By Michael Bennett
The Sixers training camp is open in Camden, and hope and expectations are sky high.
True, they didn’t get LeBron James, who took his talents to Hollywood.
He was never coming to Philly, so get over it.
And Kahwi Leonard was traded to Toronto, not Philly, though he’ll be a free agent next summer so he’s not totally out of the picture.
2017-18 Record: 52-30, lost in second round to Boston Celtics
Who’s new: Wilson Chandler (trade), Zhaire Smith (Draft), Landry Shamet (Draft), Mike Muscala (trade)
Who’s gone: GM Bryan Colangelo, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, Justin Anderson
The Process took an accelerated growth in springtime when the Sixers won their final 16 games to reach the playoffs and announce their arrival. This was mainly because their two young stars were healthy for the most part. Joel Embiid turned beastly on both ends and displayed the skills that perhaps elevated him among the top three big men in basketball.
Ben Simmons brought great size and court vision to the point guard spot and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Others helped too, such as JJ Redick and Dario Saric and the supporting cast compensated for the mysterious shoulder injury and faulty shooting mechanics of guard Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick who played just 14 games and was a non-factor. The Sixers faltered two rounds into the playoffs, which did nothing to detract from the strides made and confidence gained by the franchise.
If anyone thought the Sixers’ season would be a hard act to follow, well, their offseason was just as intriguing, if not more.
Their general manager was forced out because of his wife’s burner account on Twitter; a dramatic draft-night trade ruined a family’s homecoming celebration; the Sixers went 0-for-2 after coach Brett Brown stated a desire to go “star hunting”; and their first-round pick underwent surgery for a broken foot.
Otherwise, all was quiet.
Oh, actually, there’s one more: Fultz, their beleaguered former No. 1 overall pick from two summers ago, was held out of Summer League play, raising red flags about his ability to overcome a serious case of shooting yips.
Lots of drama followed a groundbreaking 52-win season, not all of it good. It began with Colangelo losing his job because of social media, which was certainly a first for the NBA. When internet sleuths raised questions about criticism of Embiid and former Sixer Jahlil Okafor among other issues from a suspicious account, the dot-connecting led to the Colangelo household. It was an embarrassing episode for the franchise and a costly one for Colangelo, right in the middle of offseason evaluations and improvement plans.
Elton Brand was hired to replace Colangelo just a week ago; Brand worked in Sixers personnel and also briefly played for the club several years ago. But after Colangelo left, Philly went two months with Brown assuming the GM duties on a temporary basis and he led a draft strategy that turned weird. The Sixers drafted Mikal Bridges, a hometown kid whose mother worked in the Sixers’ human resources department, and hugs and tears followed. The Bridges family was still celebrating when, moments later, Mikal was re-routed to the Suns for Smith.
It wasn’t the smoothest transition, but Brown was correct when he said the franchise comes first. The Sixers also got an unprotected No. 1 pick in 2021 for their trouble and the Bridges’ pain. Besides, Brown said based on the Sixers’ scouting, the difference between Bridges and Smith was marginal. If so, then that’s a win for Philly.
Can you imagine that, come the summer of 2021, the Sixers are fresh off a championship — OK, that’s only a projection, but not unrealistic — and ready to choose in the lottery?
The mood regarding Smith didn’t last long: He broke his foot at a developmental camp in Las Vegas and underwent surgery to repair a Jones fracture, the same injury that caused Simmons to miss a season. Which means, for the fourth straight time, a Sixers high draft pick will take injury concerns into his rookie season, following Embiid, Simmons and Fultz.
After the draft, the Sixers set their sights on free agency and trades. Armed with money to spend and boasting Embiid and Simmons as building blocks, the Sixers were in great position to add a significant piece: LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.
They whiffed on both. LeBron chose Hollywood over cheesesteaks, which wasn’t unexpected; playing for the Lakers and in Los Angeles gave him greater post-career options.
The Sixers and Brown thought they had a real chance at Kawhi, however. Brown was an assistant coach in San Antonio and knows the quiet star very well. Kawhi has family connections in New Jersey, not far from where the Sixers train. Finally, the Sixers had assets to offer the Spurs: Fultz, Saric, future picks. Yet they wouldn’t part with Simmons, and that was a deal-breaker; Kawhi was traded to Toronto and the Sixers ended their summer without adding a star.
They did get Chandler from the Nuggets, someone who has spent his entire career under the radar, yet is a consistent and reliable swingman. Chandler will replace Ilyasova, who joins the Bucks.
Philly also decided to bring back Redick at age 34 on another one-year deal. Redick was a core piece last year, averaging 17 points, supplying shooting range (42 percent from deep) and leadership.
The summer was supposed to help provide a fresh start for Fultz, who spent much of it redesigning (or trying to recapture) his shooting mechanics. However, Fultz didn’t play in Summer League, which is common for second-year players. That likely meant Fultz wasn’t ready and the Sixers were protecting him from potential embarrassment.
As insurance, the Sixers took Shamet with their second first-round pick. Much like Fultz, Shamet brings size (6-5), can play combo guard and unlike Fultz (at least for now) has distance on his jumper.