With Joel Embiid sidelined for at least the next month and both De’Anthony Melton and Nicolas Batum out for the time being as well, the Sixers have been an injury-ravaged mess recently. Prior to Saturday’s 119-113 win over the Washington Wizards, they had lost eight of their past nine games, all but two of which were by double digits.
Their injury misfortune has come with one silver lining, though. Their players on two-way contracts are getting far more of an opportunity than they would with the roster at full strength, and it might wind up being to the long-term benefit of the team.
Ricky Council IV had a career night against the Wizards, finishing with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting and 10 rebounds (including five offensive boards) in a team-high 29 minutes off the bench. The Sixers were without both Embiid and Mo Bamba, so they were forced to rely on Council and KJ Martin as their primary frontcourt reinforcements off the bench.
Council, who’s on a two-way contract, had played only 11 games with the Sixers prior to his eruption Saturday. He had never played more than 12 minutes nor topped 17 points. But with the Sixers currently boasting three open roster spots and Embiid, Melton, Batum and Robert Covington all sidelined, head coach Nick Nurse had little choice but to play Council against Washington and live with the results either way.
“We were going to have him for sure in the rotation—and a combination (with) the back-to-back, too, trying to move guys in and out,” Nurse told reporters after the game. “He just got in there and started rebounding and making some plays. That’s what I always say: If you’re playing, those stints can get longer, right? And you’re playing well, we just kind of coach the game as we’re seeing it out there.”
Terquavion Smith, who’s also on a two-way deal, likewise had a breakout performance in recent days because of the Sixers’ injury issues. Nurse put him in toward the end of a blowout loss against the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 3, and he ended up drilling five three-pointers in nine minutes and finished with 17 points.
After trading Jaden Springer to the Boston Celtics at the deadline, the Sixers have only five players under the age of 28 on their standard roster: Melton, Martin, Tyrese Maxey, Paul Reed and Mo Bamba. Of those five, Maxey is the only one who’s guaranteed to be on the team next season. The Sixers desperately need to replenish their stockpile of young talent, if only to eventually flip them just like they did with Springer.
That’s why they should use at least one of their three roster spots on converting Council and/or Smith from two-way deals to standard contracts. They may never be in better position to do so.
One of those three roster spots is going to Kyle Lowry. Team president Daryl Morey expressed disappointment Friday that he couldn’t land another big man at the trade deadline, but he made it sound as though it wouldn’t be a priority on the buyout market. With Bismack Biyombo heading to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the best option at that position might already be gone.
Even if the Sixers find another veteran to sign—Danny Green reunion, anyone?—they need to balance their short- and long-term outlook, particularly with Embiid’s return still up in the air. Rather than spending that third roster spot on an end-of-bench veteran who has no hope of cracking the playoff rotation, they should use a portion of their MLE to convert Council or Smith as a way of keeping on eye on their future.
Players on two-way contracts can play up to 50 regular-season games with their teams each year, which neither Council nor Smith are in any danger of exceeding. Players on two-way contracts also aren’t eligible to play in the playoffs unless they get their contracts converted before the end of the regular season.
Something would have gone catastrophically wrong if the Sixers needed to rely on Council or Smith in the playoffs outside of garbage time. They’re getting plenty of run now, but they’ll be phased out of the rotation whenever Embiid, Batum, Melton and Covington eventually return. They’ve shown enough flashes to merit long-term investment, though.
The Sixers used $2.8 million of their non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Lowry, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but they still have plenty of it remaining. It will expire at the end of the season, so they’re in use-it-or-lose-it mode with the leftover portion of their MLE.
If the Sixers converted Council or Smith using the minimum exception, they’d be limited to offering a two-year deal. If they use a portion of the non-taxpayer MLE, they’re allowed to offer up to four. They won’t want to meaningfully cut into their potential cap space this summer, but they could always make the remaining years of the contract non-guaranteed if either Council or Smith was willing. Otherwise, they’ll have to fill out their roster with minimum contracts next year either way, and Council and Smith on a minimum deal would be slightly cheaper than a veteran with two or more years of NBA experience.
There’s no huge rush to sign either guy to a standard contract. They could stage a quiet tournament between the two until their banged-up roster gets closer to full strength, and the winner would get his contract converted. But rather than sign another exhumed corpse like Dewayne Dedmon who has no prayer of playing meaningful minutes in the playoffs, the Sixers would be better off making an investment in their youth talent pipeline by converting one of their two-way guys.
Morey said Friday that he’s open to it.
“We like having open roster spots, whether it’s for players who might become available, or even signing young players to favorable long deals I think is a smart move if we can do it,” he said.
The Sixers could always wait until the offseason to sign either player to a standard deal, but they’d run the risk of another team poaching them in free agency. They’d also have to dip into whichever mid-level exception they had to sign them to more than a two-year deal. They could sign them for three additional years if they use the MLE this season, and they’d still have their full MLE at their disposal this offseason.
The odds of Council or Smith becoming a rotation-caliber player, much less anything more than that, aren’t especially high. But the odds of a dustball like Joe Harris giving them anything beyond this season are even lower. It’d be better to spend that last roster spot on a minimal chance of a young guy popping and either becoming a rotation player for the Sixers or fetching a return via trade from another team.
“You see how you plays … and you’d say, ‘Well, what’s one characteristic you see?’ Automatically, it’s that he plays really hard,” Nurse told reporters Saturday about Council. “But he does everything that way—walkthroughs, shootarounds, practice. He’s one of those guys that’s got that kind of motor that’s always switched on. He does everything with good focus and intensity, so it’s hard not to like that, right?”
Let’s hope Morey sees it that way as well.