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Sixers Free Agency So Far: Some Thoughts On Wilson Chandler, JJ Redick, Kawhi Leonard, Amir Johnson and Others (Part 2)

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Evaluating the Sixers offseason thus far.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers - Game One Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Randy submitted a lengthy piece offering his thoughts on the Sixers’ endeavors during the Free Agency period thus far. We’ve chosen to split it into two parts. You can read part 1 here. The following is part 2.

JJ Redick

I can’t persuade myself to be happy about bringing JJ Redick back. I’m sure he’s a big help to brett, and maybe I’m underappreciating the importance of that. But I can’t get past the fact that Tyreke Evans got the same money, and we wanted JJ instead, and Tyreke is, as far as I can tell, just a far better player. I wrote a bunch about this in a comment and I’m going to use some of the text, modified a bit, here as I put some work into it.

To those who question why people like me are going on and on about Tyreke: I question your questioning! Go take a look at last year’s per-36 numbers for, say, JJ Redick, Tyreke Evans, and Paul George. You’ll see that one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong. And the thing that doesn’t belong is JJ.

  • Points: Reke 22, PG 23, JJ 20
  • Rebounds: Reke 6, PG 7, JJ 3
  • Assists: Reke 6, PG 3, JJ 4
  • Stocks: Reke 1.7, PG 2.0, JJ 0.7

Tyreke dominates JJ in three categories and beats him reasonably badly in the other, whereas PG and Reke look about equal, with Tyreke’s 3 extra assists balanced out by 1 point, 1 rebound and .3 stocks. On-off stats confirm this, with Evans and George looking like top-30 players and JJ borderline top-100. In particular, Tyreke is 6’6” and athletic, and the on-off stats say he’s a very good defender, and so do the traditional stats (steals/blocks/defensive rebounds). None of those stats are perfect, but when everything — size, athleticism, old stats, new stats — say a guy is playing good D, why wouldn’t we believe it? Because people questioned his D when he was a teenager?!?!

Now, there are arguments against Evans. Although this is hardly his only good year — he was stellar in his ROTY-winning campaign — it is by far his best year, whereas PG and JJ are always this good. Tyreke’s career 3P% isn’t great, but since he’s been terrific from three 3 years running I would tend to say it’s clear he’s good; still, others may weigh the more distant years more heavily than I do. He’s had plenty of injuries. But you know, you can pick at anyone. JJ is 34, he could easily play a little worse this year and be of limited utility, or he could fall off the proverbial cliff, performance-wise, or he could suffer old-man injuries like the back issues that kept him out of some games last year. But fundamentally, with Tyreke you have a player in his 20s who has a good chance — a 40% chance, or a 60% chance, or something — to play at the level of a borderline All-Star. And we could have that guy just by offering to pay the $12M Indiana did, or perhaps a bit more. We could have had him instead of JJ Redick, who, honestly, is not much more than an average NBA player, as the on-off stats show every single year. And we chose not to. Maybe there are excellent reasons for that. But maybe it was just a horrible mistake.

Coming back to JJ, look, he’s an OK player, a useful player. On-off stats consistently suggest he is about as good as the similarly-overrated CJ McCollum, that is, a +2 or a little better offensive player, a -2 or a little better defensive player, leaving him on net between +0 (average player) and +1 (average starter). That’s a valuable contributor. Indeed $12 million is probably the going rate for such a player. The problem is, you don’t win titles by paying the going rate. You win titles by getting $30M players for $12M, as Indiana will have if Tyreke plays as well next year as he did last year. Or by getting $70M players for $35M, as the team that signs Kawhi will if he returns to form. Certainly there’s nothing tragic about giving JJ $12M, seen in a vacuum. It’s just not helping, not additive. The really crazy part was the $23M we gave him last year. I uhderstand there was supposed to be some concept that getting a big name like JJ “legitimized” us or something, but since when does adding a below-average starter and giving him a quarter of the cap legitimize anything?

I’ve heard the story that we had the space so it made sense to spend it; that’s insane. We could have used that cap room later in the year to add superior players, or to facilitate trades for others. Or we could have used it last summer to sign guys who are actually worth $23M or more. The deal would have made sense if it was part of a secret agreement whereby we overpaid JJ one year and underpaid him subsequently. That would be against the rules, and to the team’s credit, they didn’t break the rules — if there was a secret deal here, JJ failed to hold up his end and I don’t think he’d do that, so I’m assuming no such deal ever existed. But without such an agreement, the $23M makes no sense whatsoever. We can tell ourselves it’s in the past and doesn’t matter, but if we’d held the $23M we could have probably absorbed a player as good as JJ and gotten a first-round pick in the bargain (see, e.g.,what Brooklyn got for taking on Demarre Carroll). I think a number of Bryan Colangelo’s deals were better, or in some cases less bad, than many others do. But this one was worse than people realize.

What about the wings?

Obviously Brett wanted JJ, and so let’s take his signing as a given. Should we then have added another SG or SG-SF type, rather than the backup-PF-and-emergency-SF we got in Chandler? Should we have acquired, say, Wayne Ellington? Indeed, as I write Ellington is still available; should we try to add him now, using our $4.5M exception? Actually, I think not. Let’s recall what happened last year. We came into the year with a starting SG in Redick and a starting SF in Cov. In the playoffs, when benches shorten and stars play big minutes, you can back those two positions up with one good, versatile player. In the regular season, you need at least two solid wing backups to avoid wearing down your guys. Who did we have?

1) Markelle Fultz

2) Jerryd Bayless

3) TLC

4) Justin Anderson

5) Nik Stauskas

6) Furkan Korkmaz

So, what happened?

  1. Markelle had some combination of problems that took him out of action.
  2. Bayless re-injured his wrist and became unplayable (I know some think he just sucked, but I believe the numbers do not support that view; he was a solid backup for a few weeks and then the wrist issue was announced and he was ineffective after that).
  3. TLC played a lot but just never put it together.
  4. Justin looked as though he might be taking a step forward, then he was hit with some injuries; in any case he did not, overall, play effectively.
  5. Nik played poorly, got in Brett’s doghouse, and couldn’t get off the bench.
  6. Furkan had Lisfranc surgery, effectively ending his season.

We had six shots and we needed one hit and ideally two. We got zero. It was very painful. At the end of the year Marco came along and made things seem OK for a few weeks with some insanely lucky shooting (62% on two-point attempts!) before showing his true colors when he killed us against Boston.

So now the common view is that we need at least three, and ideally four, sure-thing players to cover the 2/3. Because, after all, we just lived through a year in which we had two solid players and we just assumed someone else would hit, and no one did. If feels as though taking such a chance again would be crazy.

But that’s not how I see it. The way I see it is, every year is a new poker hand. If you didn’t hit your flush or your straight last hand, despite three shots at it, that doesn’t mean you won’t hit next time. We now have JJ and Cov signed once again. Our shots are:

  1. Markelle
  2. Zhaire
  3. Furkan
  4. Landry Shamet
  5. Shake Milton
  6. TLC
  7. Justin
  8. TJ — I add him because using TJ and Ben to cover the 1 and 3 positions was effective during the playoffs; I’m not sure who’s the PG and who’s the wing in that scenario but since Ben is counted among the starters I add TJ here.

And of course there’s Chandler; I’m seeing him as a backup PF but of course he can fill in at SF when necessary.

So we have between 7 and 9, depending on how you count, shots to find at least one, and hopefully two, good backup wings. And two of those are really good shots, first round picks with tremendous potential. Could we take another offer? Absolutely, it’s possible. Let’s deal the cards! Because, honestly, you’re not going to find out what Markelle-Zhaire-Landry-Shake have if they’re sitting on the bench watching Wayne Ellington play. You have to get them out there, learning and improving. Or at least the subset of them that show they deserve that shot with their play in practice. It may cost us a game or two compared to giving all the minutes to veteran professionals, but the kids will be more fun to watch, and in the long run I think playing them will pay off.

Old Man Amir Returns

Let’s take a break from wings to discuss the latest, the signing of Amir Johnson for the veteran minimum. Longtime readers know I am a huge fan of Amir’s game, he is probably the most underrated player in the history of the modern NBA, and I am not exaggerating. I promise a proper exploration of Amir and his place in history, probably during the dead zone after Summer League but sooner if inspiration strikes. For now I’ll just share what I wrote about Amir for this article before his signing necessitated a rewrite. After discussing the fact that Kyle O’Quinn would be a nice signing but an unlikely one since we can neither offer him big money nor a chance to start, I wrote:

The other highly attractive option at center is, um, Amir Johnson. Look, I don’t know what to tell you all; Amir Johnson is just really, really good at basketball! Amir finished the season, once more, with excellent on-off numbers; his RPM was almost +2, just a hair behind O’Quinn’s. For those who don’t like on-off metrics, it’s worth noting that his traditional stats were also great, BPM, which summarizes the box score nicely, rates him an even-more-impressive +2.9. I know there are many Amir haters who think he’s a bum, and I know there are many relatively supportive folks who think he’s a solid veteran presence who didn’t embarrass himself out there. I would have hoped that when he spent a month as our starting center and we put up a record of like 135-0 in that period it might have caused at least a few folks to conclude that the on-off stats, where he has shined for around 13 straight years, are not a mirage, that he is indeed an important contributor, but instead it seemed the fans elected to give all the credit to Marco Belinelli. So it goes. But it will neither surprise me nor disappoint me if Amir is back.

Now that he is indeed back, I’ll just add this: some people argue that Amir is worthless because he didn’t play a ton in the playoffs. But, look around the league: this is the fate of all traditional backup bigs in the 2018 NBA. Amir played just under 10 minutes a game in our 10 playoff contests. How many would we expect him to play? We have a superstar center, and while during the regular season it makes sense to manage his minutes, that’s not so likely when facing Boston for the right to play in the Conference Finals. So we’d like to see Joel out there for, what, maybe 36 or 38 minutes? That leaves 10 or 12 to split between Amir and whoever our small-ball 5 is (last year it was Ersan). So, yeah, the absolute best backup center in the business is going to get 10 or 12 minutes in key playoff matchups, and if he isn’t a small-ball type he’s going to get less than that. It’s not an insult; the same would be true if we had most starters as Joel’s backup; if we had Marcin Gortat or Dwight Howard or Emes Kantor as a backup C, they’d also get just 5-10 minutes per game in the playoffs on a team with Joel and Ersan. This is, of course, an argument against overpaying your backup center. Which Amir’s new contract does not do; he costs us literally zero cap space. It’s a fantastic bargain.

Overall

Where are we overall? We entered the offseason with the following major holes:

  1. Starting SG
  2. Backup C
  3. Backup PF
  4. Backup Wing 1
  5. Backup Wing 2

Or at least, that’s how I see it. We drafted three players who have strong potential to fill either the starting SG or one of the two backup wing spots, and of course we return Markelle, Furkan and others to the team. My preference for the use of the $25M in the no-superstar scenario was to spend $12-15M for a really good triple-threat starting SG, i.e. Tyreke, and the remainder, plus the $4.5 exception, on a good backup PF, e.g. Luc or Bjelica, and a good backup center, e.g. O’Quinn or Amir. I didn’t want to worry about the backup wing spots, as I think that we will get enough hits among our young players to fill those admirably, and I want them to have the opportunity to prove me right. In truth I think there’s a good chance Markelle or Zhaire will be playing more minutes than JJ by season’s end.

Now, having added Amir, we have done what I wanted positionally — SG, PF, C. It’s just that we got players who do fewer things well, and who are less good than I wanted, at the first two positions. And I’ll add that all three additions are in their 30s, so I can’t kid myself that they are going to surprise with play far better than their established level; if we’re going to be surprised, it’s going to be to the downside. So, prior to the Amir signing, I was pretty disappointed. Amir fills a key need while using zero cap space, which is huge, it takes me to only slightly disappointed. I mean, there was only one Tyreke out there, JJ probably was the second-best option, especially given the advantages of continuity (another benefit of Amir as well). If Tyreke hadn’t been available, I’d really have nothing to complain about there. The Chandler move puzzles me a little, but I do see that he could be a useful piece in a Kawhi or Butler deal, as an expiring contract who can also play adequately, and of course we did receive draft capital to take him. If we can add a quality player like Luc or Bjelica with the room exception, then I’ll say that, in the end, free agency went extremely well. And that’s on top of what I see as a phenomenal draft night.

Overall, I’m very pleased with where the team stands. We were pretty snakebit last year and we still won 52 games, and that was with an awful, discombobulated start to the season. Our young stars should be better, we have some shots to create a new star from among Markelle, Zhaire, and less likely, one of the others, and we still have arrows in the quiver to potentially acquire a superstar in the next 12 months. I have my minor grievances — where would basketball pundits be without our grievances! — but, overall, I’m excited!

***So that’s where I was before the Bjelica signing. Now that we’ve added him as well, I’m thrilled with the offseason so far. We replaced Ersan with someone equally good. We replaced Beli with someone much, much better — I’m not a huge Wilson Chandler fan, as seen above, but he’s a huge upgrade from Belinelli. We added an incredibly exciting young player in Zhaire, a valuble draft asset, and other interesting prospects. Markelle is working on his shot, and I have high hopes there. And, we’re legitimately in the hunt for another superstar, Kawhi or Jimmy or perhaps someone else. Kudos to the front office team on their great work!