The Sixers were in a tough spot over the past two games. Kelly Oubre Jr. is recovering from multiple injuries stemming from a reported hit-and-run, while Nicolas Batum is away from the team for personal reasons, leaving the Sixers devoid of their newfound versatility at forward.
That led head coach Nick Nurse to deploy Marcus Morris, to predictably disastrous results.
Batum should be back by Sunday, while ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Oubre could return by the end of November or beginning of December. In their absence, Nurse should explore what he has in third-year guard Jaden Springer.
The Sixers are heading into a critical few months for their long-term team-building. They could easily create more than $55 million in salary-cap space heading into free agency next summer, but team president Daryl Morey is on record as preferring to spend that money sooner than later.
The NBA’s trade market typically doesn’t heat up until Dec. 15, which is when most players who signed with teams this past summer as free agents become trade-eligible. The trade deadline is Feb. 8, which gives the Sixers less than three months to evaluate their new-look, post-James Harden roster before making some critical decisions.
Do they include Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington and/or De’Anthony Melton in a trade for a star? Would they be better off standing pat or acquiring higher-end role players instead? How do they stack up as currently constructed against the league’s top title hopefuls? The answers to those questions should help guide how they build their roster moving forward.
Before making those decisions, they should explore whether Springer is a potential piece of the long-term puzzle, a trade sweetener or pure salary filler. The flashes he showed in Wednesday’s loss to the Boston Celtics suggest that we soon might be able to rule the latter out.
Single-game plus-minus can be wildly misleading, but in this case, it isn’t. Springer finished as a team-high plus-20 against the Celtics, while fellow bench partner Paul Reed was a plus-15. He had nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, two rebounds and two steals in only 20 minutes, and he helped spark some life into an otherwise lethargic team playing in its third game in four days.
After the Celtics opened a 39-22 lead early in the second quarter, Springer knocked down a corner three-pointer, then immediately forced a turnover and ran out for a dunk in transition.
Just like that, he trimmed the Celtics’ lead to 12, and the game was back on. The Sixers wound up fighting their way back to take a one-point halftime lead, and the exact same pattern repeated itself in the second half after the Maxey-less lineup with Morris and Patrick Beverley once again got blown off the court.
When Oubre and Batum return, the Sixers won’t have to play Morris at all. One of Oubre or Batum will start alongside Maxey, Melton, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid, and the other will be a key part of the bench unit along with Reed and Covington. With Covington starting, they’re short on forward depth behind him, which explains why Nurse has dusted off Morris in the past two games.
It’s clear that Morris should only be an end-of-the-bench option. Springer still has the chance to be more than that.
Defense has been Springer’s calling card since coming into the league, and that was on full display against Boston. His ball pressure helped him force two turnovers that he ran out for momentum-swinging buckets.
He’s bound to make some boneheaded mistakes on both ends of the floor, just as all young players do. But in-game experience is the best way for him to learn. Reed’s evolution over the past few years is a golden example of what happens when a young player gets a larger chance to make an impact.
The Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors are doing the same with some of their recent draft picks this year, in part thanks to the league’s new CBA. Teams with expensive payrolls are limited in how they can improve their rosters outside of the draft, particularly starting next summer. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this winds up being an especially active trade deadline as teams look to get their long-term books in order before then.
Springer’s on-ball defense merits a closer look moving forward, especially if Beverley’s three-point shooting struggles continue. Beverley might be playable in the regular season, or even in certain playoff matchups, but teams will give him the Matisse Thybulle treatment—aka completely ignore him on offense—until he makes them pay for it.
Springer is 3-of-9 on his career three-point attempts in the NBA and 43-of-149 (28.9 percent) in the G League, so he’s likely to receive similar treatment. But he showed off-the-dribble chops against Boston—including one possession in which he beat Jayson Tatum off the baseline—that suggests Nurse could find other ways to use him offensively.
Beverley can at least get the ball up the floor, which is true for a frighteningly small number of Sixers players this year. That’s a clear area that they need to address either in a small or big move ahead of the trade deadline, or at worst next summer. Springer isn’t a high-end ball-handler either, but the Sixers should be testing what he can and can’t do in that regard.
Melton is also set to become a free agent next summer, and there’s no guarantee that the Sixers will be able to re-sign him. They’d create an extra $15.2 million in cap space if he leaves, but the Sixers should know whether a Maxey-Springer backcourt could be a long-term option for them before they’re faced with that decision. If not, that should shape how they approach Melton’s free agency and any trade talks between now and the deadline.
Springer is one of only three players whom the Sixers have under guaranteed contract beyond this season, so he’s lower on their short-term priority list for that reason. But how he fares in an actual rotation role could influence the other choices they have to make over the coming months. They should still be in information-gathering mode, particularly once it becomes clear whether a certain player has anything to offer or not.
Morris is only here as salary filler and a good-vibes guy in the locker room. Springer still has the potential to prove he can be something more. He just needs the chance to do so.
“He probably is,” Nurse said after the Celtics game when asked whether Springer had earned more minutes. “I think he certainly did everything he could possibly do in his minutes tonight. Again, I’ve still gotta learn a lot of what’s going on with this team. I think that maybe, on a night like tonight when it is a back-to-back, that we look at some fresh bodies just because, and learn. I think that we do have some guys that we probably count on regularly, but it’s a heavy schedule and all that kind of stuff. It might be a good idea to just try different rotations on back-to-backs.”
Experimenting is exactly how the Sixers should be spending these next few months. We’ll find out soon enough whether Nurse was telling the truth or batting away a question with coach talk.