The NBA Finals are now set, but for everyone except Golden State and Boston, it’s officially offseason mode. The draft is around the corner and free agency will follow shortly after. With that in mind, let’s kick off our Sixers offseason coverage at The Athletic with a two-part mailbag this week. I will tackle some of the conversations surrounding the key decisions that Daryl Morey and Co need to make in the next month.
I did receive several quality questions (often very specific ones) that will not get answered in the mailbags because the plan is to address them in other pieces in the coming weeks.
Two questions: How important is the concept of continuity in reviewing the NBA’s elite teams and do you think it’s undervalued in offseason discussions? It seems that for the duration of Embiid’s career, there has been plenty of upheaval from season to season. Meanwhile, the Celtics (Tatum/Brown/Smart/Horford), the Warriors (Thompson/Curry/Draymond) and the Heat (Butler/Adabayo/Herro) have kept their core for multiple seasons.
With that in mind, for the remainder of Embiid’s prime, would you prioritize: Trying to obtain premium talent by trading more roster pieces (Harris, Maxey, possibly Harden) but sacrifice continuity or more continuity of the core group (Embiid, Harris, Maxey Harden) and improve on the margins. — Scott H.
I would imagine the Sixers are on the end of discontinuity when it comes to their core pieces. They started with so many assets and the ability to change things, and because they never quite found that right mix (or possibly passed up the right mix), the parts continue to move around Embiid. But the right “missing piece” can turn things around quickly. Kawhi Leonard goes abroad for nine months and takes Toronto from a pesky second-round exit to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Lakers traded their entire asset base for Anthony Davis and immediately won a title.
It works the other way when a team isn’t winning at the highest level. There were plenty of calls to break up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and while I don’t believe they were considered by Boston’s front office, that group had an extremely mediocre 1.5 seasons. There was a mid-January game in Philly when the Ben Simmons-less Sixers completely outclassed Boston to take a 2-1 lead in the season series. The Celtics looked hopeless at that point of the season, particularly offensively. Right around that time, they flipped a switch, won by 48 points in Philly the next month and have been a juggernaut ever since.
To answer your second question, the Leonard and Davis examples are what I would look at. If there is a top 10-15 wing player who can shoot, defend and fit in between Joel Embiid and the two guards, that type of talent could be a game-changer. That would be a rare player, with the type of positional and skill-set fit that could help the Sixers overcome continuity issues. If that player isn’t available (and my feeling is that won’t materialize, although never say never), the clear path forward is to supplement the core group and make them better. That very well might involve trading one of those core players you listed, though.
Which is more of the problem: Doc Rivers or lack of depth/talent? I feel that Doc does not get enough from what he has. All the playoff teams have flaws and particularly flawed benches and other coaches get more out of their players. It can’t just be a lack of talent. The starting five of course is a plus, but if just about any other coach managed their starting five the same way, they could run up similar numbers, especially if they had Embiid. Other than Harden yelling at Maxey to shoot more, I do not see enough effective in-game changes in defensive or offensive sets to reflect adjustments made by other teams. It’s an arrogant lack of respect for other teams with the assumption that we are more talented and should win if not the players are not “tough enough,” give me a break. When someone is underperforming or injured, there appears to be no plan B or effective changes that have been drilled and practiced. Joe H.
I think that around 90 percent of what you’re saying comes down to a lack of top-end talent (Harden not being good enough, Embiid getting injured in the Miami series) and depth. We just watched an Eastern Conference finals that mostly devolved into Jimmy Butler and Tatum hunting the weakest defender on the other team. Doc Rivers knows how to do that! And that happened despite Miami and Boston fielding multiple five-man lineups where there were no weak defenders.
The NBA Finals teams are not nearly as flawed as the Sixers, specifically when it comes to the 5, 6 and 7 spots in the rotation. Boston only goes seven deep but it’s a rock-solid group. Their two bench players Derrick White and Grant Williams, are more equipped to play playoff basketball than anyone that the Sixers had coming off the bench. Williams, who was taken two picks after Matisse Thybulle, presents quite the contrast with Thybulle when it comes to what works in the playoffs. Versatility will win over the specialist every single time.
When healthy, this version of Golden State has its trademark strength in numbers. They can either start a veteran (Kevin Looney) or their version of Tyrese Maxey (Jordan Poole) These Sixers never had the luxury of bringing Maxey off the bench. Otto Porter Jr. was a home-run minimum signing, the type the Sixers need to hit on this offseason. And that is before you get to a couple of lottery picks (Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moodywho the Warriors will mix in. Unlike Thybullus Gary Payton II can afford to play offense because of the spacing the Splash Brothers provide. Nemanja Bjelica only figures into the mix sometimes because unlike another stretch big with defensive limitations (Georges Niang), there are other options for Warriors coach Steve Kerr to play.
If fans think there could be an upgrade on Rivers moving forward, that’s fair. There might be. But it’s a whole lot easier to make better adjustments when your rotation is more versatile and has fewer weak spots than the current Sixers.
What is the best-case scenario for internal growth? Bassey, Reed and Springer are all intriguing, but are we talking Strus/Duncan Robinson-type ceilings? Ryan F.
Maxey is the best case for internal growth, but he is on a different tier. As for role players, Max Strus or Duncan Robinson would be fine for the Sixers (although it’s worth noting that Robinson did fall a bit into that specialist category for Miami this season). The Sixers need players who can hold up reasonably well for 15 to 20 minutes in a playoff series.
As we saw with Andre Drummond a season ago, quality backup centers can be had for cheap. But unless one of the additions is a small-ball type who can shoot 3s, there is little point in rostering five centers yet again. Paul Reed did not look out of place in a playoff environment with this group. Charles Bassey showed some flashes earlier this season, and like Reed in past years, was dominant in the G League. Unless one of them is dealt, I would let those two battle for the backup minutes and hope one takes another step forward. Jaden Springer is still so young. I look forward to watching him in the summer league to see if he has taken any steps forward.
I have mentioned this before but another player who I would not give up on is Shake Milton. This will be his fifth year in the program, so he has some of the corporate knowledge that the Miami development stories possess (even if Miami has more organizational stability). Milton had a ton of bad injury luck last season. Particularly with Harden and Maxey in the fold to ease some of his ballhandling responsibilities, Milton is someone who might be able to hold up in a playoff environment as a back-end rotation player.
What is the next major area of improvement needed for Tyrese Maxey? Stephen M.
Hey, a little positivity for a change! I like this question because of how much the conversation has changed in the past year. In the doldrums of last summer, after a deflating collapse to Atlanta and amid all the uncertainty surrounding Simmons, the only hopeful questions were the ones about Maxey. Can he be the starting point guard next season? Does he make an All-Star team at some point? Even then, I thought those questions were a tad hopeful based on what we had seen from Maxey to that point.
I was wrong because those questions turned out to be perfectly reasonable. Maxey was the lead ballhandler on a team that was well on pace to nab homecourt advantage, and in doing so at 21 years old, proved that an All-Star team is not out of the question in his career.
So, how does Maxey go from not good enough (which is how he described his playoff performance) to something better than that? The key for him is to consistently score for an entire game.
It’s more about being a scoring threat than an actual points increase. The common thread with Maxey is that he starts to cook from beyond the arc. The primary thing Maxey has to do next season is increase his 3-point volume. I said that last summer as well, but his frequency only went from 4.0 to 4.2 attempts per 36 minutes. He just started to make those shots this season. Even when that happened, Maxey still was too finicky when allowed to launch 3s.
The player who I would advise Maxey to study is Damian Lillard, a similarly-sized scoring guard who can beat teams from 30 feet or by driving to the rim. Phil Beckner, who is Lillard’s personal coach, just so happened to work on the Sixers staff as a consultant this season. Maxey is a better finisher than Lillard but he needs to bridge the gap as a shooter by cutting down on midrange jumpers. In Lillard’s prime years, he took on average about 25 percent of his shots from midrange. Last season, Maxey was at 38 percent for midrange shots.
Redistributing those shots from beyond the arc is the starting point. It would make Maxey a much more dangerous driver and playmaker while cutting into the Sixers’ consistent volume problem from beyond the arc. How he might go about doing that with a ball-dominant player (Harden) will be interesting to see. But obviously, it’s fair to feel positive about Maxey eventually figuring that part out.
(Photo of Tyrese Maxey, Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBA via Getty Images)