The 76ers traded for Tobias Harris early Wednesday morning, signaling to the rest of the Eastern Conference that they’re not here to mess around. Philly’s here to win, and they want to win now.
This began when the Sixers traded two important role players for Jimmy Butler earlier this season. Now, they’ve pushed all their chips in trading for Harris. That’s two big-name borderline all-stars who are set to hit free agency in July.
Philly’s plan, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, is to re-sign both of them — and keep Joel Embiid and re-sign Ben Simmons. It’s a wild plan in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
But how did we get here in the first place? The 76ers famously ate dirt for years before hitting the lottery and drafting Embiid and Simmons. Those are two franchise-altering talents with which to build a future.
But at some point, Philly decided a distant future wasn’t enough. The Sixers needed to compete now — right now. Philadelphia accelerated The Process, and now has a roster with three All-Stars and a fourth player, Harris, who many believed should have been named to the team this year.
What happened for Philly to abort its future plans? Here are eight theories:
1. There have been so many different voices running the show
Remember that Philly’s had three different general managers in just a little over two years: Sam Hinkie, Bryan Colangelo, and now Elton Brand. The vision went from tanking, to building a future, to competing for the right now. It’s understandable that plans change.
This is Brand’s first go-round at running a team, and it appears he and 76ers ownership decided that The Process was complete. It had landed the Sixers two perennial All-Stars: that’s something you can build around.
It reportedly was ownership’s idea to trade for Jimmy Butler, and once they saw the team could use an added bump, it may have been their idea to trade for Harris, as well. Regardless, ownership clearly felt Embiid and Simmons were ready to compete for a deep playoff run right this second, and Brand does the bidding of ownership.
2. Joel Embiid’s window is actually now. Like, right now
For one, mega stars get antsy these days when their franchise isn’t trying to win quickly. Example A(D) is playing out in New Orleans. The 76ers do not want to draw Embiid’s ire by playing for the future over the present.
Embiid’s in the first season of a five-year, $147 million extension, but a player’s choice to leave his franchise doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an accumulation of missteps and disappointments that culminates with a star being fed up with his organization.
The Sixers know Embiid’s window was blasted wide open when he finally set foot on the court after missing his first two seasons with injury. They want to maximize his window, right now. That means getting him the supplementary stars, spacing and playmakers to make a run in the East.
3. Embiid’s health also isn’t guaranteed
Remember: This is a superstar who missed the first two seasons of his career with foot injuries, then only played 31 games as a rookie before tearing his meniscus. He played in 31 games and still almost won Rookie of the Year. That’s the kind of player you’re dealing with.
Embiid is so good, it’s not even a debate. Few players at any position have the impact he has on a game, at a position that was considered a dinosaur.
Embiid, though, will always run the risk of re-injury. He’s playing outstanding basketball right now, and while he also may be dominant for a long time, Philly cannot take that for granted.
4. LeBron is out of the East. Now’s the time to go for it
LeBron’s monopoly on the Eastern Conference crown is gone with him. There are four teams with legitimate odds at winning it all in the East: the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, and Sixers. The others are the three favorites at the moment because of their depth, versatility, and time played together, but the Sixers now have the most star power of the group and they can replenish their depth on the buyout market.
Do they have enough to beat the Warriors? Probably not. But making the NBA Finals gives any team a shot at an upset.
There’s also no guarantee the East power structure stays this way:
- Kyrie Irving could very well leave Boston this summer. If he stays and the Celtics trade for Anthony Davis, this is a totally different conversation.
- Milwaukee has several key free agents this summer: Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe. It will be hard, if not impossible, to keep all of them
- Kawhi Leonard becomes a free agent this summer. If he leaves Toronto, they aren’t nearly as strong of a team.
Then there’s Philly, a team that has an opportunity to pair four potential All-Stars for the next four years. LeBron’s departure has turned the East into a battle zone, and the Sixers just brought in two extra hitmen.
5. If it fails, they can always reset this summer
That’s the beauty of trading for soon-to-be free agents: if it doesn’t work out, Philly can wash its hands clean and start from scratch.
The 2019 free agency class is expected to be loaded, with talent at almost every position. That class includes both Butler and Harris, who have player options they’re expected to exercise to cash in on a max or near max contract this summer.
The Embiid-Simmons-Butler trio has been rocky. The Sixers have won games, but there’s clearly still some kinks to be worked out. Butler likes the pick-and-roll, head coach Brett Brown likes ball and player movement, Simmons still can’t shoot, and Embiid likes to slow it down. Harris should fit seamlessly into any offense, but there’s a risk he doesn’t.
If it all goes south, the 76ers could let one of or both Butler and Harris walk for nothing in free agency and still have max cap space to attract big-name free agents around Embiid and Simmons. They will have traded away several young players and future assets in the process, but worst-case scenario is re-upping and going after a max free agent or two this summer.
6. Are we sure Embiid/Simmons is built to last?
Simmons only has one more year guaranteed on his rookie contract after this season. After, he’ll be eligible for a rookie scale extension that could pay him in the $150 million ballpark to stay in Philly.
Players generally don’t turn down the rookie scale extension: Kristaps Porzingis could become the first if he opts to sign a qualifying offer with Dallas instead of committing long-term.
But what if this situation isn’t ideal for Simmons? Sure, he’s on a playoff team with as good a chance at winning the East as any, but his role has been diminished with every move the 76ers make. Embiid is the guy right now. Does Simmons want his own team?
We never know what players want, and everything could be fine in Philly. But players are unpredictable, and they’re choosing to secure their future on their own terms. You never know what someone is going to do until the time comes. If Simmons was to decide he wants out, the Sixers will have maximized the time they have with him and have two supplementary pieces to join with Embiid.
7. Blame (or credit) Markelle Fultz
If Fultz is healthy, the Sixers probably don’t need to make any big trades in the first place. A healthy Fultz is the third-head of the dragon the 76ers were supposed to build.
But Fultz has been the furthest thing from healthy. He forgot how to shoot, dealt with a mysterious shoulder injury that killed his game altogether, and hasn’t even played since early December. Instead of showing flashes of being that third star, his game was reduced to memes and viral clips.
Philly put him in the starting lineup to star the season, but as it was failing, everyone sensed the Sixers needed to do something. Eventually, Fultz left the team for doctors who diagnosed him with Thoraccic Outlet Syndrome. His status is still unclear. Surprisingly, Fultz is one of few players who hasn’t been dealt ... yet.
Still, the 76ers made all these trades to find the core players that Fultz was supposed to be. His situation forced Philly to abort its slow-and-steady plan, because they were no more top picks coming their way. The only other way to get other difference makers was to trade for one or to sign one in free agency.
8. Because this is the whole point of The Process
You play to win games, after all. After years of doing the opposite in service of being great down the line, Philly is at that point.
They have two young stars who should be All-Stars for the next 10 years. You build around that right [expletive] now. Go for gold. Go get guys who can win, and win big. That’s what they did in trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
Whether it works out or falls apart remains to be seen. But in an era where teams are kicking the can down the road, Philly deserves applause for playing to win in a conference with no clear-cut winner.