LAS VEGAS — Where do the 76ers stand in the Eastern Conference’s pecking order?
The Sixers added center Andre Drummond at a bargain price in free agency to serve as Joel Embiid’s backup. They also made a slight upgrade at backup power forward by signing Georges Niang. And they re-signed small forward Danny Green and reserve swingman Furkan Korkmaz.
However, those transactions were underwhelming in comparison to those of conference foes.
The Sixers’ moves don’t exactly inspire confidence that they’ll remain one of the conference’s elite teams. One could argue their lack of a significant move dropped them to no better than the bottom half of the top eight teams in the conference.
The Brooklyn Nets, with a healthy Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, are atop the pecking order. The Miami Heat are second, followed by the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and then the Sixers.
On paper, the Sixers will be fighting the Knicks and Bulls for the sixth seed. And that would be a major drop-off for a Sixers squad that had the conference’s best record last season.
As the seventh or eighth seed, the Sixers would have to participate in the play-in tournament for a berth in the playoffs. If that happens, Philly will have gone from The Process to the play-in games.
Now, Drummond is a good insurance policy for Embiid, who has yet to play a full season since being drafted third in 2014. Embiid could miss around 20 games this season because of load management and injuries.
Drummond could be a force as a backup center. He’ll also be a quality replacement for Embiid in the starting lineup on the nights the MVP runner-up doesn’t play.
But Dwight Howard, who like Drummond is a former All-Star, was a solid backup for Embiid last season. The major difference is that Drummond, who turns 28 on Tuesday, will be seven years younger than Howard at the start of the season.
Niang is considered a reserve power forward upgrade from Mike Scott, who played only one minute in the conference semifinal series loss to the Hawks. Like Scott, he’s a solid three-point shooter who is undersized for the position. Niang and Drummond weren’t exactly heavily targeted free agents.
Drummond signed a one-year veteran minimum deal for about $2.9 million, while Niang received a two-year, $6.7 million deal using part of the mid-level exception.
In re-signing Green, the Sixers were able to keep their veteran leader and glue guy. But at 34, he’s toward the end of his career. Meanwhile, Korkmaz, 24, is a quality three-point shooter and improved defender, but he needs to be more consistent.
Let’s be real. The Sixers’ offseason moves are minor in comparison to what Miami, Boston, New York and Chicago did. All those teams made major improvements to the rosters while the Sixers basically stayed the same.
Looking to maximize the talents of All-Star wings Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown, the Celtics acquired Al Horford in a multiplayer trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Kemba Walker and draft picks. Walker subsequently was bought out and waived by the Thunder, and wound up with the Knicks.
Horford, who was a bad fit here during the 2019-20 season, is still a solid center who averaged 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in 28 games last season in Oklahoma City. He was Embiid’s kryptonite during his first stint in Boston, from 2016-19.
Meanwhile, the Heat added six-time All-Star guard Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade from the Toronto Raptors. Adding Lowry to a Miami squad that includes five-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and All-Star Bam Adebayo will make the Heat tough to beat. They also added free agents P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris and re-signed Victor Oladipo, Duncan Robinson, and Dewayne Dedman.
The Knicks and Bulls really helped themselves in free agency.
New York added Evan Fournier and Walker, a four-time All-Star, to play alongside All-Star Julius Randle. They’re also bringing back Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks, and Taj Gibson.
The Bulls made perhaps the most drastic facelift, adding four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to play alongside All-Stars Zach LaVine and Nik Vučević. Chicago also added Alex Caruso and former Sixer Tony Bradley.
Even Brooklyn got solid reserve free-agent additions in Patty Mills, James Johnson, and DeAndre’ Bembry while bringing back Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown.
To be fair, the Sixers didn’t have the cap space available to acquire a maximum salary player.
Last month the Sixers had around $119 million heading to free agency tied up in eight players for next season, with the bulk of the money going to Tobias Harris ($35.9 million), Simmons ($33 million), and Embiid ($31.5 million).
The problem is the league’s salary cap will be $112.5 million. The luxury-tax threshold will be $136.6 million.
The best way for the Sixers to acquire an elite talent would be via a trade. The Sixers were shopping point guard Ben Simmons. However, they have been unable to get a potential trade partner to reach their lofty demands of package than includes at least four first-round picks and an All-Star player in return. The team also has been reportedly shopping Harris.
Their best option for Simmons would be acquiring their top target, All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, from the Portland Trail Blazers. But even pairing Lillard with Embiid and Harris probably won’t make the Sixers the favorite to come out of the East.
They still have time to adjust and upgrade their roster. But on paper, the Sixers, as they’re currently constructed, dropped down several levels in regard to conference supremacy.
The question is, will they be good enough to avoid the play-in tournament?