Then, nearly two weeks later, Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Bjelica would not be returning to the NBA, instead opting to stay overseas and play for a Euroleague club. Ultimately, the back-and-forth saga resulted in Bjelica craving long-term stability and the 6-foot-10 big man is reportedly in talks with the Sacramento Kings, hammering out a deal that secures his NBA future for more than just one season.
Whatever you make of Bjelica’s decision, the reality is that the Sixers are now without a player who can step in and replace the production Ersan Ilyasova provided during his two-month stint with the club.
As a whole, Philadelphia was a slightly above-average shooting team last season, ranking near the middle of the pack in three-pointers made, attempted and overall percentage. But after inserting late-season pickups Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli into the rotation, the team transformed into a powerhouse beyond the arc, ranking in the top five in both three-point percentage and threes made.
That newfound outside shooting permeated into the team’s overall play as the Sixers went 20-3 with Ilyasova and Belinelli in the fold. From March 1 on (Ilyasova and Belinelli’s first game together as members of the Sixers), they amassed the second-best net rating (plus-12.8) and offensive rating (112.5) in the league — a sharp increase from the plus-2.5 net rating and 105.5 offensive rating they registered prior to Ilyasova and Belinelli’s arrivals. There’s no denying that their string of bottom-feeding opponents aided those marks, but Ilyasova and Belinelli’s presence altered the geometry of the floor and invigorated the offense.
Neither was particularly effective in the postseason, but not every player is destined to be an impact playoff performer. Both played a key role in the Sixers’ run to the third seed, helping create lineups that surrounded passing savant Ben Simmons with at least three shooters, affording the point-forward the requisite space to create for himself or others.
But alas, both will kick off the 2018-19 season in new threads. Ilyasova returned to Milwaukee, where he spent the first seven years of his NBA career before bouncing around the league for three seasons, while Belinelli is also making a homecoming of sorts, set to embark upon a second go-round with the Spurs.
With Belinelli and Ilyasova gone, an important question presents itself: Do the Sixers have enough shooting on the roster?
Franchise cornerstones Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the engines driving Philadelphia’s short- and long-term prosperity, but neither is currently a threat from deep — no matter how mystical the sight of Embiid hoisting triples is — which forces Brett Brown to flank them with plus shooters in order to maximize their talents. With snipers Robert Covington, Dario Saric and J.J. Redick joining those two in the super-charged starting unit, there’s usually enough shooting to alleviate those concerns during the most important moments.
When one of those three heads to the bench, though, is where concerns arise. Offseason acquisitions Wilson Chandler (35.8 percent from three last season) and Mike Muscala (37.1 percent) are capable beyond the arc, though both come with strings attached.
Chandler, primarily effective from three as a spot-up shooter, can’t replicate Belinelli’s off-ball verve, traverse through a maze of screens, or command the same gravity on the catch. Belinelli’s quick trigger and continuous movement opened up creases in the floor that made life easier for Simmons and others.
Meanwhile, Muscala’s defensive woes might relegate him to third-string center behind Embiid and Amir Johnson, as he’s not quite as offensively versatile as Ilyasova, which was a factor in Ilyasova’s feature role last season.
Chandler and Muscala aren’t the only shooters who might see significant burn off the bench next season, but they’re the only ones with a proven track record. With Justin Anderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot headed to Atlanta and Oklahoma City after Thursday’s trade, the Sixers are left to feed some combination of Markelle Fultz — who should also see time at point guard — Zhaire Smith, Furkan Korkmaz, Landry Shamet and Shake Milton (assuming he gets signed) reserve minutes on the wings.
*No, Jerryd Bayless won’t be in the rotation, and if he is, the Sixers are in a world of trouble regarding their wing depth.*
A healthy Fultz projects to be a devastating scorer and playmaker off the bench, but banking on his outside shot returning to pre-injury form from day one next season is a risky and ill-advised proposition. Even without a lethal jumper, there’s plenty of reasons to be encouraged by what Fultz can offer, though, and it’s likely he has a significant role, regardless of whether or not he’s a 3-point threat. Just don’t expect him to supply the bench shooting this team covets.
Smith may see significant playing time as a rookie but considering he’s workshopping his jumper, it almost assuredly won’t come alongside both Embiid and Simmons. Three non-shooters on the court together is a near-death sentence in today’s NBA.
The other three remaining options are all heralded as knockdown shooters, though lack NBA experience. Korkmaz saw the court for just 80 minutes during his first year in the league, spending the majority of his season in the G League, while Shamet and Milton are both rookies entering a team with aspirations of a top-two seed in the East. It seems unlikely either rookie is handed a heavy dose of minutes next season, leaving Korkmaz as the most viable option.
*I completely acknowledge this refutes opinions I have expressed in previous articles. Forgive me as I was young and foolish back then.*
Korkmaz burst onto the scene during Summer League this year, flamethrowing his way to 40 points on 10-of-18 shooting (8 of 14 from deep) in the team’s opening game this summer. From there, though, the Turkish wing fizzled out, averaging just 16.7 points on 38 percent shooting for the entire tournament.
Despite his upside as a shooter, questions persist as to what value he can provide beyond that if his shot isn’t falling. He’s not a particularly competent defender yet, and doesn’t do enough off the bounce as a scorer or facilitator to warrant consistent playing time without a reliable jumper. After a 52-win season, the Sixers are no longer content to let players refine their craft and work through growing pains during games. The Process remains a long-term vision, but in-game development at the expense of winning is a thing of the past. If Korkmaz can’t knock down triples with regularity or hold his own defensively, it might spell trouble, considering he’s one of the team’s best floor-spacing wing options off the bench, assuming no additional roster moves are made between now and October.
However, recent reports suggest the Sixers might not be done tinkering with their roster. After landing Muscala, Pompey reported, and Marc Stein of the New York Times later confirmed, Philadelphia has had discussions about entering negotiations with the Cavaliers to deal for veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
As one of the greatest shooters of all-time, Korver would seamlessly step in to replace Belinelli’s bench production — and then some — rendering many of these concerns moot. He’s a bigger, longer and smarter defender than Belinelli, which will allow him to remain playable in the postseason. He’s an off-ball dynamo and units with he and Redick on the wings, while potentially problematic defensively, would be electric offensively, especially if Simmons is running the show.
I don’t need to go into great detail about Korver’s potential fit in Philadelphia. The team needs wing shooting. He’s one of the best to ever launch ‘em from deep and is an incredibly versatile shooter, proving capable off motion and in stationary sets. Acquiring him without sacrificing any truly promising assets is a no-brainer and would shore up one of the biggest holes in relation to the Sixers’ roster construction.
But as it currently stands, Korver is not back in Philadelphia, and shooting, primarily from the bench unit, remains an issue. Thanks to Chandler and Muscala’s arrival, the Sixers will enter next season with more shooting than at the start of the 2017-18 season. However, the team was at its best in April, not October, with Ilyasova and Belinelli adding a new dynamic to the offense that helped Simmons (and others) raise his game sans Embiid.
There is veritable hope that Korver joins the fray in the coming weeks and makes this a non-issue. For now, though, with Boston adding a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and Toronto nabbing Kawhi Leonard, the Sixers’ biggest Eastern Conference rivals look to be much improved next season. It is imperative the team finds a way to ensure that Simmons and Embiid aren’t held back by a lack of shooting around them.
It’s hard enough to build a contender with two non-shooters at the forefront. A herd of unprepared and unplayable shooters off the bench makes it even tougher.