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Thinking Through LeBron-to-the-Sixers Rumors

For Philly fans, the possibility—no matter how remote—that LeBron could join the Sixers is forcing them to answer many questions. Would his signing be the last piece of the Process or a refutation of it? Can LeBron and Ben Simmons share the court?

LeBron James in a Philadelphia 76ers jersey with Joel Embiid shooting a ball in the background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Chris Ryan: I need help. The last couple of months have been a whirlwind for Philadelphia sports fans. It started in early February, when the Eagles, led by a backup quarterback, took down Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. I was pretty level-headed about that, I think. Now, I’m being forced to contemplate the impossible again: LeBron James joining the Sixers this summer. What started out as a backfire out of the muffler of NBA Twitter feels … kind of … real … real-ish? And it’s making me ask all sorts of questions about wanting to win and how you win.

Justin Verrier: My entire Philly experience comes via Freeway tracks. But that’s totally true—I can’t remember the last big NBA free agent they’ve pulled.

Ryan: J.J.!

Verrier: Great colleague.

Ryan: I would love to throw water on the LeBron-to-the-Sixers stuff, but the universe won’t let me. I’ve been around this carousel too many times with the King—in ’10 and ’14—to dismiss the signs out of hand. Bill wrote about this extensively in his column last Friday (“There’s been some growing ‘LeBron to Philly’ buzz”). The now-viral billboards on I-480 in Cleveland can be seen as a joke, but LeBron’s response felt serious. He could have easily shot down the idea, he could have brushed aside Philadelphia as a destination, he could have said—as he has in the past—that he would address his free agency in the summer. Instead he said this:

“You can say it’s a distraction—it’s not. Not a distraction. It is actually very flattering that I’m sitting here at 33 and in my 15th year and teams or guys—I don’t want to say teams because that becomes tampering. But people in their respective city want me to play for them. That’s cool, I think. That’s dope.”

That’s dope? Are you kidding me?! Add this to a pile of circumstantial evidence—the rumor that LeBron checked out private schools in Philly over the All-Star break, the Klutch connection with Ben Simmons, LeBron playing with the Sixers in 2K on his Instagram Story, LeBron’s expressed desire to keep the current playoff-seeding system rather than move to a 1-16 system (which indicates he’d prefer to stay in the East, where the path to the Finals is easier). No one piece is strong on its own, but put together, they all can’t be ignored. I’m pretty close to collapse. But somewhere in the back of my mind … there’s a little voice asking, “Are we sure this is a good idea?”

Verrier: Might I remind you that just three years ago the Sixers’ leading scorer was Tony Wroten? That just two years ago, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant, and Isaiah Canaan each played 77 games? I think, more than anything, you should bask in this feeling. This is your Lob City moment—everyone wants a piece of the Process, even the elite players. And though LeBron has been known to flirt with every team with a big-market ZIP code, you’re on the short list. Perhaps the greatest player in the history of the NBA is texting you back.

How serious is it? That’s up for debate. LeBron, in the two periods when he earnestly opened up his recruitment, has always prioritized winning situations. Specifically, winning situations with players able to compete now, or players who could be flipped to acquire those players. And while the Sixers are one of the few teams that has both of those, a team built around three subpar shooters (including one who may not be able to shoot ever again) might be the worst fit for LeBron’s skills.

Dare I say: The Sixers don’t need LeBron???

Ryan: This is one of those billboards in Cleveland:

A billboard reading, “COMPLETE THE PROCESS” Power Home Remodeling

The Process means and has meant different things to different people. But one of the central tenets of former team president Sam Hinkie’s tear-it-down plan was not only to develop your own talent in the image of the Oklahoma City Thunder and their homegrown All-Stars (that worked out well), but to also have the flexibility to get in the room with a free-agent star, and a viable sales pitch to entice them into joining you. Adding LeBron to a Sixers team that already featured Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would be the fruition of that plan, full stop. But it would also be the final nail in the coffin of the Process. Andrew Unterberger wrote about these ideas really well over at The 700 Level. The Sixers would go from a future contender, with nothing but time on their hands, to a win-now-at-all-costs short-term player. That’s at once thrilling and scary.

There’s part of me that wants to go on that ride—that wants to know what it feels like to cheer for LeBron, and not just admire him. Then there’s another part of me that doesn’t want this punk rock band to sign with a major label. It’s not about being afraid of success as much as wanting success on your own terms. Does that sound as hopelessly old-fashioned as I think it does?

Verrier: Yes and no. I never really understood the push and pull in the “built vs. bought” conversation. Like, do we consider the Big Three Heat “bought,” even though Dwyane Wade and, to a lesser extent, Udonis Haslem were key figures in their run? Do we forget the three years of emotionless business decisions that birthed this Sixers era and a Twitterati willing to trial-by-combat every anti-Processor on the interwebs? On the other hand, what Philly has, in a time when everyone hates everything and the local NBA fan is giving way to generalists cramming in two League Pass games a night, is special.

As an agnostic NBA watcher, I’m honestly jealous. I get why LeBron would want to come hang. But the steady rise of this team is likely coming to an end this offseason, whether they land him or not. Robert Covington just got paid. Joel Embiid’s (complex) extension will kick in, sucking up a lot of the precious cap space left. Ben Simmons is technically in his first season, and he’ll be up for an extension in 2019. If Markelle Fultz can play basketball, he’ll need one, too. This is the summer before these kids go away to college. JoJo is getting so old!

Ryan: They grow up so fast. And they get paid even faster. I don’t consider the Heat “bought”; I consider them Floridian. Miami is a destination for reasons that Philly can’t be—the weather, Pat Riley, the nightlife. So it makes sense that stars would want to congregate there, just like it makes sense that stars would want to congregate in New York. But Philly? I’m still getting used to Philadelphia sports teams being as good as their fans are passionate!

Your point about nothing staying gold is well taken. The truth is, the Sixers’ story is feel-good, but the Rockets are probably the smarter model: ultra-fluidity, constant tinkering, and star accumulation. The teams that try to build slowly through the draft, take baby steps, and make their way up the conference standings will still have to contemplate not being able to pay all their good players at once. Hell, even teams like the Thunder, who have muscled in on player acquisition through good old-fashioned Kevin Pritchard trades, are going to have to reckon with losing Steven Adams being the price for keeping Paul George. LeBron might be a free agent, but he will come with a cost.

The Sixers team we see now would not look anything like the Sixers team we’d see this fall with LeBron. Who on this roster do you like next to LeBron? And, most crucially, could the Klutch connection actually succeed on the court?

Verrier: I was already skeptical of slotting Dario Saric next to Simmons until the Homie became New RoCo from 3 this season. (And if I’m being honest, I still have my doubts about the longevity of that partnership, even though I love both players in a vacuum.) Can they really make a closing lineup with three power-forward-sized players and one center work? All of them are skilled passers, and it’d be fascinating to see what their goal-line unit could do to disrupt the many teams now built around shooting and speed. But as versatile as Simmons and LeBron are, their skill sets are probably too duplicative to work alongside each other.

My favorite part of the billboards you referenced is one that effectively dubbed Simmons as the new starting 2-guard. I just don’t see how that would ever work. New Orleans had hit a stride with its overstuffed frontcourt before DeMarcus Cousins went out for the season, but both Boogie and the Brow can shoot, and the coaching staff often filled out the spots around them (or at least tried to) with more shooters, often turning to three-guard sets to do so. An opposing defense could pack the paint and watch as Embiid (31.7 percent from 3 this season) clanks away or tries that slow pump-fake that never works and Simmons roams the arc trying to remember which hand he shoots with.

The only option that makes some kind of sense would be the extreme one: Signing LeBron and trading Simmons for a wing to fill out around him. Would you be willing to sacrifice young Ben for the cause? And is there any chance that Bryan Colangelo wouldn’t screw up such a deal?

Ryan: And therein lies the rub: How much of this team are the Sixers—ownership, front office, fans—willing to sacrifice to bring in LeBron? LeBron hits teams like a meteor. Nothing is the same after he arrives. Even if the Sixers get LeBron and keep Simmons and Embiid, James would irrevocably change their trajectories. They would go from foundational players to wing men—just like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did. Just like Kyrie Irving did. Just like Kevin Love did. Are any of those players thought of in the same way if they never play with LeBron? No. Do those players do other things with their careers if they never play with LeBron? Yes! So you ask yourself, is it worth it? Is a very good chance at making the NBA Finals next season (because that’s what LeBron immediately gives you) worth the disruption of a years-long project spanning countless losses, players, and think pieces? I actually don’t know! Isn’t that weird!?

Verrier: I think the weirdest part is I kind of feel the same way. Maybe I’ve been second-hand smoking Sixers fandom in the office for too long, but this team feels more like a prestige drama in one of its middle seasons. We’ve seen this cast of characters bounce back from some really low points. Simmons, the product of that no. 1 overall slot that the franchise had long pined for, returned to raise cats and be every bit the LeBron Lite we hoped he’d be. Saric finally came to the U.S. and is now an above-average starter and the consummate chill bro. Embiid went to Qatar! That wasn’t that long ago! And now he’s just as charming when a camera is on him as he is amazing on the court. This team has been through some shit over the past five years, and even though a lot of it could be described as self-inflicted, the success they’re having, as moderate as it may be at the moment, feels earned. That’s rare in a league dictated by cold, hard efficiency.

Having said that, I would still probably trade Simmons if LeBron wanted to come to Philly.