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Dreams and Nightmares: On Missing Out in Free Agency

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And, when doing so, to remain committed to the plan, re-calibrate, and be ready to start the pursuit all over again.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Brown captured headlines and Process fans’ hearts and souls in declaring his intentions to commence “star-hunting” during this offseason. After trading for a future first round pick in the Zhaire Smith-Mikal Bridges swap and declaring it as an asset to be used in a future acquisition, fans imagined for Kawhi Leonard and signing LeBron James or Paul George. Waking up a week or so later, it may as well have all been a dream.

Less than two days into free agency, LeBron and George are off the board, choosing to spend the next 3+ years in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City respectively, with only a courtesy meeting with Rich Paul to show for the Sixers’ efforts. Leonard is still available but with an uncertain status, given his mysterious leg injury which limited him to 9 games one year ago and whispers that he would hold out for a full season to force his way home to Los Angeles, specifically to a Lakers team which is conspicuously using its remaining cap space after signing the King to bring in players on one-year contracts.

More teams try to sign superstars than ultimately end up signing them. The Sixers were fortunate that there were only truly three suitors for LeBron’s services. Dating back to the first Decision, in 2011, the Heat were one of about 10 teams with serious ambitions to sign the King. Nine teams walked away empty-handed. Most ended up disappointed and acted irrationally in the aftermath.

Despite the historically low odds of coming out of free agency with a superstar from another team, free agency is not necessarily a fool’s game. By acquiring a player simply with cap space, it’s a super-valuable team-building tool given the low cost. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play. Teams too often overreact to failing to sign superstars. Too often, teams create cap space without having the future commitments or alternatives. It’s what results in situations such as the second most notable trade heist of the century; desperation (and, with it, “optics”) leads to rash decisions. The Sixers, all of a sudden flush with cash with no superstar talent to give it to, will need to avoid this.

The Sixers are very fortunate that LeBron James made his third Decision clear on the first day of free agency. Valuable players remain on the market. The number of teams with cap space, exceptions, and space under the luxury tax threshold are minimal, which gives the Sixers leverage to sign free agents at discount prices. Signing J.J. Redick to a one-year deal at around $12-13 million, which takes up approximately half of the team’s remaining cap space before any other transactions (such as a Jerryd Bayless buyout, waiving of non-guaranteed contracts, etc.) are considered, is a great start to a failed superstar pursuit. It allows the Sixers to continue on what was already an upward path.

By re-signing J.J. Redick, the Sixers have to-date retained last season’s primary starting lineup and most frequently used one This lineup (Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid) was the best high-usage lineup in the Eastern Conference, with a PLUS TWENTY-ONE* net rating, the best such lineup with over 300 minutes played in the NBA by more than four net points. While the lineup was exposed in the playoffs due to a lack of individual shot-creation, it should remain a regular-season powerhouse. And with about $14M in cap space available, this will allow the Sixers to sign replacements for Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli, and Amir Johnson or use the space in trades, Kawhi or (Kawhi) not, to find upgrades to plug that lineup hole.

The editing behind this plus minus is sourced from a rule created by Cardboard Gerald that anything above +/-19.9 is written in ALL CAPS and indicates a plus/minus that is truly preposterous. I will continue to apply this rule in perpetuity.

There’s also the possibility of an effective Markelle Fultz, but let’s not count eggs before they hatch.

Simply put: the Sixers don’t necessarily need to go all-in on using trades and free agency to improve going forward. The team’s core pieces aside from Redick are in their primes or still on an upward progress curve in their player development. Chemistry among the starters and other returning players should hopefully continue to improve the team’s comfort within their system and reduce last year’s ghastly turnover rate. Assuming good health, last year’s record should be an approximate floor, especially given weaker non-Boston conference competition.

Given that, the Sixers should not feel rushed to make an all-in trade for Leonard now. The current publicized trade offer – Covington, Saric, and the 2021 Heat first round pick at a minimum, with the Spurs evidently demanding more – is already too rich. For one, giving up that much on-court value for an injured, disgruntled superstar is poor management. Second, with no assurances that Leonard will return to Philadelphia, the aforementioned whispers, and with the Lakers primed to have a max cap slot available, the Sixers should have steady competition to retain his services if they do acquire him.

And third, in any case, the Sixers will again be able to roll their max cap room to next year provided they decline to extend multi-year offers this summer. Sixers fans can dream about signing a maximum salaried free agent all over again. Do it often enough, and it becomes a nightmare. But if the dream comes true even just once, especially with a player the caliber of Kawhi Leonard or any number of candidates next summer, the Sixers will be set for a very long time.