You know the Sixers are fun again when Zhaire Smith gets traded for Tony Bradley and you’re examining it the same way you would a papyrus scroll containing a Gnostic Gospel. Maybe the greatest trick Daryl Morey ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist in a world where a team needs three players capable of logging minutes at the five spot.
Granted, the writing of those two sentences all but guarantees that, by the time you read this, Bradley will be on his way to his third team in 24 hours, and the entire NBA will be oohing and ahhing at how a replacement-level fourth-year center turned out to be the key cog in a blockbuster trade that now has the Sixers as the prohibitive favorites in the East. But deadlines are deadlines, and as the one confronting this writer draws near, we have no evidence to suggest that the implications of the Sixers’ second day of free agency are anything greater than procedural.
The Sixers are now spending $3.5 million on a player who, given the track records of the first two players on their depth chart at center, has a reasonable chance at finding himself in a situation where he must tie his sneakers and tuck in his shirt. This, instead of spending $3.2 million on a player who has made it off the bench in exactly 15 of the 171 games that the Sixers have played since they acquired him on draft day in 2018.
Therein lies the only modicum of news in what has otherwise been a quiet start to the free-agent signing period for the Sixers. In trading Smith for a player who might otherwise have been waived, Morey essentially confirmed that the rest of the NBA views Smith’s contract as little more than dead money. Bradley, who averaged 11.4 minutes per game in 58 games with the Jazz last season, was one of four centers the Pistons had acquired this offseason, including Dwayne Dedmon, Mason Plumlee, and Jahlil Okafor, the latter on two-year veteran minimum deal. If you had any hope that Smith might factor as even a marginal asset in a trade package for an established star, this move will likely serve as a referendum on the validity of your expectations.
All that being said, it’s hard to believe that the Sixers’ current roster is the one that they take into the playoffs next season. The question looming over the Sixers is how much substantive change might occur between now and the start of the season a month from now. When Morey first took the helm, he cautioned against expecting a radical transformation of the roster on Day 1. His first few orders of business have largely fit the profile most would have projected. Move Al Horford’s contract onto somebody else’s books. Swap Josh Richardson for a player who better complements Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Sign a veteran backup center to replace Horford. Done, done, and done.
In accomplishing all three of these objectives while picking up Seth Curry, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and a handful of contracts that can facilitate future trades, Morey has put the Sixers in a position to enter the 2020-21 season as a more functional team than they have been at any point since last Christmas. They’d be a 50-win team if the season started today, with Embiid, Curry, and Green joining Simmons and Tobias Harris in the starting lineup and a bench that does not look a whole lot different from the one they carried into last season. That’s a pretty good floor.
The outlook is especially promising when you consider the flexibility that the Sixers have moving forward. They still have two clear complementary needs: a player capable of creating off the dribble and a player capable of guarding the four. They should have access to the full mid-level exception, giving them the ability to address one or both of those needs with a free-agent contract or contracts totaling three years and about $29 million. And they have a way to facilitate pretty much any trade you can dream up.
For the moment, it would be unwise to assume that the Sixers are determined to add a star-caliber player before the start of the season. Given the expedited offseason and the uncertainty surrounding the season and the two years remaining on James Harden’s contract, there isn’t much incentive for the Rockets to immediately acquiesce to their star’s trade demands. On the free-agent front, the Sixers would have needed a sign-and-trade and some serious maneuvering to shop at the top of the market, and the one player who might have been a realistic target -- the Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has reportedly signed an offer sheet with the Hawks after a reported deal with the Bucks fell through -- is close to being off the market. While Morey has given the Sixers more flexibility to match any salary requirements in a trade, he still doesn’t have much beyond Simmons or Embiid to entice a team to part with a bona fide star.
All of this leaves us waiting to see what he has in mind for the one or two players who would leave the Sixers with a rotation that is capable of carrying them to the trade deadline. The free-agent market still has a handful of names you can talk yourself into: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as a defensive wing with some ball-handling ability who could back up Simmons, Reggie Jackson as a point guard who can knock down a three-pointer. The trade market includes a variety of veteran point guards, including George Hill, who has already been traded twice this season and is currently laying over in Oklahoma City, with whom the Sixers have yet to officially complete the Horford trade.
For now, Tony Bradley is a Sixer, and Zhaire Smith is a Piston, and it might not go much deeper than that. As the kids used to say, it is what it is. At least, until it’s not.