). He's one of the best players on the planet, and also the sole reason the Sixers are relevant.


Embiid did everything in his power to take them over the hump, but a freak injury in the postseason depleted his impact and the team's margin of error. The Toronto Raptors were a stingy first round opponent, but ultimately became fodder after the Sixers woke up. Their second-round opponents, the Miami Heat, took advantage of every opportunity given to them. Those chances were plentiful, both with and without Embiid, which will lead to some uncomfortable discussions this summer.


Most of those talks will involve James Harden, the Sixers' coveted in-season trade acquisition who sparingly lived up to the hype. Ben Simmons' trade request clouded the first half of the Sixers' season and put them in a precarious position. In addition, Harden was the only player available (that we know of) who could have elevated their championship odds in a meaningful way.


Those factors, combined with the urgency to build a winner around Embiid, made this deadline deal a risk worth taking. The upside and skill set of a player like Harden, even with injury concerns popping up as he exits his prime, are an excellent fit with "The Process." The sweeteners needed to pull off the deal (Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks) were tough to part with, but were also ancillary costs. Players like Curry and Drummond are valuable, but are also much easier to obtain than Harden.


Daryl Morey and James Harden

Bill Streicher / USA TODAY Sports


Where Daryl Morey loses points is in the fallout of the deal. There were obvious depth issues that he never addressed after trading two rotation regulars (plus Simmons) for one (plus Paul Millsap). The team was light on wings all season, a position group that becomes more important in May and June, but the front office did nothing to address that need before or after the big trade. Sure there was some strategy from the Nets to drag out the minutia of the Harden move, but the bulk of that deal was complete with over two hours to go. Somebody in that front office could've sparked secondary trade talks.


Harden deserves serious blame as well, which will come into play during the upcoming contract negotiations. His post-trade averages of 21.0 points and 10.5 assists were above-average, but not enough to take the load off Embiid or justify the steep cost of trading for him. In the playoffs he dipped even lower, to just 18.6 points and 8.6 assists on pedestrian efficiency. Basic per-game numbers don't tell the whole story, but they tell a lot about a guy who not too long ago averaged 36 points a night for a whole season.


Harden's physical decline is visible: he has substantially less burst, likely due to the nagging hamstring issue, which makes it tougher to beat defenders off the dribble, finish at the rim, draw fouls, collapse the defense, and generate consistently good offense singlehandedly. When he beats his man, his supercomputer basketball I.Q. allows him to manipulate the rest of the defense and create whatever shot he wants, for whoever he wants. Physical ailments are not the end of the line for Harden because he is so skilled otherwise, but it does take him down a few notches from "a system unto himself" to "floor general with a kick." That's not enough to win a title, even if it is better than where they were with number 25.


He has a player option for $47.8 million next season that he "forgot to pick up" after the trade, meaning he can be an unrestricted free agent as soon as this summer. However, I see flight risk as a very low likelihood. Given that the Sixers don't have any way to meaningfully replace his production, it behooves them to work out an extension with him or, at the very least, convince him to opt in. In addition, Harden will be incentivized to stay in Philly too; there aren't going to be many teams chomping at the bit to give him more than Morey would, especially not after that playoff performance. I do think his next contract will make Philly fans squeamish, but the sticker price almost always does.


Prediction: Harden opts in for $47.8 million, then signs a four-year, $120 million contract extension that runs through 2025-26 (his age-37 season) and includes partial guarantees based on injury.

 

It's easier to address specific needs after the top of the hierarchy is set in stone. And barring any unforeseen issues with the above, or a miracle trade involving Tobias Harris, that is the case with the Sixers' top four: Embiid, Harden, Harris and Tyrese Maxey. That quartet was excellent in their short time together before the playoffs (476 minutes), outscoring teams at a blistering rate of 17.6 points per 100 possessions. With a training camp and more production out of the fifth starter, one can expect this foursome to be one of the best in the league next season.


Who will round out the starting lineup? Your guess is as good as mine. Matisse Thybulle was their first choice, and the core four's net rating with Thybulle ended up at plus-20.2 per 100 possessions (323 minutes). Those samples are substantial enough to make a few conclusions, most notably that the team's production did not rise or fall too much with Thybulle as the fifth starter. Is it a good thing that they dominated and were able to mask his offensive limitations? Or is it concerning that he didn't add anything meaningful statistically?


I tend to think the latter, especially after this postseason. His choice to get only partially vaccinated was but a small hindrance in the first round series vs. the Toronto Raptors, but it snowballed when he became available again. His Game 5 performance in round one was one of the worst of his career (given the stakes), and it turned into an entire series of being forgettable against Miami.


At this point, I view him as the defensive equivalent of a bench scorer who only scores and adds little else. Think Jamal Crawford in his later years, but for defense. That guy is fine to sick on stars in the regular season to stop the bleeding, but becomes a gimmicky, break-in-case-of-emergency guy in the playoffs. His offense is not NBA-caliber, and the Sixers' defense depends on Embiid significantly more than it does on Thybulle.


With Danny Green likely to miss all of next season with tears to his ACL and LCL, the Sixers will be shopping for a wing. Isaiah Joe and Furkan Korkmaz will have their moments during the peaks and valleys of the season, but they are not elevating the starting lineup. The core four need a legitimate two-way wing: a guy who can defend multiple positions, make 3-pointers off the catch, and dribble-penetrate or make the right read when the shot isn't there. Ironically for Sixers fans, that prototype's most relevant example is...Mikal Bridges.


Eric Hartline / USA TODAY Sports


Bridges is not available, nor are any of the other household names. They are either locked into a title contender's core, or will cost more than the Sixers can reasonably give up. Names like Royce O’Neale, Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope come to mind as expendables from non-contenders, but trading even a late first round pick for one of them is tough for Morey right now.


The NBA's Stepien Rule makes it illegal to be without first round picks in consecutive seasons, and the Sixers are already close to that threshold. Morey has traded the Sixers' firsts in 2022, 2025 and 2027 by getting off Al Horford and bringing in Harden, meaning that they really only have two picks to play with: 2023 and 2029. Neither can be traded until after the 2022 Draft; the former is due to the Stepien Rule (that two-year clock would shift to 2023 and 2024 after the draft), and the latter is because teams can only trade picks up to seven years out.


The Sixers aren't exactly loaded with attractive young players either. Maxey isn't going anywhere, meaning that other teams would need to fall in love with one of Thybulle, Joe, Paul Reed, Jaden Springer or Charles Bassey. The rest of the league isn't clamoring to get their hands on any of those guys (except maybe Reed), and the Sixers need some of them to make an impact next year (especially Reed), making them more trouble to include in a trade than it is worth.


As for cap space...that's even worse. The Sixers will be approaching the luxury tax if they retain Harden, meaning they'll really only have access to the Taxpayer's Mid-Level Exception ($6.3 million) and minimum signings. Last year they were in the same boat; they used the TPMLE on Georges Niang and Bassey, and signed Drummond to a minimum deal. They don't have a draft pick this year, so they are likely going to have access to all $6.3 million of that exception for a veteran or two. However, given how punitive the tax is for repeat offenders, the Sixers probably won't use all of it. Free agency will probably be a repeat of last year, with maybe one Niang-type signing and some minimum deals.


So how do they rectify such an important issue with so little at their disposal? Great teams do it. The best teams find diamonds in the rough to play important roles on cheap contracts, and Morey has done this in the past. Even in his short time running the Sixers he has found guys on the margins like Dwight Howard, Niang and Drummond. He'll need to do even better this time, which is a tough ask, but that's why he gets paid the big bucks. Undrafted free agents have helped great teams in the past, although they are very rare (and even less likely to make an impact under Doc Rivers).


Prediction: Morey signs Wesley Matthews on a minimum deal, and he competes with Joe for the last starting spot. Sixers fans argue about who is better for months, and then Morey swings a midseason deal for a true ceiling-raiser.

 

Those are the crucial elements of the offseason for Philadelphia. The rest is just filling out the roster, which can be done to the tune of personal preference. I think they could use another point guard, ideally a veteran, because I expect Harden to miss time and don't really trust Shake Milton to run the offense. They will probably add another center too, but he cannot under any circumstances be a DeAndre Jordan sequel. Reed is a proven rotation big now, and Bassey showed enough flashes that he deserves regular minutes too. It's destructive to block either of them from playing time.


Every season that the Sixers go ringless puts more pressure on Morey. No sports executive's job will ever be more arduous than his was last summer with Simmons, but this one will not be a cakewalk either. He and his front office have to (A) get the Harden extension right, (B) nail the margin signings, and (C) properly evaluate the young guys for potential trades.


Cover Photo: Wendell Cruz / USA TODAY Sports


All contract information via Spotrac, player statistics via Basketball-Reference, and lineup data via NBA.com.