The most interesting alternate history of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Sixers and Hawks is the one that begins four minutes into the first quarter of Game 3. Danny Green pushes off his right foot, winces, and then realizes his right calf is fine. Instead of limping off the court, he plays the rest of the series without incident.
In that version of events, how are we feeling about the current state of the Sixers’ roster?
There’s a chance — a very real chance — we’re feeling pretty darn OK with it. Because there’s a chance — a very real chance — the current Sixers roster is one that polished off the Hawks in five or six games and then gave the Bucks plenty to handle in the Eastern Conference finals. At least, in a world where Green does not strain his right calf and miss the final four games against the Hawks.
If that sounds ridiculous, consider the facts. In the 60 minutes that Green was on the court in Games 1-3, the Sixers outscored the Hawks by a combined 19 points. He finished with a positive box score plus-minus in each of those games. With Green, the Sixers starters outscored the Hawks by an average of 32 points per 48 minutes. With Furkan Korkmaz in the starting lineup, they outscored the Hawks by an average of 14.3 points per 48 minutes. In Korkmaz’s 25 minutes in Game 4, Atlanta outscored the Sixers by 13 points. The Sixers lost that game by three.
I know what you’re thinking. The world would be a perfect place if we could build it with hypotheticals. And you’re right. Championship teams should be able to overcome injuries to 34-year-old veterans. Green’s absence isn’t why Ben Simmons disappeared from the offense. It isn’t why Tobias Harris shot 10-for-35 from the field in Games 5 and 7. Given that, the Sixers’ decision to bring back Green on a two-year, $20 million contract isn’t the sort of thing that should have us thinking that this is now a championship-caliber roster.
That being said, context is important. Emotion might tell you that anything outside of first place might as well be last place, that you can’t tread water in an enclosed aquarium unless you have gills, that offseasons can only be judged using a relativity principle, and that the improvement of the rest of the Eastern Conference means the same old Sixers are looking fit to drown.
And while all of that may be true, we can’t ignore what sober reasoning tells us. The closer a team gets to the top of the NBA, the scarcer the resources that will actually improve it, and the greater the odds that change for change’s sake will end up changing it in the wrong direction.
At this point, the only grade you can give Daryl Morey for his free-agency performance is a big ol’ Incomplete. This week was only the first offseason shoe to drop, and the Sixers are a centipede right now. Whatever happens with Simmons, they need a point guard who can create space and shots off the dribble. They might need two, depending on their expectations for Tyrese Maxey. But until something happens with Simmons, it will be difficult to render a judgment on the roster as a whole.
That said, the Sixers are better now than they were. Marginally, yes. But remember — the margins are where good teams operate.
If the season started tomorrow, the Sixers would be running it back with the same starting five that posted the best net rating in the NBA this postseason (minimum 40 minutes). They parted ways with a backup center who was a jarring liability in the playoffs (the Hawks outscored the Sixers by 23 points in the roughly 70 minutes that Dwight Howard was on the court).
They replaced him with a 28-year-old player who averaged 14.9 points per game against starting centers last season. Say what you will about Andre Drummond, but he can at least corral a rebound. They addressed their lack of depth at power forward — another deficiency that showed against the Hawks — and they did it by adding a player who shot 42.5% from three-point range (Georges Niang, who averaged 12.3 attempts from deep per 100 possessions for the Utah Jazz. That would have ranked first on the Sixers).
Most importantly, they gave themselves some flexibility for a big move or two ahead. In adding Drummond and Niang and bringing back Green, the Sixers took a necessary step toward preparing themselves for a future Simmons trade. The two big guys can help provide the size and rebounding the Sixers will lose. Green gives them another wing defender.
Morey accomplished this while improving his flexibility to maneuver around Simmons, should he begin the year on the team. The contracts signed by Green and Korkmaz give them $15 million in salary that can be swapped in-season for a more singular upgrade. They still have an $8.2 million trade exception. If the luxury tax is no issue, the Sixers have the ability to make a major move, even beyond Simmons.
Those major moves will ultimately be the differentiators between this season’s Sixers and last season’s team. The offseason might not look like much so far. But some notable groundwork was laid.