With the Brooklyn Nets seemingly adding a former star weekly, the Philadelphia 76ers are lagging behind in the Eastern Conference arms race.
Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge are the shells of their former selves at this point in their careers, but they give the Nets extra flexibility around Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. If all three stars enter the playoffs healthy, the Nets will be banned favorites to represent the East in the 2021 NBA Finals.
The Sixers could help narrow the gap between them and the Nets by adding additional talent with the rest of the mid-level exceptions of their taxpayers.
They hit well that they acquired George Hill ahead of the trade deadline, but he is still recovering from thumb surgery and doesn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon. The Sixers have kept up with the nets at the top of the East even without him – and during Joel Embiid’s recent 10-game absence – but both teams should be looking towards the playoffs at this point in the season.
At full strength the Sixers look well equipped for the game against the Nets. They can, like Ben Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle and Hill, throw at Irving, Harden and Durant, and the Nets have no answer for Embiid. However, the Nets have an advantage in both top talent and scheme flexibility, as bodybuilders like Jeff Green and Bruce Brown can help them cast a number of different views on the Sixers.
The Nets have spent most of the season without Durant and will now be without Harden for at least the next 10 days. They have learned to adapt without their full arsenal of superstars, which could make them even more dangerous when the playoffs turn around.
Here, a mid-level taxpayer exception could help the Sixers even on the ground.
With Embiid by his side, the Sixers kept Dwight Howard on second unit and temporarily installed Mike Scott as the starting center. They take place in those minutes – the start-plus-Scott line-up outscored opponents with 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season according to the Glass Cleanup – but they are particularly vulnerable on offensive glass with that composition on the floor.
If Embiid is healthy during the playoffs, Scott thinks he will completely fall out of the rotation. But if Embiid or Howard get injured or run into nasty problems one night, the Sixers ’lack of reliable center depth could prove to be their Achilles heel in the playoffs.
After the trading deadline expired, team president Daryl Morey told reporters that he would study his options on the frontcourt in the buyout and free agent markets.
“In the buyout market, there is often talk of opportunity and role. And in that big place, we probably have more opportunities, so I would expect the buyout to probably be higher if we do that at all,” Morey said. “That said, we feel good. Joel and Dwight [Howard] obviously can play 5, more traditional 5. Doc [Rivers], if he decides, he can put unique lineups on the floor with Ben and Tobias [Harris] and Mike Scott. So we feel good about where we are, but if there is a redemption, it’s more likely big than not. “
The redemption market abounds with giants, but the Sixers have left the country so far.
The Nets have already caught Griffin and Aldridge, while the Los Angeles Lakers have added Andrea Drummond after being bought out by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The San Antonio Spurs caught Gorgui Dieng after he agreed to a buyout with the Memphis Grizzlies, while Khem Birch is likely to land with the Toronto Raptors after being bought by the Orlando Magic, Shams Charania of Athletic.
Players need to be redeemed by Friday to retain qualifications for the new team, so there isn’t much more time for the buyout market to materialize. The Sixers might be hoping Mike Muscal or Kelly Olynyk will buy out the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, but they will have to turn elsewhere if that doesn’t happen.
If they can’t go the buyout route, Sixers could explore the free agent market. Looks like the Miami Heat beat them at Dewayne Dedmon, according to Charania, but like John Henson, Anthony Tolliver and Ian Mahinmi are still available.
None of these players will swing a playoff series on their own against the Nets or any other opponent, but strenuous matches often come down to the sidelines. Sixers fans are well aware of how important Embiid’s reserves can be after the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals, when they beat the Toronto Raptors by 90 on the floor and were better than 109 points on the bench in 99 minutes.
The Sixers gave up Ignas Brazdeikis on Thursday, according to Charania, releasing a list of players to embark on an extended series of the regular season. Whether he’s in third place behind Embiid and Howard or some other guard or wing, the Sixers need all the reinforcements they can get to defend themselves from the loaded Nets.