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Is the Sixers’ Window Smaller Than We Thought?

Philly went into this summer with two young stars, plenty of cap room, and an eye on LeBron and Kawhi Leonard. The franchise could be leaving with just Wilson Chandler. Can the Sixers keep up with the era of star player movement, and do they have to watch their own backs?

Ben Simmons looking out the window at Los Angeles Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Brett Brown has been right about this all along: Philadelphia needs more. As the Sixers head coach bluntly put it after the Celtics dispatched them from last season’s NBA playoffs, “another high-level” player is required if the Sixers want to make the jump from good to great. I applauded the ambition and candor, then and now.

But here’s the thing about star hunting, or any kind of hunting — the targets tend to move, and it helps to at least see what you’re aiming at. I say that confidently, even though rewatching Predator a bunch of times is the closest I’ve ever come to hunting anything. That’s why the Sixers’ last-second free-agency pitch meeting never felt like it would end with them bagging LeBron. Team owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer flew across the country to Los Angeles to make their case, but the audience was James’s agent, Rich Paul. LeBron wasn’t there — and, unlike Arnold, he didn’t even have to cover himself in mud to escape the Sixers.

Considering the way this offseason has gone so far, it’s possible that the Sixers’ window to build something significant is smaller than we thought. LeBron is the greatest player of his generation — and maybe the greatest ever — and part of his legacy will be that he helped usher in the itinerant, post-team player era. A lot of those players keep flocking in the same direction; at present, as The Ringer’s Zach Kram pointed out, every player who has finished in the top five in MVP voting since the Warriors started their title run plays in the Western Conference (not counting free agent Isaiah Thomas). The Sixers fancy themselves a free-agent landing spot because they have two young superstars in place, a bunch of money to spend, and a marvelous new training facility. But compared with what the Warriors have, in terms of team and lifestyle in the Bay Area, or what LeBron and the Lakers are building in Los Angeles, the Sixers’ situation isn’t as attractive, which makes me wonder whether maybe the Philly-as-a-destination narrative was a bit overblown and whether the franchise will be playing catch-up for a while.

Despite not having a full-time general manager installed, the Sixers did a good job with a draft-night trade that freed up a little more cap space and grabbed Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick in the process. They stayed flexible entering free agency, and it felt like they were on the verge of not just star hunting but star acquiring. That’s not how it’s gone. LeBron signed with the Lakers. Paul George stayed with the Thunder. Maybe the Sixers will still swing a deal for Kawhi Leonard, but at the time of writing, the Spurs don’t appear to be in a hurry to offload their disgruntled All-Star wing. As of now, the Sixers in July don’t look all that different from the Sixers in May.

So far, they’ve watched Marco Belinelli leave for the Spurs and Ersan Ilyasova return to the Bucks. They were useful-enough pieces toward the end of last season, but they’re also replacement-level players who have spent their careers bouncing around the league for a reason. Losing them is no great blow. Meanwhile, the Sixers added former Minnesota forward Nemanja Bjelica on a one-year deal. They also retained the services of shooting guard J.J. Redick, who signed another one-year offer, this time reportedly in the range of $12 million to $13 million. The organization also took Wilson Chandler off of the Nuggets’s hands in a trade. In exchange for absorbing his $12.8 million salary next season, the Sixers reportedly got a 2021 second-round pick and swap rights to a 2022 second-rounder.

Short or expiring contracts that don’t keep the Sixers tied down have become standard operating procedure. Those decisions are perfectly on-brand for the Process; they get options. But you could also say they didn’t make a creative use of max cap room, once again kicking the meaningful-improvement can down the road. If they keep Chandler, he’ll be a useful-enough player they can fold into their rotation and then dump next offseason when his contract expires. Or they can add him to a potential trade for salary-matching purposes (he can be moved immediately since the Sixers absorbed him into available cap room). It was the safe move, not the sexy one. An offseason that promised a big bang for the Sixers feels increasingly like it will end with something closer to a fizzle.

The Sixers still project as one of the best teams in the now-LeBron-less Eastern Conference, but it would require some real hot-take gymnastics to argue that they aren’t chasing the Celtics in every way. Philly will be good next year, and it hasn’t closed any doors for the future, either. But it’s hard to blame Sixers fans who might be frustrated by the (so-far) quiet offseason — especially considering the player migration and star-stacking we’ve lately witnessed leaguewide.

They could enter next offseason with a projected $42 million in cap space, but what happens if there’s more free-agency demand than supply next summer? In addition to Kawhi, names like Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Klay Thompson could be out there — but as the Sixers have learned, it’s hard to snag those guys and, these days, just as hard to keep them. Kevin Durant reupped with the Warriors as expected, but his two-year deal with a player option is straight from the LeBron flexibility playbook. KD recently gave some similar advice to Giannis Antetokounmpo and counseled him not to stay in Milwaukee if he’s not having fun. Durant also told Giannis to “play for himself” and that “his career is about him.” Antetokounmpo responded by insisting there’s no way he’ll leave the Bucks — but he’s also just a few months removed from giving an interview in Greek in which he said the Bucks’ “front office and general manager have their work to do.” And if that doesn’t happen? “The Bucks can move forward without me,” Giannis continued, “or I can move forward without the Bucks.”

It won’t be long until the Sixers are potentially in a similar situation of having to court guys who are already in their camp. Ben Simmons and Dario Saric will become restricted free agents in 2020, which will limit the funds the Sixers can allocate toward outside pieces. Not to mention that the Sixers aren’t immune from warding off the wandering-eye virus that has infected players all over the league. Just because they have something good going today doesn’t mean that someone like Simmons won’t think about other possibilities tomorrow. In the same way that Kyrie graduated to wanting his own program, rather than sharing one with LeBron, it’s not unthinkable to imagine a world where Simmons might want his own team one day, rather than splitting a squad with Joel Embiid. It should also be noted that LeBron and Simmons share the same agent, and that Simmons and his paramour, Kendall Jenner, haven’t exactly been shy about hitting the scene and being seen. That doesn’t mean that Simmons will eventually leap to Los Angeles — but there’s no guarantee that he’ll spend the rest of his career in Philly, either.

That might sound harsh or premature, but we’ve long understood that there’s no loyalty in the NBA. It’s a business, and we’ve entered the unrepentant mercenary player stage. As a result, the non-Warriors league hierarchy can change rapidly. Right now the Rockets are Golden State’s biggest challengers, but will that still be the case two years from now, when newly re-signed Chris Paul is 35 — or four years from now, when he’s 37 and making $44.2 million in the final year of his deal? The league’s power dynamic is sure to shift between now and then — which makes securing another star as fast as possible feel only more urgent for the Sixers. Maybe they’ll eventually figure out a way to pry Kawhi away from the Spurs. Or perhaps those rumors about Jimmy Butler wanting to get buckets for some team other than Minnesota could be used to Philly’s advantage. But right now, it feels like the Sixers are in a holding pattern while everything around them is a constant blur.

That’s one more important lesson that LeBron and KD have taught us by moving around and signing contracts that give them agency and options: Teams that don’t build around their stars quickly enough or well enough are in danger of losing them. One day LeBron is “Coming Home,” the next he has two homes in Los Angeles and he’s a Laker. It can happen that fast. So maybe the Sixers shouldn’t be concerned about that L.A. crash pad just yet — but it’s worth keeping an eye on.