The Sixers had an enormous organizational decision to make as they plotted their strategy in free agency, but it wasn’t the one most people focused on.
The choice they faced as they stood at the crossroads, contemplating selling their souls to the devil, was not between keeping Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris, the two free agents whose paydays were due. It was between keeping Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons, the next in line for a maximum contract extension.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the first news leaked from the team on Sunday night was that the Sixers were deep in talks with Simmons on an extension agreement. By that time, the Butler deal was in motion and Simmons had been informed that both the team and the ball would once again be his.
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The Sixers backed themselves into making some sort of difficult choice when they set themselves up to have four potential max players on their roster, which is one too many. Taking a swing at a deep playoff run was judged to be worth the eventual dilemma, however, and had that shot not bounced four times on the rim, and had they won in overtime, and then beaten the Bucks, and then had the Warriors suffer the same injuries in that alternate-world Finals, well, maybe it was the right call. We saw Nick Foles win a Super Bowl, so “Anything Can Happen” should be at the city limits in small letters beneath “Welcome to Philadelphia.”
But, alas, Kawhi’s shot dropped and the Sixers were left to sweep up the mess left by their season of taking the big swing. One obvious aspect of that was dealing with the loss of key assets required to obtain Butler and Harris, and plotting a reasonable path forward, particularly if they were going to pay both guys, as they kept claiming.
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The other bit of mess was that the postseason was an awful embarrassment for Simmons, one side of their two-headed coin of the realm. This organization is wed to the belief — from both a basketball standpoint and from a marketing standpoint — that the success or failure of the current team will rest on the accomplishments of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Imagine the mixed feelings in the front office and ownership suites when coach Brett Brown took the ball from Simmons as the postseason went deeper and gave it to Butler. Mixed feelings, because while the organization worried how Simmons would react, the change also worked so damn well. Looking for the basket and the cash register, Butler went into hyperdrive as a ball-dominant creator and averaged 22 points per game in the Toronto series. He was the “adult in the room,” according to Brown, which must have gone over well with the other kids on the playground.
Simmons, meanwhile, averaged 11.6 points per game against Toronto, and was relegated to being the third or fourth offensive option. The Sixers plopped Simmons into the dunker’s spot near the basket and let Butler do his thing. It was great in some ways, and it was exciting, and Butler was the Playoff Jimmy everyone had been waiting to see. Then, of course, as noted earlier, the ball bounced four times and dropped through the rim.
It has been an article of faith that the Sixers will sign Simmons to an extension of his rookie contract this summer, preventing the possibility of his becoming a restricted free agent after the season. They extended Embiid right on schedule before the 2017-18 season, and all of the organization’s careful star-building hinges on locking up Simmons as well. Yes, Simmons is kind of a diffident fellow, and, yes, he has had a Hollywood girlfriend, but surely he wants to finish what he started here.
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The question after the season ended was whether the playoffs had changed that calculus for Simmons. He had endured the unending criticism for not working a jump shot into his repertoire — something of a failing for an alleged point guard. He had come to terms with his perceived role as the brooding Prince of Denmark alongside Embiid’s jovial court jester. But how would ever he accept the prospect of five more years of comparisons to Jimmy Butler?
The Sixers opted to not find out, and for a number of reasons, not just Simmons. Butler was a pain behind the scenes and he figured to become worse once he got paid. He was useful on the court when he liked how things were going, and very nearly invisible when he didn’t. Harris represented a far safer signing between the two impending free agents, even if he was going to be overpaid.
However they worked it, the Sixers made sure Butler didn’t stay. Various sources indicate that not only didn’t they offer him a five-year max contract, but they didn’t offer a four-year max. Maybe Butler would have preferred Miami in any case. Since leaving Tyler Junior College in 2008, he has played in Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Time for some palm trees.
The easy narrative is that the organization solved its max-contract puzzler by going for Harris instead of Butler, and you can spin it that way. The team won’t mind if you do. Moving past Jimmy opened up the cap room to sign Al Horford, and that was a smart addition.
Of course, the same thing could have been accomplished if Harris got the sign-and-trade. That’s why the deeper play was all about choosing Simmons over Butler. One of them would be leaving, either now or later, and the Sixers made their bet on Simmons long ago.
They might even cash in. Check the sign at the edge of town. Anything can happen.