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Boys, Bye: Three Big Offseason Questions Facing the Sixers

Philadelphia went all in this season, and it still wasn’t enough to get past the second round. Now the team is staring down an expensive cap situation and concerns about Ben Simmons.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When it comes to the Philadelphia 76ers, there is never a dull moment. This season has featured the Markelle Fultz fiasco, the Zhaire Smith allergy saga, and the continued puzzling health of Joel Embiid; it’s included two big trades, and plenty of debate about Ben Simmons’s shot—and it was all wrapped up into a 50-win season. Finally, their erratic journey has come to an end thanks to Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors, who eliminated Philly after Sunday night’s 92-90 win in Game 7 of their playoff series. A year after they lost to the Celtics in the second round, the Sixers have topped out at the same level again. But where last season’s team positioned itself as a feel-good story with so much room for growth, this one will be remembered for its failure to meet expectations. So where does Philly go from here?

These are the three big questions facing the Sixers as they head into the offseason:

Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris: both or neither?

This Sixers’ offseason will be like waking up with a hangover and a bill for damages from the night before. The trades that Philly made for Butler and Harris look disappointing now that the Sixers didn’t make it past the second round. When you go all in like that, you’re doing so with the expectation of at least making the Finals. But the Sixers could be in even worse shape if both players—who will both be free agents this summer—take deals with different teams. Of course, you likely don’t give up Miami’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Landry Shamet, among others, without having some assurances that at least one of Butler or Harris will re-sign with you.

In the regular season, Harris looked like a perfect fit because he was not ball dominant and could provide badly needed wing scoring. But in the playoffs his numbers dipped. Butler, meanwhile, has been every bit the kind of high-stakes clutch player he was billed to be. When he first arrived in Philadelphia, Butler complained about not getting the ball enough. But he eventually assimilated to the Sixers’ style and became the team’s most consistent player throughout the playoffs, averaging about 20 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game. He also encouraged Embiid to shoot more from 3 in the playoffs, and called him the team’s best player. Given some of the early concerns about how he would mesh with Philly’s big personalities, Butler’s gesture of putting Embiid on a pedestal is a good sign for their future chemistry.

Philly will likely try to keep both Harris and Butler—at least, that’s what was reported when the players were acquired—but the question is whether both will be offered the max salaries they want (each is eligible for deals with $32 million starting salaries, with only the Sixers able to offer a fifth year), and whether Philly’s owners will be willing to pay the luxury tax to do so. That decision will likely depend on what the Sixers value most: Do they prioritize a top-25 player who is reliable in the playoffs but can be cantankerous, or do they prefer Harris’s flexibility and ability to score without needing the ball in his hands? And if they retain both, meaning they’ll operate over the cap, how will they improve the lack of depth that cost them this series?

Will they get an extension done with Ben Simmons?

For the second season in a row, Simmons’s biggest weaknesses have been exposed in the playoffs. The Raptors defense, much like the Celtics last year, limited Simmons’s playmaking options and in the process revealed just how painful it can be to watch him refuse to take shots from outside the paint and struggle at the free throw line. In seven games, Simmons averaged 40 percent. He’s not the main reason Philly faltered—its roster construction issues are what cost them—but it does not bode well for Simmons’s future if he can’t evolve past being an offensive liability when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.

Simmons is eligible for a max extension in July that could come in at over $220 million. Nothing suggests that the Sixers aren’t trying to keep him in Philadelphia, even though his fit alongside Embiid has drawn scrutiny. At the same time, he hasn’t improved much in year two, and though I’m not saying we need a Glen Taylor–Andrew Wiggins handshake promise here, I’m sure the Sixers’ brass would love to see Simmons live up to a max paycheck.

Simmons’s long-term place on this team is in question. He’s an incredible talent with a high ceiling, but where does he fit on a team where Butler and Embiid could command so much attention? That’s where improvements in his shot—let’s start with free throws—or maybe a change in position could help. Simmons can be effective without a reliable jumper, but for him to be effective on this team, he needs to bring more to the table. He might be better served as a small-ball center rather than a point guard, but as long as Embiid is holding down the fort in the middle, that probably won’t be possible.

What will happen with JJ Redick?

Philly’s guard situation has been dire all season, and things could get even dicier this offseason. Simmons and Zhaire Smith are the only two guards under contract for next season, and for the third straight summer, Redick will be courting suitors for his shooting services. He is 34 now, but he’s been invaluable to this team, and the Sixers don’t have much of a choice but to try to retain him. He was a 40 percent shooter from deep this season and has increased his points-per-game average in each of the last three seasons. In an offense that features two subpar or nonexistent outside shooters (Simmons and Embiid), Redick greases the wheels with his off-ball movement and off-balance shotmaking.

With questions surrounding Simmons and Smith, and Landry Shamet—who was once thought to be Redick’s heir apparent—killing it with the Clippers, it’s clear what Philly needs to do. But keeping Redick may not be so simple. After joining the Sixers on a one-year, $23 million deal in 2017, Redick took $12.3 million last summer to stick around for another year. With Joel Embiid already on the books for $27 million, and Butler and Harris expected to receive close to their maximums if they stay, Redick is probably going to have to take another pay cut—perhaps the $9 million midlevel exception, if Philly stays out of the tax?—to stick around for a third year.