The no-brainer portion of the 76ers offseason ended Tuesday night, when ownership and the front office sat in the ballroom of a New York hotel and watched the results of a lottery that determined the team's short-term fate in the NBA draft. Everything that follows, unlike the lottery, which is out of everyone's control, will require some brains from basketball boss Bryan Colangelo and his staff. Now, the hard part begins.
The degree of difficulty, as Colangelo considers what to do with the third pick in the draft, is increased because the Sixers' plan is still littered with unknowns, including some concerning the players already on the roster. The biggest one, in many ways, is whether 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons, last year's No. 1 overall pick, can actually be the primary ball handler in the system envisioned by coach Brett Brown.
There are plenty of other roster factors for Colangelo to consider as well. Leaving aside the well-documented injury history of center Joel Embiid, Colangelo has to project whether Dario Saric can develop a good enough shot to serve as a starting "stretch four" in the NBA; whether Robert Covington, who is eligible to become a free agent after this season, will still be with the team in the future; whether T.J. McConnell's impressive season represented a ceiling for his talent; and a half-dozen other calculated guesses Colangelo must make.
It's a lot to consider, and the draft decision goes way beyond simply which players will still be on the board when their selection arrives on June 22. Merely drafting or trading for the best talent - a philosophy that put them in the difficult position of having three centers who considered themselves starters - will be somewhat subordinate to finding the puzzle piece that fills the gaps they have now or anticipate having.
As the Sixers contemplate an offense employing an unusually tall point guard, or whatever positional term you want to apply to Simmons, it's interesting to consider that no franchise has more experience with trying to construct a champion around a great player who has a nontraditional skill set for his size. Twice before, with Hall of Fame players, the Sixers took a shot at it and didn't succeed. Those were different organizations each time, but assembling a championship roster around the greatest 6-5 power forward in the history of the game or the greatest 6-0 combo guard ever proved elusive.
With Charles Barkley, there were several attempts to fit complementary pieces around him, starting with the disastrous decision to swap the No. 1 pick in the draft for Roy Hinson and then trade Moses Malone for Jeff Ruland. The Sixers also determined that a taller player at the other forward position with a good outside shot - 20 years before anyone ever said "stretch four" - might force opponents to defend Barkley more honestly and they brought in the original Cliff Robinson as the first in that role. The best teams built around Barkley had some great moments (and the misfortune to have them during the ascendance of Michael Jordan), but they didn't reach the goal commensurate with his unique talent for rebounding and scoring at his size.
As for Allen Iverson, his otherworldly speed, handle, and courage could get him to the rim to score nearly at will, but he was also a relatively poor outside shooter and a so-so defender. The team that went to the NBA Finals shored up the backcourt and wing defense with Aaron McKie, Eric Snow, and George Lynch, and used high-percentage inside shooting from Theo Ratliff and Dikembe Mutombo to offset Iverson's inconsistencies. It was a smart, concerted plan with a basketball force of nature at its core, but no trophies came out of that one either.
In the case of Simmons, who is projected as a slasher, penetrator, and distributor but not a perimeter threat, the obvious build is to find drop-dead shooters for at least two other positions on the court. It could be a guard who will share the ball to some extent with Simmons, or a wing player who doesn't need to put the ball on the floor as much, or that elusive big forward who can step away from the paint. Brown's philosophy of "pace, space, and defend" requires those long-range threats to keep opposing defenses from collapsing on Simmons as he attempts to move with the ball.
At the defensive end, Colangelo said he is confident Simmons will be able to guard most ball handlers in the NBA, but that could be wishful thinking. It's a pick-and-roll league, so Simmons will have to switch off his primary assignment much of the time, but teams might choose to isolate him on their point guard as well. If he can't stay in front, Brown will have to devise some alternative strategies and Colangelo will have to have provided an agile defender or two to execute them.
Colangelo will also, as he picks his way through his draft, trade, and free-agency strategies in the next few months, have to project the alternative plan if Simmons is not ultimately the guy bringing the ball up the court. If things work better with Simmons at a wing position, then who will be in the backcourt and who will have the ball in his hands?
Fortunately for the Sixers, the draft has players who look like handy pieces for whichever path they go. The difficulty, of course, is choosing the right one. It always is.