This story has been updated to reflect current events as of 12:20 p.m.
With all due respect to Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, the most consequential trade deadline plotline regarding the Sixers on Wednesday wasn’t the acquisition of a couple of minimum salary veterans acquired for a trio of second-round picks that would have otherwise been sold for cash. Burks and Robinson will help, no doubt. How could they not? If they can shoot 3-from-8 from three-point range and play league average defense they’ll be an improvement over Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz.
That being said, the sound you heard late Wednesday night when news of the deal broke wasn’t the rest of the Eastern Conference resignedly instructing their significant others to begin exploring vacation destinations for May and June. The Sixers might yet pull something out of their sleeve, or some other orifice, before the 3 p.m. NBA trade deadline arrives, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that the fate of the 2019-20 season will rely upon the improvement of a starting lineup that they’ve already exhausted most of their resources to build.
What you actually heard — or imagined you heard — was Pat Riley working the phones. And that’s a disconcerting sound for a front office and coaching staff whose legacy in this city will be determined by the wisdom of the decisions they made last summer. In Andre Iguodala, the Heat have reportedly acquired one of the most accomplished postseason defensive stoppers in recent NBA history, a man who earned a good chunk of the extra year and $15 million that the Heat will tack on to his deal for his ability to match up against LeBron James and players of his ilk. Then, late Wednesday night came word that Miami was also in deep discussions to acquire one best three-point shooters in the NBA, Oklahoma City’s Danilo Gallinari.
While the fate of the Heat’s talks with the Thunder remains unclear, their acquisition of Iguodala and Jae Crowder in a six-player trade with the Grizzlies in and of itself would make them significantly better. Given that Miami’s road to the NBA Finals could end up going through Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, and Ben Simmons, the acquisition of a couple of playoff-tested wing defenders makes a ton of sense.
Of course, from a local perspective, it’s that Simmons matchup that matters most. One thing we learned last year about the NBA trade deadline: regardless of how you feel about the moves your team made, it’s the ones made by your rivals that matter more. When the Sixers acquired Tobias Harris a few days before the deadline, they looked as if they’d placed themselves in the same company as the Raptors and Bucks in the quest for the Eastern Conference title. So much so that many of us may not have paid a proper amount of attention and respect to a move that happened a couple of days later. When Toronto traded for Marc Gasol on the day of the NBA’s trade deadline, it was difficult to conceptualize the possibility that the only thing keeping the Sixers from the finals would be a 34-year-old big man who was acquired for a few expendable players and a second-round pick. Yet three months later, there we were, watching Kawhi Leonard’s shot drop through the rim while wondering what would have happened if Joel Embiid’s value hadn’t gone the way of the Canadian dollar.
Iguodala might not have that level of impact on Simmons, but when you add him and Crowder to the defensive presence of Jimmy Butler, the Heat could end up making the Sixers’ loss to the Celtics in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals feel like the good ol’ days.
And that’s even before we consider Gallinari, who has been one of the best stretch fours in the NBA for the last five years. If that ends up being case, it seems very likely that the defining image of deadline day will be Elton Brand pulling out his empty pockets and shrugging as a team that has already beaten him in three out of four makes substantive moves to get better.
Gallinari might not be Dirk Nowitzki, but over the last two seasons he has a better three-point percentage (.422) than J.J. Redick (.419), and this year he is averaging 7.3 attempts from deep per game. Not only would he dramatically upgrade the Heat’s overall talent, he would fit perfectly with Butler’s game.
In short, acquiring Gallinari and Iguodala could be the sort of thing that pushes this Sixers’ season from “unfortunate” to “disaster." At least, from the perspective of someone who does not find themselves amused by poetic justice. Because there is a distinct possibility that, in one offseason, the Heat end up cobbling together from scratch the sort of team that, over the last two seasons, the Sixers have tried four different times to build. Not only that, Miami will have done so only after the Sixers decided that their best path forward was with a team that did not have Butler as its gravitational center. And, further, that it was worth their while to ensure that he landed with the Heat instead of some other team (the Rockets were reportedly interested).
Before we get too carried away, let’s acknowledge that, even with their current skid, the Sixers are on pace to win 50 games. They are 4.5 games out of third place in the East. Nothing about their outlook has changed or will change dramatically apart from the possibility of them needing to win at least one out of seven on the road in the postseason. It still comes down to whether the Sixers can win 12 out of 21 games of postseason basketball against three of eight teams.
That being said, depending on what happens between now and the deadline, the rest of the season could serve as a referendum on the star-hunting philosophy the Sixers have followed over the last couple of years. While Brand and his front office shopped at the top of the market, first in trading for Butler, then for Tobias Harris, then in signing Al Horford, the Heat picked one guy, paid him his money, and built a playoff team around him.
Consider this: if the Heat do indeed acquire Iguodala and Gallinari, six of the top eight players in their presumptive rotation will have been acquired since last season (Butler, Iguodala, Gallinari, Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, Meyers Leonard), and seven of the eight (with Duncan Robinson) were not on the team when the Sixers beat Miami in the playoffs two years ago.