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Run It Back, like the (old) Raptors

The Raptors ran it back and failed. Now they’re a win away from the NBA Finals. Their example should give the Sixers confidence in both their current core and future flexibility.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Much of the argument for the Philadelphia 76ers running it back with the same group next season has been about the current roster. The team almost beat the Toronto Raptors, who are one game away from advancing to the NBA Finals. Add some bench upgrades in the offseason and hope the Golden State Warriors split up, and you’re looking at a title contender.

But there’s an under-discussed part of the argument in favor of running it back: what happens if the Sixers go over the cap to re-sign Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, only to come up short again?

From the 2013-14 season to the 2015-16 season, the Sixers lost many games in an attempt to collect high draft picks. They also made sure to keep future cap space open and used extra roster sports to test players out on 10-day contracts. These decisions were all means to an end, and that end was asset collection.

If one was of the opinion that the current version of the Sixers isn’t good enough to win, then asset collection would be the highest priority. And the best way for the team to preserve its assets would be to bring back Butler and Harris, regardless of cost.

We need look no further than the team who took the Sixers out, the Raptors, as a model of preserving flexibility without cap room.

Last season, the Raps were led to the top seed in the East by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, only to be eliminated by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers for the third year in a row. This year, they’re one game away from an NBA Finals birth with a very different team. DeRozan is gone, and their two best players are Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam. That’s a huge change in the span of a year for a team that was strapped for cap space.

It wasn’t long ago that the Raptors believed DeRozan and Lowry could lead them to the promised land. In the 2016 offseason, they re-signed DeRozan to a 5 year, $139 million deal. In the 2017 postseason, they re-upped Lowry for 3 years, $100 million. But by the summer of 2018, it was clear to management that the team didn’t have the pieces to win a title.

This was the situation for a team with no cap room and no incoming draft picks. A year later, they’re knocking on the door of the NBA Finals.

The Raptors drafted well, nabbing star forward Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft (the same draft in which the Sixers took Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot 24th and Furkan Korkmaz 26th). The next year, they landed key bench player OG Anunoby at 23th overall.

They also took advantage of the trade market, dealing DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and their first-round pick this year for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It was outstanding value for a shot at the Finals, even if they’re unable to convince Leonard to stick around past this season.

Elite NBA players are becoming available more than ever before. In the past year, LeBron James changed teams in free agency, Kawhi Leonard was traded, and Anthony Davis requested out of New Orleans. This summer, Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, and even more All-Stars will all become unrestricted free agents.

That’s why the Sixers need to follow the Raptors model and run it back.

These Sixers are way more talented than those old Raptors teams, and getting the core back together for another season could be all it takes for the Sixers to win their first championship since 1983. But if it doesn’t work out, the trade value of Butler and Harris functions as insurance on the monetary investment, allowing the Sixers to stay flexible like the Raptors did with the DeRozan-Leonard deal last summer.

The Sixers have as much talent as any team in the East, and that itself is enough reason to offer max contracts to both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris (also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s not my money). But the Raptors setting the example of a team acquiring top talent without cap space, high draft picks, or being a free agent destination should make the Sixers even more comfortable in their decision to spend big and run it back.