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Instead of a Sixers-Raptors Preview, Let’s Talk About Flawed Roster Construction

Don’t worry, there’s game info here too

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers and Raptors last played about ten minutes ago, so please don’t mind indulging me in linking to Thursday’s game recap and waxing poetic about a topic near and dear to my heart: roster construction. It is Festivus, after all, and this is my airing of grievances.

Most defenses of recent 76ers roster moves are not really defenses, per se, but acknowledgment that because we already have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, it would be difficult to screw up around them. And while, yes, having an alpha and an almost-omega is a terrific start, it isn’t the end-all in a league where the top teams boast as many as four top 15 overall players. In order to acquire additional stars and contributors that fit the team’s realistic timeline, the Sixers have to be as effective in finding rotation pieces as their top competitors. In the last two years, the Sixers are way behind the league’s top Joneses.

As an unabashed Hinkie-ite, I stan for teams that battle on the margins, looking for small competitive edges in the NBA’s zero-sum game. The Sixers played around the margins to acquire Robert Covington (D-League), T.J. McConnell (undrafted free agent), and Richaun Holmes (second round pick). Three key contributors among our seven top players this season came from low expected value sources. Rather than treat them as outliers, because of the unlikeliness, let’s remember that they are the byproduct of (1) their own hard work and (2) opportunity. The Sixers were a platform for these guys because they offered opportunities and dedicated multiple roster spots to mine these prospects.

When push comes to shove, and the Sixers turn competitive, expect only Covington to be a bargain – due to the NBA’s extension rules and some admittedly shrewd negotiating from Colangelo – but those other players bring value in potential trade opportunities, in their potential for slight growth given their age, and in their knowledge of the team’s system.

One team fatefully connected to the Sixers exemplifies the way of thinking I endorse – my, our, hated enemies the Boston Celtics. Boston has gambled on young players for key roles on the team, used their cap space on young players with the potential to grow, and have rolled their draft picks to future drafts or drafted stashed players rather than sell picks. Even the Markelle Fultz trade exemplifies this line of thinking (though I will defend that trade as long as I live).

Boston spent some money on bench veterans, like the $4M dropped on Aron Baynes, but not the whole bench. They use roster spots on tons of young players, some of which cash in on those opportunities like second round pick Semi Ojeleye and undrafted free agent Daniel Theis. They spun an impending free agent (Avery Bradley) into a worse player but with a team-friendly contract (Marcus Morris).

Not all of their picks work out – draft picks and free agents from the Celtics dot the G-league and other NBA teams looking for similar opportunities, like Demetrius Jackson and R.J. Hunter – but they find contributors because they use their roster spots to find people who can contribute for them and never let roster spots sit stale, unless your name is James Young and you still ooze potential, even today.

The Celtics aren’t the only team you can point to. Golden State is successful enough to have veterans sign below their market value, but they complement those veterans with young players like Kevon Looney, Patrick McCaw, and of course Jordan Bell, who showed out last night and is already an integral part of the rotation.

On the other side, the Sixers committed $27M over three seasons to Jerryd Bayless, $11M for Amir Johnson, and $23M for J.J. Redick (who, admittedly, while occasionally frustrating also has provided positive value). The Sixers were going to spend some money anyway to hit the salary floor, but now is the perfect time to farm out roster spots to look for future key contributors rather than waste time on current ones, so that on your actually competitive teams you have inexpensive contributors. They could have saved the $3M in cash on salary that they received by selling the 39th pick in the draft. Two guys picked after that slot are getting regular playing time on teams this year – while the odds of selecting those players aren’t great, it’s better than throwing money at Amir Johnson to take away minutes from Richaun Holmes (though thankfully this trend has been recently reversing).

The Sixers spent up to the cap despite being able to pay their top 3 players only $29 million this year, and aside from the gravity impact that J.J. Redick provides, you could argue that similar production could have been obtained from players on minimum contracts. The Sixers took one of their tools in the woodshed – cap space – and turned it into completely nothing. It has negative short-term and long-term implications.

It’s also why the “cut Jah” movement was something legitimate and not just a running joke from the Nokafor crowd. I was a fan of keeping Jahlil only if he could be exchanged for an asset in a trade. Instead, he along with Nik Stauskas was used as salary filler in a deal which saw the Sixers add Trevor Booker, a nice player who’s 120% of Amir Johnson and will add maybe a win or two this season once he’s healthy and playing alongside players who can shoot. The Sixers, hilariously, gave up a second round pick in the deal. It’s poor resource management

While they have an excess of second round picks over their annual pick cache, I don’t trust in their ability to leverage them in the right way, given recent history. Nik Stauskas performing the best so far of the three players exchanged in the trade is hilarious and also sadly predictable.

In Bryan Colangelo’s defense, he has consistently throughout his career as a general manager drafted and employed prospects from outside the U.S. I’m not as high on Jonah Bolden as others, but having more pieces like him is beneficial in a lot of ways. I think calling their international prospects a quiver would make me too entwined with the tao of Sam, but Colangelo quietly restocked their portfolio in this past summer’s draft.

So it’s clear that he sees some value in having international prospects under the team’s control. It’s unclear why he doesn’t see NBA roster spots, the most important spots of all, the same way. The Sixers have an open roster spot at the moment despite having injuries/illnesses impacting up to six players, and some of those players (like Trevor Booker without Embiid or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot) have been close to unplayable at times. There’s no reason to not fill that spot.

Aside from Joel Embiid’s uncertain health, the Sixers’ biggest issue is depth. Given the money and other resources at hand, it’s inexcusable that the roster is so shallow. With the higher expectations the team placed on itself this year, it’s put Brett Brown into the line of fire (mostly unfairly) and turned what should have been a turnaround season for the franchise into a bit of a nightmare. But even more importantly, it puts the team into a worse position in the future, and a key role player could be the difference between a championship and being, like, the Clippers. And we didn’t go through the Process to end up like the Clippers.

Game Info:

Time: 5 PM

Channel: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Location: Air Canada Centre

One other note: DeMar DeRozan had a career night to overcome tired legs and a myriad of turnovers to win Thursday’s game for Toronto after being down 22. Sometimes, players just do unusual things and you have to live with it.

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