The Philadelphia 76ers were a win away from reaching their first Eastern Conference Finals with Joel Embiid, but dropped back-to-back games against the Boston Celtics to once again send them into the offseason trying to figure out what went wrong in a disappointing postseason.
The biggest move so far this offseason in Philly has been firing Doc Rivers and hiring Nick Nurse in hopes a new voice can breathe some new life into the team. While the Sixers would’ve liked to just try and mostly run it back under Nurse by making some minor tweaks to the rotation around their stars, they now find themselves trying to deal with James Harden’s third trade request in four years. That has made this year’s offseason nearly impossible to get out of with a roster as good as last year’s, and with Embiid feeling the heat of a postseason disappointment after finally winning MVP, taking a step back isn’t exactly something he’s looking to do.
Here we’ll grade out their offseason moves from the Draft, free agency and contract extensions, and the trade market, where things are very much still unresolved.
The Sixers didn’t have a draft pick this year due in part to when they traded for James Harden, and while they made three undrafted signings, afterwards, they don’t get a grade here.
Free Agency/Contract Extensions: C+
The Sixers re-signed three of their five free agents, and added a pair of outside free agents on the minimum to replace who they lost. The most important signing was matching the unique offer sheet Utah threw at Paul Reed, as he’ll be guaranteed for all three years provided the Sixers make the second round of the playoffs. Reed blossomed as Embiid’s backup a year ago (the Sixers also brought back Montrezl Harrell as their third center) and gives them. The biggest external move was bringing in Patrick Beverley, who I think brings an edge they need even understanding his offensive limitations. Losing Shake Milton takes some offensive pop out of their backcourt rotation, which could be an even bigger issue depending on what they get in return for Harden, but Beverley will give them a point of attack pest that they could use, especially knowing what Nick Nurse likes to do defensively. That, to me, is at worst a wash for the Sixers.
However, the bigger issue is losing Georges Niang and Jalen McDaniels and having, to this point, done nothing to address that hole in the wing rotation. Niang was a much larger part of the rotation, serving as their most reliable three-point shooter off the bench (40.1 percent from three in the regular season, 46.2 percent in the playoffs). That’s not to say Niang isn’t replaceable, but they just haven’t done so and that means, right now, they’re a team with less depth than before. McDaniels was a midseason acquisition that played a smaller role, but likewise had a good shooting spell in the regular season with the Sixers and gave them some length and switchability on defense. Again, not irreplaceable but just an absence from the rotation they haven’t addressed.
Signing Mo Bamba was a bit of a curious choice considering they already signed Harrell and Reed, but that’s a low-risk swing on upside and adding a floor spacing big. It’s very possible the holes left by Niang and McDaniels in the rotation are filled by a James Harden trade, but then again, you’re having to replace Harden’s productivity as well.
The Sixers haven’t made a trade yet, but it certainly seems like that’ll change eventually. Harden is uniquely skilled at pressuring a team into trading him where he wants to go, and while the Sixers have shown a willingness in the past to get “uncomfortable” until the right deal presents itself, Harden’s value is far different from Ben Simmons’ was. Simmons was at least still a young player who had shown All-Star caliber play in the past, was under contract long-term, and wasn’t determined to be in any one place. James Harden, meanwhile, is on an expiring and has made clear he has only one destination in mind. That makes it far more difficult to find another team that will come with a better offer than L.A., and also makes it difficult to pressure the Clippers into offering up their best package — which hinges on Terance Mann’s inclusion by all accounts.
For now, we remain in a holding pattern and wait to see if Harden gets to dig into his bag of disruption tricks in training camp, or if the Sixers and Clippers will finally reach an agreement. The problem for Philly is, even if they get the best possible (realistic) deal out of Los Angeles, it’s not going to be enough to replace Harden’s productivity. If they got Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Terance Mann, that’d be a solid haul that would make up for some of the loss of Harden (and be an upgrade over the departing Niang) but they’d still be lacking the on-ball playmaking of Harden. For all the conversation about him taking a step back as a scorer, where he was once arguably the best scorer in the league and is no longer in that class, he is still a terrific facilitator and without him, they’ll just not have a clear playmaker for others on the roster. That’s especially a problem when your best player is a center who needs a point guard to get him the ball in his spots, and for all of Tyrese Maxey’s skills, he is not close to Harden’s level as a passer. Neither is Powell, Beverley, or De’Anthony Melton, and that would be a genuine point of concern for an offense that already had a tendency to get bogged down in key moments.
All told, the Harden trade request is, to me, worse for Philly than the Damian Lillard request is for the Blazers, simply because the Sixers will still have the same expectations to be a title contender without Harden, while Portland gets to turn into a young, rebuilding team. The Sixers can’t afford to get fleeced on a Harden trade, but also have very little in the way of options. Even the best Clippers package leaves a tremendous hole in the roster this season and if they can’t even get that it’s a borderline disaster, because wasting a year of Embiid’s prime, even with a ton of cap space opening up next summer to make a big signing or trade, is not going to sit particularly well in Philly.