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Sixers opt for an upgrade and future flexibility at NBA trade deadline

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The Philadelphia 76ers didn’t make the kind of blockbuster move that many thought could happen. In the days leading up to the 2021 NBA trade deadline and the final few hours before the 3:00pm buzzer on March 25, the Sixers were firmly in the mix to trade for Kyle Lowry. Shortly after the clock struck 3:00, though, it was confirmed that Lowry was staying put.

Ultimately, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, no offers compelled the Toronto Raptors to make a move and Lowry was always fine with staying in Toronto this season. Masai Ujiri and the Raptors were set on a hefty price for Lowry — a package that reportedly needed to include Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, and two first-round picks. On the latest episode of The Lowe Post with Bobby Marks, ESPN’s Zach Lowe confirmed that the Sixers were willing to include Maxey. Marks added that the Raptors also wanted Thybulle. At that point, it seems that such a valuable selection of young talent, picks, and players to match salary (which would have included Danny Green) was too much for Daryl Morey and the Sixers.

Philly was reportedly still interested in Lowry even after they acquired George Hill in a three-team trade with Oklahoma City and New York, but they were content sticking with their new veteran guard given the high asking price for Lowry. At the end of the day, the Sixers sent out Tony Bradley, Terrance Ferguson, Vincent Poirier, and four second-round picks for Hill and Ignas Brazdeikis.

It’s unfortunate that the Sixers were unable to fully maximize their title chances and Joel Embiid’s MVP-level season with someone like Kyle Lowry. He was the best player they could have realistically acquired. Lowry would have provided a combination of quality playmaking, shooting, and supporting play both on and off the ball that would have elevated Philly’s limited perimeter creation. But if Lowry was going to come at the cost of two key rotation players in Thybulle and Green, a highly promising rookie in Maxey, and two first-round picks, it makes complete sense that the Sixers walked away. As much as Lowry would have helped, such a trade would have cut down the Sixers’ rotation, left them far shorter on wing defense, and significantly depleted their assets for the future.

“We took an option that we thought really upgraded our team this year on both ends, and at the same time kept all our optionality alive in the future,” Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey explained after the deadline.

“If George Hill becomes the integral part of this team we think he will, we have the option to keep him and not have him go to free agency,” Morey said. “We also kept all our important assets to upgrade the team going forward, so we really felt good about this option. It allows us to really upgrade the team for the playoff wars to come, and at the same time keep all our bullets if an option in the future becomes available.”

Hill’s contract gives the Sixers options moving forward. He’s still under contract in 2021-22 for $10.04 million, with only $1.27 million guaranteed. That’s a fair salary if the Sixers want to keep him, or a good sized contract that could be used as part of another trade if need be.

Morey explained that while you put more emphasis on competing in the current season, he always looks ahead. Maximizing your shot at a title isn’t necessarily just going all in during a single season. It’s about maintaining a longer championship window with chances to win in the future as well.

“I’m always looking at a three-ish, two-to-four year time horizon and trying to maximize our odds,” Morey said. “I think Doc, Elton and myself, we’re hoping to have a very long run here. We have some amazing players in their prime. What I’m trying to do is maximize our chance of winning the title over that window with more weight this year. So if there’s a move that ups our odds a little more this year but really hurts our odds in the future, then that doesn’t make sense. We’re actually hurting our chance to win the title overall. If it’s a move that ups our odds a decent amount but doesn’t affect our future odds, then that’s a move that looks pretty interesting. I think this move [for Hill] very materially increased our championship odds, and also kept our ones in the future preserved at a very high level.”

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game One Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

George Hill doesn’t add the level of playmaking, scoring, and pull-up shooting that Lowry would have, but he does help in a few areas. Hill is a fine passer and pick-and-roll player, who can lighten the playmaking load on Shake Milton and help steady the second unit offense. A trusty decision-maker, Hill has averaged 3.2 assists to only 1.2 turnovers per game for his career (4.1 to 1.6, respectively, per 36 minutes). Last season, Hill had another highly efficient run in Milwaukee. He ranked in the 95th percentile in overall half-court offense, the 79th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (76th when including his possessions with passes), and even shot a league-best 46 percent from three. Hill has shot 38.4 percent from deep for his career and 40.2 percent over the last six seasons. His long track record excelling as a spot-up threat makes him an easy fit off the ball, and a good match next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. At the other end of the floor, Hill offers solid defense against both guard positions, with enough versatility and length to switch up onto some forwards. Hill having a ton of playoff experience always helps, too.

Morey emphasized the importance of not just adding shooting and Hill’s decision-making, but finding a player who could provide sturdy defense and fill out two-way lineups for the playoffs. He felt that the Sixers had quite a few lineups where there was a player for other teams to attack. If the Sixers are going to win the title, Morey believes they have to be the best defensive team in the NBA. Right now, they aren’t far off, sitting at 2nd place just behind the Lakers.

“I sort of see [Hill] as an acquisition like Danny Green, a guy who has been through a lot of playoff wars, guys who can hit shots at a high level,” Morey said. “So that when Joel is double-teamed or people have to collapse on Ben in the paint, those passes out will be shot at a very high percentage. And then, on top of it, both Danny and George give you solid defense, solid playoff-tested defense. That was a big factor, as well.”

The Sixers can easily roll out a lineup of Simmons, Hill, Green, Tobias Harris, and Embiid for a great balance of size, defense, and shooting. Or, for situations when they really want to hound teams, the Sixers can flip Harris for Thybulle. Overall, Hill gives the Sixers another player who can complement their team at both ends of the floor, and smoothly fit alongside Simmons and Embiid as an off-ball shooter or complementary ball-handler.

“It’s very important that if you put a defender on our floor, especially with Joel and Ben, that that player can shoot, that player can be safe with the ball,” Morey said. “George has always been a guy who’s extremely safe with the ball, makes the right play.”

Hill is still out for now after having surgery on his right thumb in January, but Morey explained that Hill’s procedure ensures that this injury won’t be an issue again in the future and that it’s “not long” before he returns.

Without Tony Bradley, who had given the Sixers’ effective minutes as their starting 5 in Embiid’s absence, the Sixers’ center rotation is left short. Morey said that the team feels good about what they have with Embiid, Dwight Howard, and the option of going smaller at times with Simmons. However, if the Sixers make a move in the buyout market, Morey expects it will probably be to sign a big man.

Disappointment in Philly after not landing Kyle Lowry is understandable. It’s the kind of move that would have noticeably lifted the Sixers’ title odds and improved their chances against a team as talented as Brooklyn. But as the Sixers stand right now, they’re still a better team. George Hill is a seamless fit. He solidifies a few elements of the second unit, and gives Philly more lineup versatility and another two-way option who can be used to help close games. Seeing as the Sixers were able to add a helpful upgrade while maintaining their assets and future flexibility, it looks like they made the best of the trade deadline.