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2017-18 Sixers’ Mailbag, 17.1

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers-Media Day Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

WE’VE ALMOST MADE IT, GUYS. SIXERS’ BASKETBALL IS HERE TOMORROW. And the regular season kicks off in less than three weeks. Happy birthday to me!

With Kyle, Jake, and Shamus all taking their talents to new places, the mailbag feature has fallen to yours truly. I’ll be looking to do it bi-weekly for the time being, and then I’ll adjust based on how that feels. We’ve got a lot of good questions as we head into the most exciting Sixers’ season since... 2002?(!) So let’s get to it.

With Nerlens’ move to Dallas, JoJo is the first Process Era player deserving of big money that the front office will need to make a decision about. I come from the Michael Levin school of thought: Pay the man his money.

As a quick refresher, Embiid’s rookie production was historic in the games he played. His per 36 production of 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks (plus a full 3.0 assists) is unmatched by any rookie. Ever. He was a defensive savant who elevated the Sixers’ D to league best levels (again, as a *rookie*). And the team competed at approximately .500 levels with JoJo on the court, with a point differential that was 12.7 points better per 100 possessions when he played, according to Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass.

Given all that, you’ll be hard pressed to find a player who will so clearly outperform the value of his contract when he steps on the court given the CBA’s restrictions.

However, the team’s reticence to commit is understandable. 31 games in 3 seasons is truly problematic, and there have been whispers that his injury recovery this summer has, again, been blighted by a lack of focus.

My hope would be for the two parties to find a middle ground somewhat akin to Steph Curry’s deal with the Warriors in 2013-14. His 4 year, $44 million deal came to about 18% of the salary cap, a sizable step down from the max salary, while still a clear statement from the team that they understood he deserved a sizable pay increase. A similarly sized deal for Embiid would come to around 4 years and $80 million. As with Curry, that’s substantially less than Embiid wants, but still more than the Biyombo-level contracts (4/$72) other starting centers have garnered the last few years.

If the two parties were able to agree to something along those lines, it would have a similar effect in boosting the Sixers’ cap situation to Curry’s on GSW the last few years (which was the mechanism by which Myers was able to open enough cap space to sign Kevin Durant last summer).

That said, Embiid may simply be too dug in to agree to such terms. If that’s the case, I do think the team will cave and we’ll see him sign a max contract before the season starts. Embiid is simply too important to the Sixers’ future for Colangelo and co. to haggle over a few dollars.

Along similar lines...

I think he’ll be playing opening night. I have no intel and my entire reasoning is, “I’m optimistic,” but there it is.

If he’s not, I actually think Brett might opt to go out of the box and start Amir Johnson. Johnson isn’t the level of rim protector that Embiid is, but he’s the best big man defender on the team outside of Joel, and the team is geared towards trying to win games this year. Slotting Amir into a starting role in Embiid’s absence would allow Richaun to remain in his regular rotation spot and would upset the team’s equilibrium as little as possible.

It would also enable Johnson to go from warm-ups into the starting lineup, a nice perk for an older player whose body is starting to betray him.

It’s also possible that Okafor is slotted into Embiid’s starting replacement role; this would have the same benefit of not upsetting the rotational order. However, rather than cementing the starting unit’s defense, it would have the opposite effect. And shoehorning Okafor, whose value as a player is predicated solely upon his scoring, into lineups with Fultz, Simmons, and Redick, in which he would be the 3rd or 4th preferred option would be a poor use of him. I think it’s more likely that he’ll be given the opportunity to beat up on bench unites in games Embiid misses than for the team to use Okafor as a full-out replacement.

The team has moved out of the phase of its rebuild in which training camp invitees are likely to make the season roster. Yes, there remains the small possibility of unearthing another Robert Covington out of the UDFA trash heap, but the team has clearly decided to go a different direction for the time being. And while it would be great to try to find another 3&D guard with these training camp moves, passing up the opportunity to sign another Brandon Davies or Chasson Randle simply doesn’t impact the team’s future potential very much.

Emeka Okafor is represented by Jeff Schwartz, one of the biggest agents in the NBA, with a client list that includes LaMarcus Aldridge, Harrison Barnes, Kevin Love, and Nikola Jokic. It’s entirely possible that Colangelo is making this move to appease a big player on the free agent front, and it comes with no realized cost, given how unlikely it is that Okafor will make the final roster.

Humphries, meanwhile, appears to be the manifestation of Colangelo’s bizarre “stretch 4” fixation rearing its head again. He took 3.6 3PA per 36 minutes during his last two seasons, and even shot a respectable 35.2% last year. Colangelo seems to truly believe that a shooting 4 is important, and Humphries may be an attempt to cover that base for minimal cost.

This is a tough one, especially given Brett’s affinity for TJ and what he has meant to the organization for the last two years. It’s probable, at least to start the season, that Bayless will get most of the remaining backup PG minutes. He’s a seamless fit with Simmons, and he was brought in to provide shooting.

I’m also hopeful that Brett will stagger Fultz’s and Simmons’ minutes so that they each get some time alone running the offense over the course of the game. Of course, that would also mean fewer available minutes aththe point for the backups.

In TJ’s favor: He has played 81 games the last two seasons and seems genuinely as hale as NBA players get. There will be times when the injury situation necessitates his availability, and TJ has shown himself willing and able to take advantage of the opportunities he is given. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on Bayless playing more minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see TJ work his way into a solid backup role by season’s end.