Something’s gotta give in the backcourt. The ultimate identity of that something is one of the key things to consider as the Sixers prepare for Stage 2 of this crucial offseason.
The acquisitions of Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet in the first round of last week’s draft added to a crowded but uncertain situation behind Ben Simmons in the rotation. While neither Smith nor Shamet is guaranteed to secure a significant role by the start of the season, they will occupy spots on the roster and depth chart.
Counting Simmons, Smith, Shamet, T.J. McConnell, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Furkan Korkmaz, the Sixers have seven players at the three-guard and wing spots who, barring a trade, are locks to make the team.
By the end of the summer, that list will almost certainly grow by at least one player who slots near the top of the depth chart.
The Sixers have been careful to mention Fultz’s name in the same breath as those of Simmons, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid when talking about the rotation in 2018-19. But it is awfully difficult to see them entering the season without adding another player capable of starting next to Simmons in the backcourt. Regardless of what the club says publicly about its confidence in Fultz’s ability to return to form, or the level of optimism you hear from Drew Hanlen, the skills trainer with whom Fultz has been working in California, the simple truth is that nobody can possibly know for sure what to expect from last year’s No. 1 overall pick.
In a recent podcast interview, Hanlen confirmed what had become obvious by the end of the season: that Fultz’s problems were purely mental, that he had a case of the yips, etc. So no matter how good he looks in practice, it’s impossible to rule out the chance that the problem returns during the season. Which means the Sixers need to have some sort of Plan B should Fultz be limited to the same backup point-guard role he played over the final month of the regular season.
The Sixers have plenty of options when it comes to addressing that need. Their preference would be to acquire an elite wing player who would presumably slot into Robert Covington’s starting spot at the three. But all three of the players who figure to be at the top of their list — free agents LeBron James and Paul George and trade target Kawhi Leonard — will have plenty of suitors this offseason. At this point, it would be an error to consider the Sixers the odds-on favorites to acquire any of them, and it is still probably more likely than not that they do not end up with any of them.
Leonard would seem to be the most realistic option, given that Los Angeles is a more attractive free-agent destination than Philadelphia and the Lakers currently have the cap space to afford at least two max free agents. Acquiring Leonard would likely take care of the current roster crunch, since it is hard to imagine any deal taking place without the inclusion of one guard from among Fultz, Smith, Shamet or, perhaps, Furkan Korkmaz.
But if the Sixers come up empty on their self-described “star hunt,” the decision-making will get interesting. As previously noted, such a development would almost certainly require them to sign a two-guard on the free-agent market, with the most obvious scenario coming in the form of a reunion with JJ Redick. But there are plenty of other options who could be amenable to a one-year overpay like the one the Sixers gave Redick last season, which would land them a guard capable of contributing this season while preserving all of their available cap space for Star Hunt II next offseason. Will Barton reportedly turned down a four-year, $42 million extension last summer, so he probably wouldn’t be a candidate. But Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wayne Ellington and Joe Harris all offer three-point shooting ability with varying degrees of defense.
The Sixers would also seem to need to add a reliable defensive-minded big man to slot into Amir Johnson’s former roster spot as the backup to Embiid at the five.
If the Sixers end up going the short-term free-agent route, it would leave them with a depth chart looking something like this:
|Pos||1st Team||2nd Team||3rd Team||Two-Way|
|1||Ben Simmons||T.J. McConnell||Landry Shamet||Shake Milton|
|2||(Free Agent)||Markelle Fultz||Zhaire Smith|
|3||Robert Covington||(Free Agent)||Furkan Korkmaz|
|4||Dario Saric||Jonah Bolden|
|5||Joel Embiid||(Free Agent)||Richaun Holmes|
One big question is where all of this leaves Justin Anderson, particularly if the Sixers think that Smith’s length and athleticism can enable him to sub for Covington at times. The one thing you might notice about that depth chart is that it has a severe shortage of proven NBA shooters, which is why you see a free agent penciled in behind Covington at the three spot instead of Anderson.
Again, if the Sixers make a big splash this offseason, the situation might take care of itself. If they don’t, things will get interesting in a different kind of way.