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What the Sixers need - Part 2

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 of this series, I noted that while most fans agree the Sixers need to trade for a player, there is tremendous disagreement as to what kind of player they most need. Popular categories include:

  1. A veteran backup point guard like Jeff Teague
  2. An additional three-and-D wing like Josh Hart
  3. A distance shooter like Bogdan Bogdanovic
  4. A closer like Chris Paul
  5. I’ll add that I also see a fair amount of discussion of: A traditional power forward like Markieff Morris — I won’t comment on this one as we are strong at PF so this only makes sense to me as part of a bigger set of deals where e.g. we are trading Al Horford, not as the centerpiece itself

Now, more talent is better, so none of these positional ideas is terrible. But nothing is free; in every deal you’re giving up a combination of players, picks, cap space, and roster spots. Let’s look at each category of possible upgrade and see which are the best combinations of attractiveness and attainability.

1. Backup PG

The PG question is highly fraught because of its connection to the Ben Simmons issue. It’s difficult for commenters to separate their analysis of what’s best for the Sixers from their frustration that Ben Simmons doesn’t do all the great stuff he does, plus other things too! And the persistent rumors that Ben is not open to the idea of someone else being the primary initiator, either in general or at crunch time, add fuel to the fire.

One question I have for people who want the team to add a quality PG is: what do you expect Ben Simmons to do offensively while Jeff Teague, or whomever, handles the ball? I certainly understand the argument that Ben is a suboptimal initiator because he can’t/won’t shoot. And if someone wants to argue that Ben just shouldn’t be on the court much because his defense isn’t enough to make up for that weakness, well, I disagree but at least that’s a coherent position. What doesn’t seem that coherent to me is the suggestion that having non-shooting Ben be on the court but also not handle the ball is a good idea. If he won’t shoot, and he doesn’t have the ball either, that seems like the worst of all worlds. Plus, if the rumors are true, doing this makes Ben unhappy; of course we can all be tough guys and say he just needs to suck it up, but this is the 2019-20 NBA, keeping good players happy is one of the biggest keys to success.

Ben’s going to play 38 minutes a night in the playoffs because the coach believes, correctly in my opinion, that his defense, rebounding, etc. justify his court presence. So then if we’re adding a PG, it’s either to upgrade the 10 minutes he’s not playing, or to leave Ben on the court without the ball, which as noted above is problematic. Tom West has argued convincingly here at LB that we should see more of Ben Simmons as roll man, and maybe that’s the answer, maybe we can add a ballhandler who is enough better than Josh Richardson that the New Guy/Ben pick and roll is a big upgrade from the Josh/Ben version, and moreover can be run enough times per game to make the acquisition pay off.

Right now our choices when Ben sits are Trey Burke, Raul Neto, and Josh Richardson at PG (which leads to additional wing minutes from bench players like Furkan and Ennis). Jeff Teague and his awful defense are not an upgrade from these options. But there are some possible meaningful improvements out there. Patty Mills is having a good year and he’s close with Brett; maybe Pop would do BB a solid and send him over, but he makes over $12M/year which makes cap matching difficult — though not impossible. Tomas Satoransky of the Bulls and his $10M deal are also worth a look; Sato is 6’7” so can help out on the wing as well as at PG, and RAPTOR really likes what he’s delivering this season. Chicago actually has a zillion PGs with decent advanced metrics this year. Supposed star Zach LaVine of course, but also Satoransky, Kris Dunn, Shaquille Harrison, and Ryan Arcidiacono of that amazing Villanova team; man, now we know how they won those titles, Arci, Hart, Brunson, Bridges, and DiVincenzo are all playing impressively. Anyway, if we can trade the usual Sixer-fan fantasy package, Bolden and a second, for Arci, I’m open to it! I think he’s legit as a solid backup PG with above-average defense. But the counter-case is, his numbers aren’t that different from what Raul Neto showed in Utah, and we already have Neto!

And we also have Trey Burke. Burke is a funny case, he often looks very good out there, penetrating, dishing, scoring, and hitting threes. He’s at 44% for the season on 4.2 3-point shots per 36; it’s a small total shot sample and we know he’s not that good a shooter, but the point is, his basic stats of (per 36) 17 points and 9 assists + rebounds with good percentages and hardly any turnovers suggest he’s a quality offensive player. And then the cost is he is physically small and has a bad defensive rep, so you figure maybe you’re giving it back, and more, at the other end. But RPM has him as a small positive offensively and... a big positive defensively! Again, it’s probably a small-sample or garbage-time play issue. Still, one can’t help but wonder if he’s actually decent, given that his on-off numbers were solid last year as well. Or to say it differently: maybe Trey Burke isn’t all that good, but maybe he’s just as good as the guys we are thinking of trading for to replace him!

Anyway, I’m willing to give Scott, cap filler like Bolden, and seconds for Mills or Sato, but I would probably balk at giving up Zhaire or our 2022 first-rounder for either of them.

2. An additional three-and-D wing

I, like so many others in Sixerland, thought and hoped when the Sixers traded into the first round of the draft a few years ago that we were going to use the selection to take Josh Hart. Instead the pick was Anzejs Pasecniks, whose name I now finally know how to pronounce after having heard Zumoff say it during the Washington game! Bummer, Hart is a solid 3-and-D guy, and, like any team, we could use a quality two-way player like him. But, how much? I’m working on a longer piece on this subject, but as I’ve written before, there are only 240 minutes of player time in regulation, so if your six best players play 36 each which is reasonable in the playoffs, that’s 216, leaving only 24. Al Horford is old so maybe he only goes 32, but then again Ben is an iron man who can play 38-39 without breathing hard. So if you have sufficient positional flexibility you only need seven guys, and with Richardson able to back up the point and Al doing the same at center, the Sixers are well-positioned to fill almost all the minutes with seven players. No doubt in reality Brett will cut someone’s minutes and use 8 but let’s keep it simple. If Matisse returns from injury and continues to develop, that could be, say,

Joel - 36

Al - 32

Tobi - 36

Josh - 36

Ben - 38

Matisse - 30

Wing - 32

Right now those wing minutes would go to some combination of James Ennis and Furkan Korkmaz; if Burke or Neto or others step up they could of course steal some, reducing the Point Josh time and cutting back on needed wing minutes since J-Rich could stay on the wing more in that scenario.

Point being, the Josh Hart character in this play is vying with Ennis and Furkan for those last 24 minutes. So we have to ask ourselves: is he enough better than those guys to justify a trade? I mean, of course there’s some value in adding regular-season depth and injury protection for the playoffs, so it’s not solely a question of measuring the upgrade. But, mostly.

Before we dig in further, we may as well loop in:

3. A distance shooter

Let’s suppose there’s only room, in terms of the various constraints the Sixers are under, for one move on the wing. Do we want to add a two-way player, who might fit relatively seamlessly into the job done in the starting unit by guys like Josh and Tobi? Or do we want to diversify our talent base by adding a different kind of player such as a floor-stretching shooter? Or here’s another way to look at it: if we add a shooter, the question maybe is, how much better is that guy than Furkan? Whereas if we add a 3-and-D guy, the question is how much better he is than Ennis. I say “maybe” because that’s the right analysis if Furkan and Ennis are similar in quality come the 2020 playoffs. But if one of them is far superior to the other, then any new wing should be mostly compared to the better player, as the lesser choice will see only specialized duty in that event. By the way, I’m leaving out Mike Scott here as we are deep at PF and he hasn’t played well this year and doesn’t have a ton of history of being a good player, and because he’s needed in most trade scenarios for cap-matching purposes. But of course I, like everyone else, am rooting for Mike to play well enough to merit a role in the playoff rotation.

So, who are some wings we could add? There are really three types of players to consider:

a) Cheap players who can be obtained for one or two minimum or near-minimum players; a guy making $3M/year can be obtained for the aforementioned Jonah + picks package (if the other team values the picks enough).

b) Mid-price players for whom we will need to include Mike Scott ($4.5M) to make the salary cap pieces fit; a player like Bogdanovic, who makes $8.5M, can probably be obtained for something like Scott + Bolden + picks, with Sacramento attaching value pretty much only to the picks.

c) Expensive players who can only be obtained by trading one of our starters; Jrue Holiday was said to be available before New Orleans’ recent spurt and is a terrific player, but we’d have to give up Harris or Horford to make the dollars match, and so you have to really believe you’re upgrading the talent (if you trade Tobi) or the fit (if you trade Al) enough to justify the package deal, since you’re not increasing the number of good players on the Sixers. The expensive players the Sixers would be likely to consider are ones that bring primary initiation along with shooting and defense, so I will address them in 4.)

Some ideas; please add yours in comments. Note that “cheap” is about contract matching; such a player may not be “cheap” in terms of the trade capital, i.e. picks or possibly Zhaire Smith, we would need to include to satisfy the other team.

Oh, before I move on, can I please stop the Give Zhaire Smith Away For A Bag Of Balls Express? Um, the dude is 20 years old, having nearly died a year ago. Do we really want to crush him because he’s shooting 27% from three? Wait, what’s that? I misread the column? he’s not shooting 27% from three? What’s he shooting? 37%?! You’re kidding, right? We have a 20-year-old college star who some say is the most athletic professional basketball player in the world and who is shooting 37% from three in the G-League while getting significant numbers of rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and people want to use him as salary filler? Have you people all gone crazy?! Not everyone is ready to dominate the NBA at age 20! Especially after losing 60 pounds or whatever to a horrible trauma. Look, if we can get someone really good back, then maybe we have to give up Zhaire to make it happen, but, please, no more calls to trade him for some crappy backup, OK?

Cheap 3-and-D: Josh Hart

I like him and if we can get him for Bolden and two seconds, I say yes. But I don’t think he’s such a big upgrade on Ennis that I’d give up a first in the package.

Cheap Shooter: Malik Beasley

To be honest, I haven’t followed him that closely. His RPM is unimpressive, 63rd among shooting guards, and obviously Denver doesn’t think so highly of him as to give him much playing time, though granted Denver has a lot of wing talent. He’s a -1 defender on RPM and that seems consistent with his rep as a bad-but-not-awful defender. My take is, I don’t see any reason offhand to think he’s any better than Furkan this year, and beyond this year he’s going to want to get paid. Let’s say he’s about equal to Furkan, what’s that worth? Well, in the regular season, he could be helpful against some matchups and when we have injuries. But in the playoffs, are we really going to want more than the 30ish minutes of Furkanian play that the Turk himself can deliver? I don’t see it. So, sure, happy to have the guy around, fine to give up a high second for him if we don’t need it for a different deal, but I would be disinclined to give either Zhaire or a first for Malik B.

Mid-price 3-and-D: Robert Covington, Nemanja Bjelica

Bjelica screwing the Sixers over last year is the great “what if” of the season. First, we were a playoff-worthy player short against Toronto, forcing us to grind our guys into dust in that series, if we’d had Bjelica, who had a tremendous year for SAC, we’d likely have beaten them. Second, who knows, with Bjelica playing at a +3 level much of the year, maybe we wouldn’t have done the Harris trade; maybe we’d have run it back and had dominator Jimmy playing for us now. If a butterfly flaps its wings.... Anyway, everyone talks about Bogdan, but Nemanja is on the same team, probably not quite as good offensively but probably about as good overall with a more balanced game. Or not, what do I know?! But he’s a good player and it might not take that much to pry him away from a tanking Kings team.

But of course it’s Robert that I truly Cov-et. His advanced numbers are creeping back up toward their usual stellar level this year; while in the early going he was merely very good, now PIPM and other measures have him back in the neighborhood of the top 30. Even a metric like RAPTOR which has him a little lower rates him just between CJ McCollum and Devin Booker, not exactly the low-rent district. I would give Scott, cap filler and a first for him. Or Scott and Zhaire. I love Zhaire and would hate to lose him, but I really, really adore Robert Covington. What if I had to give Zhaire and also our 2022 first-rounder? Tough call but I’d probably say yes, unless there was another, juicier deal out there.

Mid-price shooter: Davis Bertans, Bogdan Bogdanovich, JJ Redick (though making the money work for Redick would be tough)

I think Bertans is the prize here. I’m not saying he’s going to be up near 50% from 3, but I think he is for real at over 40%. And his overall +/- numbers have been good both last year and this. He’s only under contract for this season, but I believe he’d come with Bird rights. I’d give Scott and a first to get him, or Scott, Zhaire, and a high second.

Bogdanovich is also good but much less so I think. I’d give Scott and two seconds to obtain him.

As usual, I am not putting a ton of weight on fit. I know that folks have strong opinions that we need shooting, or dribble-penetration, or something else specific. But for the most part those opinions don’t come with a compelling explanation of whom the new guy replaces in the rotation and what the tradeoffs of that change are. Usually if people say anything at all about this, what they say is that we should play their favorite and move Al Horford to the bench so he doesn’t play so much together with Joel. The problem with this is that Al Horford this year is, like Al Horford every year, very good at basketball. Until his recent slump RPM had him as the #2 center in the NBA. As of this writing he’s around +2 on both RAPTOR and RPM, which is not star level but is not far below it either. Many people obsess over who is and isn’t a “starter”; this has never made any sense to me. Al is really good and so he’s going to play 30+ minutes in important games. Since Joel will play 36 or so in those games and Ben will play even more than that, there’s only so much you can do to avoid them being on the court at the same time. In particular if you play Al 32 and Joel 36, they are going to overlap for 20 minutes. If Ben plays 38, then you’ll have at least 10 minutes with all three playing. If you think there’s some important reason the first 6 minutes of the game shouldn’t be among them, I’m happy to listen, but it seems like a minor issue to me.

Upshot is, if you can trade Al for someone really good, that’s great. If not, he should play: sitting him on the bench for two thirds of the game so we can give the minutes to a mediocrity is insane. It priveliges fit over quality to an absurd extent. Worse, it ignores defense, pretends you can replace a +2 defender like Al with a -3 like Teague or Sweet lou and not see it on the scoreboard. It’s a terrible idea and Brett Brown is smart enough to know it.

Which is why I say, if you think adding your preferred PG or wing is going to improve the team, it has to be because he’s an improvement on the folks whose minutes he’ll actually be taking. Which is Furkan and Ennis; i.e. similar types of players to the wing we’d be adding in most cases. So we won’t be changing the team fit all that much. Furkan Korkmaz is shooting 39% from 3 and seemingly playing not-good-but-not-terrible defense. He’s 22 years old and seems to be improving, as 22-year-olds are wont to do. Fans wanted Korver over him, but is it so obvious Korver is better now? Is it obvious Korver will be better six months from now, when KK will be older and thus worse and FK will be older and thus better? I’d certainly guess that come April JJ Redick will be a more useful player than Furkan, but I’m not sure I’d give 2-1 odds on it. So if you’re giving a first-round pick for a shooter, you’d better like him a lot better than Furkan, and a lot better than Furkan is a high zone. I think Bertans is in that zone, and Covington, but I sure don’t think Wayne Ellington is.

Oh, and can we take a moment to talk about Landry Shamet? I’ve always liked Landry, but, let’s face it, he’s not all that much of a basketball player at this point, and while he’s young, he’s not super young like Zhaire, either. That is to say, he’s almost half a year older than Furkan Korkmaz. And as far as I can tell, he’s a much worse player than Furk.

Let’s see: Furky younger as mentioned. Both were taken around the same spot in the NBA draft and Young Turk was ranked much higher by the draft gurus. The Kork is shooting 39% from 3, Shamwow 37%, both have sweet strokes and attempt 7+/36, Shamu shot better last year so call this a wash. Korkmaz scores more and is significantly better at driving and finishing. Furkan is a slightly better rebounder, Shamwet a bit better passer. Furky is a mediocre defender, Shamgod kinda terrible. And the former is considerably taller and longer, helping explain the defense and finishing gap. RPM has Furk as average, LandShark as awful this year (though his RPM was good last year). RAPTOR has That Furkan’ Guy as a little below average, Shamw3t as terrible. As you can see, both are exceptionally nicknameable!

Upshot is, everyone should stop complaining about how tragic it is that we traded away Shamet; his max upside is to be as good as JJ Redick was, which is to say an average starter, and right now he’s unplayable in the playoffs, and it’s entirely possible he’ll never be a useful playoff performer, and if he ever is, it’ll probably be after he’s off his rookie deal and thus no longer a bargain. At the time of the trade he looked like a medium-value commodity, worth about the same as a late-first-rounder, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see he’s worth less than that; he’ll be lucky to have a single year in the rest of his career when he is both low-paid and also playoff-useful. And while we’re at it, the Miami pick Elton gave up in that deal is also going to be worth very little, as is the pick of our own we traded. We got Tobi, a borderline All-Star, for three modest-value assets. It wasn’t a steal, since we have to pay him a lot, but it was a fair trade and a smart move for the Sixers.

4. An initiator/closer (like Chris Paul)

I have written extensively on the closer question here. I just re-read it, wow, “extensively” is an understatement, that was a long one even for me! Anyway, I stand by what I wrote there:

My conclusion is that all else equal, it really is better to have a closer, but that not having one is more a problem to be managed than a crisis to be averted; more eczema than skin cancer. And that’s good news, because unless we’re ready to give up on Ben Simmons as a long-term Sixer, there really aren’t any easy solutions, or really any rather-difficult solutions, that I can see. If the Sixers want to be champions, they’ll either need to develop a closer (Ben? Zhaire?? Josh??? Tobi????) from within, or use smarts, ball movement and defense to create a situation where, like the Spurs before them, they can defeat fully-focused playoff defenses without a traditional closer.

That all seems about right. It doesn’t appear to me that the Sixers have failed to win an inordinate number of close games that they should have; there is of course the weird thing where it seems like when we’re up by 15 late, it always gets down to single digits before we close it out, leading to more anxiety than I’d like. But while the games in Toronto and Denver were super-frustrating losses, that sort of thing does happen occasionally in the three-heavy NBA, and we’ve had plenty of games where we were the ones who fell behind and then came back late to win. Our fourth-quarter numbers are our weakest, but I think a lot of that is due to the games where we got a lead and then ran out the clock in a way that gave up some ground while keeping victory pretty much inevitable.

Anyway, if we could add an initiator/closer type without either trading off too much talent or infuriating ben Simmons, then, sure, that would be great. Some players who could fit the bill and who could be available:

  • Chris Paul
  • Jrue Holiday
  • Blake Griffin
  • Derrick Rose

I don’t really see anything like this working out. I love Chris Paul’s game, but his joining the Sixers would probably be a real problem for Team Ben. And even if Ben were OK with it, you have the fact that Paul is a pain to deal with, and that we’d probably have to trade Al to get it done; Al is key to our playoff plans, against Boston, Toronto, and of course Giannis/Milwaukee. The only way I see us getting Paul is if the team gives up on Ben or vice-versa and we trade Ben to OKC for CP3 and a boatload of picks. Not gonna happen.

Blake Griffin is currently a shell of his former self; if he returns to what he was then I think a reversal of the Detroit-Clippers trade might actually make sense for both teams, that is, Toby and picks for Blake. It’s probably an awful idea, Griffin and Simmons are probably too similar for comfort, but it’s fun to think about.

Jrue is a wonderful player and Sixer-haters like Bill Simmons are floating the idea of us trading Ben for him. No thanks. Tobi and picks for Jrue would not be crazy I suppose but it’s probably not the kind of deal NO is looking for. The Horford haters here in Philly, you know who you are, would love to see Al and picks for Jrue, but that makes even less sense for NO and personally I am thrilled to have Al Horford right here in Philly, playing PF and backup C, keeping Giannis in check, and teaching our young guys the way to be a winner.

And then there’s D-Rose. The Sixers are rumored to have interest, and he certainly is interesting!

Pro:

  • Maybe the only player in the NBA who is a proven primary initiator yet is still available on a modest contract hence, at least in theory, may not require trading a core piece
  • Shot 37% from 3 last year and seems to be a legitimate 30-some percent volume three-point shooter
  • As a vet and former MVP, might possibly merit enough respect from Ben Simmons that Ben won’t freak out about having him as a key ballhandlerY
  • et as an oldster on a short contract, might also not be viewed by Ben as a threat

Not bad! Are there any cons?

Con:

  • Shooting 31% from 3 this year and that may well be his true level of ability
  • Bad defender
  • Might anger Ben
  • Ugly legal history makes him hard for many people to root for

Hmmm. Let’s just say that even if the price is modest, it’s hardly a no-brainer. And the price may not be modest, as other teams are interested, e.g. the Lakers.

To summarize: to win a title the Sixers will need seven healthy, high-quality players. We have five for sure, and I believe Matisse will be the sixth by season’s end — recognizing he needs to continue to improve offensively for that to be the case. We don’t yet have that seventh man. It’s possible that Furkan will improve enough to fill that role, or that James Ennis can be the guy. Others like Mike Scott and Trey Burke are also possible. But most likely we will need to trade for one more playoff-caliber wing. And while my analysis above was somewhat rambling I confess, I actually think it led to a clear conclusion: the Sixers have a sufficiently flexible roster that the type of wing player they add is not so essential. They just need someone who’s legitimately good, either very good at offense and OK at D, like Bertans, or good at both, like Bjelica. Between Mike Scott and minor players, plus perhaps Zhaire, the team can match cap for players up to the high single digits and perhaps low double digits of millions in salary. And the team is in possession of numerous very high second-round picks to be the core value in a deal. Let’s see if we can turn some of those assets into a legitimate seventh man without overpaying too badly!