THE ONE THING the Sixers cannot afford to do this offseason is the one thing a certain contingent of media and fans continues to advocate. That's understandable, particularly when considering the level of resistance The Process encountered in its early years. Some people think that an NBA general manager should be held to the same standards as his players and coaches, that his perpetual charge should be to maximize his roster's ability to win the next game it plays, and, thus, to focus his strategy on the upcoming season even if it means sacrificing some upside in future ones. Some valid arguments support such a view, most of which emphasize the fact that the team charges its customers admission to the current product, not future ones.
What this boils down to is what it has all along, a question of ends rather than means. Do you want a basketball team that has a legitimate chance to compete for a title, or are you content with a basketball team that is good enough that you can talk yourself into believing in it?
There isn't a wrong answer, and there are several members of Group A who, in an honest moment, would probably acknowledge being envious of Group B. After all, what we have here is less a sports debate than the fundamental question underlying human existence. We stop believing in Santa Claus only when the evidence against him becomes impossible to ignore. Until then, the narrative we feed ourselves is a heck of a lot more fun than reality.
Substitute Kyle Lowry for Santa Claus, and the point remains. If you'd be happy with the Sixers competing with the playoffs over the next couple of seasons regardless of what it means for the seasons that follow, then a four-year contract at or near the max would make sense for the Philly native and soon-to-be Raptors free agent. But if you're looking to maximize the odds that the Sixers at some point turn their current collection of assets into legitimate title contender, then spending 30 percent of their annual salary cap on lower-tier All-Star's 31-year-old through 34-year-old seasons is the last thing you should want.
For starters, let's emphasize that we're using Lowry more as a variable than a constant, a symbol for a type of free agent rather than a specific player the Sixers have realistic odds at signing. For Lowry to even consider an offer from Bryan Colangelo would require that he value playing in his hometown more than he values winning a title and perhaps more than he values money, since the NBA's collective bargaining agreement allows the Raptors to offer him one more year than any other team.
Even if Lowry were willing to sign, the Sixers would not just be casting their lot for the next four years, they'd be putting themselves in a potentially crippling financial situation in the final year of the deal. Year 2 of any Lowry deal would be the first the Sixers would need to be paying whatever money it it took to keep Joel Embiid. So, perhaps, a maximum contract, which would cost them, at minimum, 25 percent of their annual contract. Then, in Year 4, the Sixers would face decisions on Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. If Simmons is a max-level deal, that's around 50 percent of the cap. If Lowry is a max-level deal, that moves it up to 80 to 85 percent of the cap. Suddenly, a Saric deal could put you over the cap.
Granted, we're accounting for a lot of variables here. But that's a general manager's job. Besides, look at it this way: If those three homegrown players aren't worth this kind of money, then will Lowry really have been enough to make them a contender? And, vice versa, if Embiid and Simmons and Saric all turn out to be that good, wouldn't the Sixers be able to attract a better final piece than a 34-year-old Kyle Lowry?
Whatever happens, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which Embiid, Simmons and Saric are closer to a title in their first year together than in their fourth (not to mention this year's first round pick or picks). Lowry, on the other hand, will be moving in the opposite direction. Don't think of it as signing a 31-year-old for the 2017-18 season but as signing a 34-year-old veteran for 2020-21 . . . instead of that year's 31-year-old star. This is basically the marshmallow test.
The Sixers should actually be considering the opposite of signing Lowry, which is using their short-term salary-cap space to give a lesser veteran a deal he can't refuse (but who will be off their books before they need the cap space).
Monday night's Game 7 featured a look at what the Sixers could become in a few years. The Wizards drafted John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter with three top-three picks in a four-year span. With Wall and Beal already earning max-level money, Washington could need a max deal to retain the 24-year-old Porter, who will be a restricted free agent after a season in which he shot .516 from the field and .434 from three-point range while averaging 13.4 points and grabbing 6.4 rebounds per game. That would put them over the cap for the next two seasons, when they are paying Ian Mahinmi and Marcin Gortat a combined $29 million per year.
They're a good team. But how do they get better?