Here in the early going, the talk about the Sixers’ postseason has focused largely on the looming free agencies of Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. And for good reason. It’s hard to have a conversation about what the Sixers need to do to take the next step without first knowing the fate of the five guys principally responsible for getting them this far. Along with Harris and Butler, veteran shooting guard JJ Redick will be free to sign elsewhere once July 1, and, like last offseason, there is sure to be a robust market for his services, one that won’t necessarily bide its time until the Sixers’ dalliance with Harris and Butler reaches its conclusion.
So let’s have that conversation. The edited-for-length-and-content Twitter version: The Sixers will almost certainly do everything they can to bring back Harris. From there, let the debate about Butler rage.
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From a fiscal standpoint, things are fairly black and white. The economic and structural framework in which roster decisions are made does not allow for a whole lot of grays. As Butler himself noted a couple of days ago, it’s a pretty good bet that somebody, or multiple somebodies, is going to offer him four years and $141 million, which leaves these questions:
Are the Sixers willing to go that high?
Is Philly the place where Team Jimmy most wants to be?
Are the Sixers willing to go to five years and $188 million to make Philly that place?
Harris might be the better place to start, because it doesn’t take many leaps of faith to arrive at the conclusion that the Sixers have already decided that they are going to do what it takes to keep him in the fold. It simply strains credulity to think that they would have acquired him without having already convinced themselves that they would offer him a max deal if that is what is required to keep him in the fold beyond 2019. This, given that both front office and ownership signed off on a deal that stripped them of their last two viable avenues for improving the team internally. In addition to an unprotected 2021 draft pick that, given the Heat’s trajectory, could very well end up in the middle-to-upper lottery, the Sixers gave up a rookie in Landry Shamet who finished his first year in the NBA with a better three-point shooting percentage (.422) than Redick has posted in all but three of his 13 NBA seasons (while also averaging 10.4 three-point attempts per 100 possessions, a mark that Redick has only reached three times).
To be clear, the Sixers would be committing a classic economic blunder if they allowed the price they paid for Harris to impact their valuation of him. But we’re not talking about a sunk-cost situation here. The player that we saw in his 37 games in a Sixers uniform is the same player the Sixers saw on film when they decided he warranted the price they ended up paying for him. He isn’t a great defender, and he needs to improve his dribble separation and/or catch-and-shoot ability before he warrants All-Star consideration, but given his youth (26 years old), the polish of his game, and his silky smooth shooting touch, Harris carries with him far lower risk than Butler, from the standpoints of health, attitude, and personnel fit.
If you don’t think the Sixers have already committed themselves to signing him, consider the way Brett Brown ended his answer to a question about Harris’ fit with the team moving forward.
“When you start talking about those things and a fit, maybe the most exciting thing that I feel is that at age 26, we can get him better,” the Sixers head coach said on Tuesday. “We can get him better. ... The days are early, for us and for him, and so I really feel that his human skills, his character, his talent base at age 26, we can bring that to a higher level. And he’s a great worker and person and he will let me coach him. He will let us coach him.”
That doesn’t sound like a man who has much doubt about whether Harris will return.
As for Butler? There’s much less reason to assume that the Sixers have committed themselves to his return. Unlike with Harris, they can easily talk themselves into thinking that the cost they paid for Butler, while substantial, was justified for a one-year rental. Butler’s performance in crunch-time isolation situations during the regular season and his herculean effort throughout the postseason offer plenty of reason to believe that they would not have gotten to within four bounces (and a subsequent overtime) of the Eastern Conference Finals. Such a belief doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have been able to acquire some other rental player capable of doing some of the things that Butler does, particularly in isolation and off the dribble, while also keeping Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the fold (both of whom easily could have made a difference against the Raptors). But it does give them an out.
To be clear: the Sixers need a player like Butler, a guard capable of running the point when Ben Simmons is either off of the court or limited by an opposing defense.
“We saw that with the construction of two years ago’s team,” Brown said. “You know, that wasn’t Cov’s strength, that wasn’t Dario’s strength. And we need that. That’s kind of our sport nowadays. How do you find people that can play off a live ball, and create and make plays, and a really close second is, can they shoot?”
But the Sixers might be able to cobble together a version of Butler by spending his money on a couple of different players.