There are a couple of ways to look at the Sixers' unsuccessful effort to sign LeBron James to a free-agent contract. The trip to Los Angeles taken by owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer, along with coach/interim general manager Brett Brown, was either an admirable swing at a distant fence or an embarrassing bit of cross-country ring-kissing that wasn't even attended by the object of their quest. They went all the way to Disneyland, but Mickey didn't have time to see them.
Either way, they probably had to go. It's not as if someone you plan to offer $150 million can be bothered to get on a plane and come to you these days. Still, it was another reminder that while the Sixers might be on their way, they haven't arrived yet. Any organization that can't master Twitter figured to be in over its head in this offseason during which kings are crowned and championships are constructed.
The bottom line of the Sixers' pitch to agent Rich Paul was that they had a good chance of trading for San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard. The James camp apparently didn't agree with that assessment, and, let's face it, the odds are that LeBron and Leonard have been exchanging better information than the Sixers have been able to glean.
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What it came down to in this game of leverage was that the Sixers held an empty hand. The only way they were right about their ability to secure a long-term commitment with Leonard was if James signed with the Sixers first. Both sides knew it, and the Sixers were left with an earnest plea surrounding their exciting young players, the exciting atmosphere in the city, and, hey, wait until you see the lunch room in Camden. Well, thanks for coming. Have a nice flight home.
OK, now what? They certainly have a Plan B for free agency beyond James, who's joining the Lakers, and Paul George, who chose to stay in Oklahoma City. They did whiff on, or weren't interested in, the last floor-spacing, three-and-D guy on the board when Trevor Ariza reportedly reached a deal with Phoenix. Among the unrestricted free agents still out there, the only one who really provides the perimeter element they need is JJ Redick. He has reportedly agreed to come back on a one-year deal. While it isn't a completely ho-hum signing, after the giddy possibilities of what the Sixers went after, it does feel like a been-there-lost-with-that comedown.
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As for Leonard, he's obviously still on the board, although his availability is at the mercy of Gregg Popovich, who could have limited mercy for a player the San Antonio organization allegedly thinks quit on it. That situation is murky, as it always is when a guy misses all but nine games with a quad injury that his team didn't think would keep him out that long.
The unknowns are massive. Is Leonard developing into a bad guy, or at least one who won't play through the normal aches and pains of the NBA? Were the Spurs hard-hearted in their treatment of him? Who knows? It came apart for good when Leonard went to New York for a second opinion in February, right before the trade deadline, and didn't come back for three weeks. Maybe the waiting room was really crowded or something.
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Soon after, it was reported that Leonard didn't want to play for the Spurs again, and he didn't mean just last season. That's where the situation stands, and anyone who thinks Popovich is going to be hurried or bullied into giving Leonard his druthers hasn't been paying attention to Popovich's career.
The Sixers, at least from here, would be making an enormous mistake to trade for Leonard. It is certainly the case if they don't get a long-term agreement, hoping that he'll fall in love with the organization once he gets a load of the lunch room.
It would be too easy for Leonard to do his year in Romper Room with the Sixers and then join James in Los Angeles as an unrestricted free agent. If, as reported, the Spurs are asking for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and three first-round draft picks just for what could be a one-year rental, that price is ludicrous.
Even with a long-term contract, however, a trade would be risky simply because Leonard is an injury and attitude risk. When you consider the cost of bringing him in — even if San Antonio is inflating the true price at the moment — it just doesn't make common sense.
After the draft, Brown acknowledged that his star-hunting mission might not succeed this year and that the team would "focus in on what we do have" this coming season and develop stars rather than acquire them.
That would appear to mean their immediate growth as a franchise hinges on teaching Zhaire Smith to shoot and reteaching Markelle Fultz to do the same thing. Neither is remotely a sure thing.
The Sixers have gotten several reminders in the last few weeks that very little is assured in the NBA. When $150 million in a suitcase gets you into the Magic Kingdom, but you still aren't big enough to go on the best rides, that's a good lesson right there.
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