Chances are, you’ve heard personnel executives use the word “optionality” enough times to understand that flexibility is king when it comes to building a roster. Payroll flexibility, trade flexibility, flexibility within a game, flexibility within a season. When you combine a salary cap with guaranteed contracts and a finite number of roster spaces, the result is a significant danger of locking yourself into a suboptimal future by over-prioritizing the present.
It’s a reality that is likely to be even more distinct this season for NBA coaches and general managers as they attempt to navigate some truly uncharted waters. When the Sixers take the court on Dec. 15 for their preseason opener against the Celtics, it will be nine months almost to the day that the ongoing pandemic forced the shutdown of sports and society. In the interim, we have learned enough about the course of the virus and malleability of logistics to warrant the risk that the NBA is taking in attempting to start a brand new season. But the upcoming campaign will also be a brand new test trial.
Unlike the NFL, which had the benefit of starting its season when the weather was warm and the daylight was long and community spread was on the decline, the NBA will be attempting to make it through a schedule that tips off in an environment that is as contagious as any as we have seen. In addition to battling the medical, political, and optical concerns that come with attempting to play sports while much of the rest of society is hunkering down for the winter, the NBA will face a daily clear and present danger on the competitive front. On Wednesday, the NFL managed to stage a game after a week in which one of the competing teams had 20 players sidelined because of the virus. That will not be an option in the NBA, where games are played several times a week and rosters include just 17 players total.
Factor into all of this an offseason that was two months shorter than usual and you can understand why a coach like Doc Rivers is entering the season with more than a little wait-and-see.
“I’m very concerned we can pull this off,” Rivers said earlier this week.
Given the uncertain nature of the state of play, the path that the Sixers have chosen to follow for the first half of the regular season is even more justified than it otherwise would have been. The necessary changes have been made — namely, swapping out a couple of talented but ill-fitting name-brand starters in Al Horford and Josh Richardson for a couple of players who collectively bring a skill set much more compatible with the talents of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. But the Sixers do not seem to be under the impression that the additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green have made their roster complete. Rather, they’ve made a calculated and eminently defensible decision to wait for the circumstances to reveal how to proceed.
“I call it the lab,” Rivers said. “You gotta get in there first. The identity has to be what they believe it is, not what I want it to be.”
This is true of any season, particularly one that will be waged in the throes of pandemic. It is even truer for the Sixers, who can only really project how Simmons and Embiid will look with a new head coach and the fourth substantively different supporting cast of their four years playing together. If the Sixers’ goal was to win an NBA championship within the next three months, they’d be incentivized to eliminate the handful of glaring questions that remains with their roster. They’d look to trade for a veteran guard who has the ability to create space off the dribble whether playing alongside Simmons or behind him on bench. They’d look for a wing who brings a better combination of defense, athleticism and shot-making ability than Furkan Korkmaz has shown. If that wing did not have the ability to guard the four, they might look for someone who could do that as well.
But the playoffs do not start tomorrow, which means Rivers and his front office can use the next two or three months to learn a little more about the talent they currently have. Take Curry, for instance. His unparalleled ability as a shooter will be the No. 1 variable that determines his deployment. But he could also bring some value at point guard, enough that it could expand the Sixers’ range of options at the trade deadline.
“I think we’ll expand that role,” Rivers said. “Playing against him in the playoffs, we were as scared of his shot as we were of his drives. His drives killed us. He’s a clever basketball player. So we plan on using his strengths, bottom line.”
In delaying their final maneuvers, the Sixers will also get a chance to find out about two of the biggest wild cards on their roster. The range of potential outcomes for Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton is still rather large. Two months could be enough for one or both to establish themselves as a legitimate sixth man or even starting-caliber players. It could also be enough to show that, at least at the moment, they are back-of-the-rotation players on a legitimate contender.
For Thybulle, the questions involve his catch-and-shoot ability, his physical maturation, and the consistency of his isolation defense. If he shows considerable development in all three categories, that could eliminate the need for another three-and-D wing (Thybulle shot .463 from three-point range in his first 30 games, and .278 in his last 35). Milton, meanwhile, has the makings of an elite shot. But can he show that he is a capable ball handler in Doc Rivers’ pick-and-roll sets? And can he be something greater than a defensive liability?
The answers to both questions will factor into the Sixers’ trade deadline needs.
“My body was one of the main focuses [this offseason],” Milton said Wednesday. “Just trying to get stronger and put on some weight a little bit.”
The early stages of the season will give the Sixers an opportunity to take stock of such efforts. At this point, the roster exists only on paper. In a couple of months, the team will have some actuality to go on. That’s important. This year, more than ever, things can change.