The most important press conference of the end-of-the-year evaluation season just concluded, with Sixers managing partner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand addressing a variety of topics that, well, needed to be addressed.
In addition to extensive, albeit oblique, remarks about their decision to retain head coach Brett Brown for at least one more season, Brand and Harris offered some perspective on some of the biggest questions facing the Sixers as they once again set their sights on advancing deeper in the postseason than the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Here are three key issues they addressed besides the Brett Brown situation:
1) Harris continues to insist that he is willing to spend the type of money that would be necessary to retain Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, even if that means going into the luxury tax.
Now, that’s different from saying that the Sixers have decided that either Butler or Harris or both players will be worth the money that the free agent market dictates. As we’ve noted plenty of times before, you can make a solid case against the wisdom of handing either of them a max deal. We’ll delve a lot more into this as the offseason progresses, but the decision to spend money and spend it on Butler/Harris are separate decisions. That is, the Sixers could take the money they would devote to one or both players and look to spend it elsewhere.
The key point, at least in this instance, is that the man who controls the purse strings says that the luxury tax is not a deal breaker (nor should one expect it to be, given that the Sixers have almost certainly set franchise records for gate, marketing and sponsorship revenues over the last couple of seasons, and can safely project that those records will only increase with each passing season that the team remains a legitimate contender).
“We’ve said it repeatedly and we’ll keep saying it,” Harris said. “We’re committed to do what it takes to bring a championship to Philly, including spending into the luxury tax.”
After Harris said those words, Brand jumped in, saying, “I’d just like to add to that, we’re going to be fiscally responsible. We’re not just jumping into the luxury tax.”
“Thank you,” Harris said with a smile while patting his GM on the back. “Look, obviously, it’s a system where if you make the wrong decisions financially, you hamstring your team. So there’s a lot to consider.”
Among all the potential risks and opportunity costs to consider, there is also the fact that the Sixers spent the vast majority of their tradeable assets in order to bring Harris and Butler to Philadelphia. And given the difficulty in luring similarly major stars to town in an offseason when the Knicks and both Los Angeles teams will have the payroll space to add one or two max contracts each, it’s not an outlandish assumption to think that Harris and Butler will be more deserving of the money they will command than any other player who might consider signing with the Sixers. The sunk cost fallacy says that it would be an error to make a decision based on the assets the Sixers have already traded away, but it would not be fallacious to factor them into the realization that their options for adding elite or even All-Star level talent might be limited to Butler and Harris.
Would the Sixers have parted with those assets if they weren’t planning on retaining those players long term?
“That was the goal, to bring in talent, elite talent, All Star caliber talent," Brand said. "We tried to accumulate that with the assets that we sent out.”
Harris: “Obviously, things evolve. We hoped at that time and continue to hope to work things out.”
2) The Sixers are optimistic that both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will make greater strides with the two most improvable areas of their games: Simmons’ perimeter shot and Embiid’s physical conditioning.
Would it be acceptable if Simmons’ game stayed in the range it is now?
“We’ve had great, direct conversations,” Brand said. “22 years old, rookie of the year, already an All-Star, he’s committed to getting better. Our exit meeting was about things that he is working on. Everybody says shooting, but just be comfortable shooting ... He’s only scratched the surface.”
» READ MORE: Ben Simmons reveals little about summer plans
Simmons said yesterday that he will continue to work with his brother on his shot this summer. Does that have to change given the lack of progress with his shot this season?
“All fair questions,” Brand said. “This summer we’re putting together plans. Whatever’s the case may not be the case, he may shoot 15-footers, we know that our staff, we’re looking forward to putting the people around him so he can grow his game. Personally, he can work with whoever he wants, but as a staff, we’re going to put in place with people that he can work with also.
“I would never ask him not to ask him with his brother. What he wants to do personally during his time, that’s his time. That’s not during our time. He works with our coaches during our time. I have a great relationship with his agent, Rich Paul, and he also has people that he wants him to work with. We’re looking for the best in class for people for him to work with. So we’re putting that together.”
3) The Sixers will prioritize the back-up center position this offseason, and might be able to offer a potential free agent the chance for a significant role in the rotation.
Brand and Harris both took blame for the unacceptable situation on the bench behind Joel Embiid. The Sixers used four back-up centers during the postseason and none of them established themselves as a reliable enough backup to prevent Embiid from playing 45 minutes in Game 7 and the Sixers being outscored by eight points when he was on the bench. The foundation for such a breakdown was laid way back in the offseason, when the Sixers brought back Amir Johnson on a veteran minimum deal rather than signing or trading for a legitimate rim-protecting back-up big.
Now, there are a lot of mitigating factors that need to be considered. First and foremost, bigs are the rarest commodity in the NBA, and it’s awfully hard to find a competent one who doesn’t have a better option than playing 10-15 minutes a night behind one of the top-25 players in the game. That being said, one of the big narrative shifts that has taken place over the last 48 hours has been an acknowledgment from all parties that it would be in everybody’s interest for both Embiid, the coaching staff and management to formulate a concrete plan for limiting Embiid’s minutes during the regular season.
Given the talent the Sixers expect to have on their roster, it should be entirely feasible for Embiid to play no more than 28-30 minutes a night and play no more than 60-65 games during the regular season. That gives a back-up center the potential of getting 1,600 minutes of action by the time all is said and done.
Brand, for his part, was not the GM last offseason.
“That’s definitely one of the priorities outside of [the top guys in] free agency,” Brand said. “I look forward to being the GM for the first time in free agency to address certain needs like a backup center or depth or certain places that need to be in place. Last year I wasn’t afforded that opportunity. I had a voice in it, and I didn’t speak up loud enough I guess.”
“To be fair, he got thrust into this," Harris interjected (which, of course, raises the question of the wisdom of the Sixers’ decision to go through the offseason without a permanent GM after the unexpected firing of Bryan Colangelo in the wake of the Twitter fiasco).