The Philadelphia 76ers will improve next season. They have the No. 10 pick and a summer’s worth of development from Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and even Markelle Fultz (thanks, Drew Hanlen). Their young core is set on an upward trajectory unlike almost any other team in the league. But, with the chance to create max cap space, they could reach another level through free agency.
We all know the targets: LeBron James and Paul George. And, if you’re scheming up trades, the increasingly unhappy Kawhi Leonard.
If you have a chance to land LeBron, you go for it every time. Your ceiling is higher with him than anyone else because he’s better than everyone else. It’s that simple. If he can drag a Cleveland Cavaliers roster that would miss the playoffs without him to the Finals, just think what he could do with these Sixers.
Even though his arrival would bring about some questions — such as how well Simmons would fare off the ball without a jumper, and whether LeBron would hinder Simmons’ development somewhat by handling so much of the offense — they’re questions you’d love to have because you’re getting LeBron. You take the best player in the world with open arms every time (I’m also confident Simmons will improve off the ball as a cutter and screener, King or no King, and they can always be staggered).
That said, it isn’t the end of the world if the Sixers can’t get their hands on LeBron.
In my mind, Paul George is a better, easier fit than LeBron for this Sixers team, especially over the early stages of a new partnership. With George, the Sixers would avoid a few of the fit issues they’d have with LeBron, while George’s skill set is perfectly built to align with the rest of the roster on and off the ball, and address some of the team’s key weaknesses.
One of the Sixers’ problems this year was not having more shot creation. Sure, Simmons can be a monstrous driver and Embiid is a scoring force at center. But they weren’t enough.
As we saw in the playoffs, the Sixers missed having someone who could comfortably create shots off the dribble when they needed a good look from the perimeter. That's a problem when you just need someone to go get a bucket, and Embiid can’t do it all. The second round against the Boston Celtics made that crystal clear as his post-ups turned into black holes at times and he didn’t have the passing vision or willingness to help keep the offense moving.
The numbers from the regular season show how valuable another creator would be, too. Philly scored 1.17 points per possession with a 59.9 True Shooting Percentage when Simmons and Embiid were on the floor. Without them, those numbers dropped all the way to 1.04 and 53.9 percent, respectively.
To put that True Shooting into perspective, that's the difference between the 2nd-best team in the league and the 3rd-worst (in other words, the historically efficient Houston Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies).
The simple option of being able to have at least one of Simmons, Embiid or George on the floor at all times should terrify opponents. And George's skill set is perfect to complement them as a secondary/tertiary guy, or as the go-to when need be.
The Sixers have no one on their team who can create shots like this — look how effortlessly George uses the behind-the-back crossover to leave Ricky Rubio in the first clip, or how comfortable he is on the second shot, messing with Royce O’Neale before calmly drilling a step-back 3:
Now picture George working with Embiid as his screener instead of Steven Adams, as Embiid can do far more with the ball and actually poses a threat from 3 to keep his defender pulled further from the paint. Get caught on the screen or play off George to help on Embiid’s roll, and you leave George with more time to create shots like those above (he hit an impressive 37.7 percent of his pull-up 3s last season). Hedge too hard on George or go for a trap, and he’s a good enough playmaker to hit Embiid with a pocket pass or swing the ball to another shooter.
It’s off-the-dribble situations, like all those 3s above, where the Sixers need George the most, especially while Simmons lacks range and is limited as a scorer. George has a soft jumper from anywhere and can create through tough pull-ups and step-backs, beating closeouts to attack the rim, and pick-and-rolls, where he scored on 41.1 percent of such plays and ranked in the 72nd percentile as the ball handler.
And as a solid secondary passer, he won’t bog down the offense either. He can pass out of pick-and-rolls and is more than comfortable beating his defender off the dribble to draw help and find the open man:
Similarly to using high screens with Embiid, George-Simmons pick-and-rolls is another thing I’d love to see in action. If George doesn’t get a shot off, he can hit Simmons flying down the lane. And from there, we all know what Simmons can do — he’ll explode to the rim or pick apart a scrambling defense by passing to shooters out of short rolls with ease. It's near impossible to create a better roller/playmaker than Simmons.
Then there’s the matter of how George excels off the ball. He’s terrific catch-and-shoot option that would create a stellar cast of shooting around Embiid and Simmons, or just the latter in smaller lineups where Simmons is surrounded by four shooters.
When Embiid draws a double team inside or Simmons tears through the paint and collapses opposing defenses, George will be at the ready, playing off their gravity to shift around the arc, find space and finish off discombobulated opponents — he shot 40.8 percent on 5.6 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game and ranked in the 92nd percentile on spot-up possessions last season. Having a passer of Simmons’ caliber to play with, to hit him in the right spots with perfect timing, will only bring out the best George has to offer. Just imagine how unstoppable a Simmons-Redick-George-Saric-Ilyasova lineup would be.
And with so much length at their disposal with George onboard, the Sixers would address their issue of two-way wing play as well.
Even though the Sixers ranked third in defensive rating last season, there’s always room for improvement and there were obvious weaknesses on show in the playoffs, with JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli both being abused by certain mismatches against the Celtics. Boston was forcing switches through pick-and-rolls to get Al Horford onto Belinelli in the post or bullying Redick on the low block with Marcus Smart. It didn’t matter if they (Belinelli and JJ) were surrounded by four plus defenders. With Belinelli and Redick on the floor against a smart, skilled, versatile team, they could be singled out:
Adding George would remove these mismatches at the click of Brett Brown’s fingers.
George had an excellent defensive season, especially while he was still playing alongside Andre Roberson before the Oklahoma City Thunder’s star defender got hurt and their defense (and team as a whole) dropped off later in the year. With his long, twitchy, 6’8” frame, George can smother his opponents when he wants to, using his assertiveness and length to bully players on the ball or break up plays with his reactions and instincts off it. He ranked 10th in Defensive Win Shares, second in steals per game (two) and finished joint second with Covington in deflections per game at 3.9.
George snatching steals and flinging pretty passes down court like these to Simmons would help the Sixers have even more unstoppable runs in transition:
With a lineup featuring Simmons, George, Covington, Embiid and potential 10th overall pick Mikal Bridges, a talented, versatile defensive wing, the Sixers could lockdown teams with a mass of length and switchability, rather than being susceptible to a having one of their small guards picked on at any moment. Lineups where Bridges is the smallest guy on the floor at 6'7" with a 7'2" wingspan would be a major weapon to have.
As perfect as the fit seems to be with George and Philly, though, and as much as they have to offer him (from max money, to a good coach, to amazing talent), it looks like his focus will lie elsewhere. For as long as his upcoming free agency has been a point of discussion, we’ve known he has strong interest in going to L.A. to join the Lakers. The Houston Rockets will also be firmly in the mix.
If that's the case and LeBron heads West as well, the Sixers’ superstar pursuit may come down to a big offer for the disgruntled Kawhi Leonard (especially if they have reassurance that he’ll want to stay beyond the final year of his contract). And for a top-five player, with two Defensive Player of the Year awards to his name and an elite, well-rounded scoring arsenal, an offer of the 2018 10th overall pick, Markelle Fultz, and either Robert Covington or Dario Saric may be what’s needed to form a Big 3 in Philly.