It has become a summer of readjusted expectations for the 76ers and their followers. After a tumultuous month beginning with the NBA draft and the giddy speculation as to what the free-agent and trade markets might bring, the reality is that while the team will compete, and probably compete well in the coming season, it will not yet compete for a championship.
The regular season is still three months away and there are twists and turns yet to maneuver, so perhaps the assessment is premature, but the players who might have changed that outlook will be playing elsewhere or are unavailable in trade for what the Sixers are apparently willing to give up.
Brett Brown said at the end of last season, with the team’s dismissal by the Celtics fresh in his mind, that at least one franchise-player acquisition was required to make the jump to true contention. Maybe more, but at least one.
Brown threw that ball onto Bryan Colangelo’s court at the time, but it turned out he was the one who had to handle it instead, and found that making pronouncements is a good deal easier than fulfilling them.
Not only were the Sixers unable to sign Paul George or LeBron James, or trade for Kawhi Leonard, but they also couldn’t even keep Nemanja Bjelica on the hook. The Serbian stretch forward who accepted the mid-level exception of $4.4 million backed out of the deal allegedly because he decided to return to European ball after three seasons in the NBA, mainly for family reasons. That was a fine story until he pivoted and merely grabbed a better offer from the Sacramento Kings, which made the Sixers look as if they had been used.
None of that is necessarily an indictment of Brown’s stewardship of the general manager’s position. Other teams took their swings at George and James only to come up empty, or kicked the tires on a Leonard trade and thought better of the risk. That Leonard went to Toronto and, if healthy and motivated, makes the Raptors a more serious roadblock in the Eastern Conference is an unfortunate byproduct, but if he bolts after one season, as speculated, then it’s a long-term wash and Toronto lost DeMar DeRozan in the bargain.
Aside from the quibbles that can be made about draft night, the front office hasn’t really tripped over itself, and those were defendable moves, too. For my part, I’d rather have a plug-and-play Mikal Bridges than a Zhaire Smith who needs work and a future first-round pick. Brown said the pick was vital for the team’s “star hunting” and that still might be the case, but it didn’t bag any targets yet. The pick – a 2021 unprotected selection previously belonging to the Heat – lost some luster when the commissioner indicated the switch back to drafting high school players, rumored for the 2021 draft, would probably not take place until 2022. It’s still an attractive asset, but it won’t make as many shots as Mikal Bridges this season.
So, in drafting for the future and pinning the present on big-time free-agent and trade acquisitions, the Sixers have spun their wheels a bit on their current ability to contend for a title. They brought back JJ Redick and Amir Johnson, and traded for 31-year-old Wilson Chandler, an all-arounder who represents somewhat of a defensive upgrade. After losing Bjelica, they disposed of some perimeter stock in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson to land 6-foot-11 Mike Muscala, who can play center and power forward and make a three here and there.
The roster is unquestionably a mixed bag, and Brown and his staff continue to mix it. They gave away Richaun Holmes to Phoenix to make room for Jonah Bolden, and, as reported by Keith Pompey of the Inquirer, are pursuing a Jerryd Bayless-for-Kyle Korver trade that would be a nice piece of work since Bayless will be leaving the roster one way or the other.
While the most recent moves have eased what was a surfeit of players for the 15-man regular-season roster, they haven’t made the team markedly better. In moving past TLC and Anderson, the Sixers have also steered against the NBA’s tide of collecting wing players, particularly high-motor guys such as Anderson who can defend a little.
Well, it’s obviously a work in progress, and the progress won’t even near a completion point for another year or so. How all these parts will fit together, and mesh with the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid core, is still to be determined. A lot still rests with the future of Markelle Fultz, too, and that is the biggest unknown to be confronted.
So, the summer of readjusted expectations continues. Perhaps there is a game-changer still to take place before the season, but that becomes increasingly less likely as time passes. It isn’t as if the patchwork front office hasn’t done anything – in fact, it is hard to keep up with the pawns that arrive and depart – but it has yet to do anything memorable. Hopefully, that won’t become another expectation that must be adjusted.