PHILADELPHIA >> The Sixers won 52 games and a playoff round last season, filling their arena with consistent defense, good shooting and a ball-movement offense that works.
They were relatively young. They were intense. They executed well. And they were likely to win 53 or 54 or 55 or more the next season, even if they were not able to sign LeBron James as a free agent.
That will not change because James rejected Josh Harris’ $154,000,000 and took the Lakers’ cash instead.
Since the unsaid promise of their infamous process was that eventually they would become such a dynamic franchise that the greatest player in history would be anxious to enlist at his earliest realistic opportunity, James’ rejection carried a certain sting. Had the Sixers signed him, they could have announced it at Frankford and Cottman, just to show off. That’s how certain they would have been to win a championship. Yet it doesn’t mean they can’t, haven’t or won’t continue to improve. They already have become stronger through the draft, through trading, with some free-agent activity and with some clever money management. And until there is a better way to score an offseason, then simply growing the program will always yield approval.
All fine-print, adjusted future draft considerations and salary-dump considerations aside, the Sixers essentially have exchanged Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova for Wilson Chandler and Nemanja Bjelica. If one major risk in that exchange can be overcome, the Sixers instantly are a better team. That risk: Selflessness.
By the end of last season, it was borderline weird how calmly and willingly the Sixers accepted benchings, changing player rotations and on-the-fly shifts of expectations. Literally, seasoned pros exhibited a high-school-team spirit, standing and cheering for each other from the bench and never, ever complaining about playing time. It’s 2018. It’s the money league. That is rare. Yet both Ilyasova, who’d been so content once in Philadelphia that he agreed to return, and Belinelli contributed to that spirit, willingly accepting any job spec and showing young players how to be pros. That doesn’t mean Chandler and Bjelica can’t provide similar services. But re-arranging the roster invites a risk of re-arranging the clubhouse atmosphere.
The Sixers, though, had to take that chance. That’s because in the Eastern Conference semifinals, they were too often caught stumbling through the switches required not just in Brett Brown’s defense but in the new NBA. Belinelli was willing but unable to defend against Boston. Ilyasova, too, was often slow to make the proper slides.
Enter, then, Bjelica, who shoots as well or better than either Belinelli or Ilyasova yet, at 6-10, has the ability to guard multiple positions after switching. Chandler, too, is a 6-8 positionless defender with an ability to swish a three. As a coach, Brown saw the problems in the Boston series. So as a general manager, he found the solutions.
Brown will continue his star-hunting, with signals mounting that he will still trade for Kawhi Leonard and coach him for at least one year. In the most likely scenario, that would cost Dario Saric and Robert Covington. But the two-way brilliance of Leonard combined with the multi-ply defensive skills of Chandler and Bjelica will easily enable the Sixers to profit from that expense.
Until James’ camp announced he would be joining the Lakers, the Sixers had to wait to re-sign JJ Redick. But once the James fantasy ended, Brown was able to re-enlist the best shooter in franchise history at roughly a 50-percent pay cut. And in Zhaire Smith, who has flashed excellence and confidence early in the Vegas summer league, the Sixers added an athlete with the ability to provide what they had expected from Markelle Fultz.
So Brown’s team has improved. But is that enough this long into a process that promised extreme success? Had the Sixers signed James and fitted him with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, they would have made a run at Golden State’s 2016 record of 73-9, best in NBA history. Instead, their more subtle moves will move them only closer to but not necessarily past Boston in the East. That will require Leonard.
The leading risk of adding Leonard is that several important players might go to San Antonio for a rent-a-star. Deeply aware of the San Antonio culture and connections, Brown believes he can convince Leonard to sign a long-term deal with the Sixers. And playing before capacity crowds, practicing in a palatial Camden facility and rolling into the NBA Finals could assist in that recruiting. But that was one team, the Spurs, that Leonard has already quit on. So the Sixers must brace against that happening again.
Either way, the 76ers are anything but ruined because James is headed to L.A. That he is out of the conference at all gives them a better chance to win the East. As long as they maintain reasonable health, Leonard would ensure they will play in a best-of-seven series for a championship. Even if Brown can’t pull that trade, though, he’s already done enough in an offseason that has been much better than it may look.
Contact Jack McCaffery @firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery