To appreciate the full extent of the uncertainty of the current moment in professional sports, you need to look at it from the perspective of a guy like Josh Richardson. With one year remaining on the contract extension he signed with the Heat after a breakout sophomore season, July of 2020 was supposed to mark the start of preparations for the most pivotal 12 months of his young career. The previous 12 had already been a whirlwind, beginning with the 2019 trade that landed him with the Sixers and sent Jimmy Butler to Miami. A new city, a new position, a nagging hamstring injury, and then. . .
Well, here we still are. Turns out, the night Richardson returned from a week-long stint on the injured list was the last night anybody in the NBA would play basketball until now.
"I've thought about all that, and I know about next year," Richardson said recently, "but for now my focus is really just on Orlando, trying to bring a title back, because I think we have a good shot at it."
Really, it's the only mentality anybody in the NBA can take as the league heads to Disney World for what will almost certainly be the three most unique months of basketball in the sport's history. This is especially true for anybody whose future is at all dependent on the Sixers.
Four months ago, the assumption was that the answers to a number of long-term questions confronting the team could only be found within the framework of an NBA postseason. Through 65 games, the Sixers had looked like a team whose grand offseason plan had fallen well short of its predicted success. Ben Simmons was hurt, Joel Embiid seemed stuck in neutral, and the free agent center with the $100 million contract was coming off of the bench. It was almost enough to warrant complete disregard for the head coach's protestations that his team was built for the playoffs and would show its value there.
Except, there were plenty of moments that made you think that Brett Brown might actually be right. In addition to a trio of wins over the Celtics, the Sixers had recorded impressive victories over each of the NBA's three trendiest contenders. They had the best home record in the NBA. And they were within striking distance of a top four seed despite having played 46 of 65 games without their full starting lineup.
And then, well, here we still are. Except, will the playoffs really be the playoffs? With no home courts? And no fans? And the looming potential of a positive COVID-19 test robbing a playoff series of its potential measuring stick? Remember when the Sixers beat the Bulls without Derrick Rose?
The coach and his players are saying all of the things you’d expect them to say. Once the whistles start blowing and the adrenaline starts throwing, the competition will be the same as any other postseason. Richardson himself called it the “AAU tournament of the century,” referring to the often empty arenas that play host to the elite all-star high school basketball circuit. But it remains to be seen whether the 2019-20 playoffs will end up proving anything about the Sixers except the strength of their immune systems.
Which means that Elton Brand and his bosses might not have much else to go on than what they’ve already seen out of this team. And that would leave Richardson’s future with the team even more uncertain than it already is.
While there is plenty to like about Richardson’s game, there is also plenty of reason to wonder about his game’s fit on this team. That’s true with regard to both on-court flow and off-court finances. The Sixers already have more than $126 million in payroll commitments for the 2021-22 season, making it a near certainty that they’d need to go well into the luxury tax to re-sign Richardson, who has an $11.6 million player option for 2021-22 and seems likely to get a multi-year deal at that amount or more.
Given the unknowns surrounding the economic fallout of this year’s unprecedented loss of revenue and the potential for the pandemic to impact parts of next season, it seems worthless to delve to deep into the specific numbers. But it is reasonable to assume that Josh Harris’ financial wherewithal isn’t going to have increased by the time we emerge from this ordeal.
Even when you remove cost from the equation, there is reason to wonder whether the Sixers’ would be better off replacing Richardson with a different profile of player. Every move that Elton Brand has made since the start of the season suggests that he agrees with the belief that his team needs more shooting. Considering that, like dollars, there are only so many minutes to go around, Richardson’s .327 three-point percentage as a shooting guard would seem a logical place to start.
“I think the first half of the year was pretty good,” Richardson said. “I think it could have been a lot better and as a team. Going forward, I just need myself to keep playing defense the way I always do and just try to be consistent and vocal.”
Whatever the Sixers decide, they would be wise to do it before the upcoming offseason, whenever it actually arrives. If they do not anticipate re-signing him, they should absolutely be looking to trade him, given that he might be their only asset capable of landing a usable piece in return.