Ahead-of-Schedule Sixers Giving Free Agents Something to Think About

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 03: Joel Embiid #21 and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers talk with referee Jonathan Sterling in the second half of a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 3, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers won 100-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

On the heels of Thursday night's win over the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers' 41st this season, Joel Embiid offered a comprehensive window into the Joel Embiid Experience: composed confidence, mixed with off-handed frankness, chased by uncurbed optimism that would flirt with hyperbole if not for its deadpan delivery.

"After this game, I kind of have a new goal," he told reporters. "I want to get to 50 wins."

Embiid revealed his latest objective without the faintest hint of irony or playfulness. He didn't pause for effect or to let the gravity of his words marinate in Amway Center's visitors locker room. He showed no signs of someone speaking in exaggerated terms, whether inadvertently or by choice.

This mention of 50 wins was not for spectacle or sport. This is not January 2017, when a 7.5-game chasm between the Sixers and a playoff spot qualified as victory. Nor is it June 2017, on the eve of free agency, when Philly's postseason chances still rested on incumbents dropping outside the bubble.

This was an authentic, matter-of-fact mission statement, eye-opening not for its bloated ambition but for its relative attainability.

The rest of the league cannot help but notice—including LeBron James. Philadelphia is on his shortlist of free-agent destinations this summer, according to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor.

And he won't be alone.

LeBron's preliminary interest is just the beginning for the Sixers.
LeBron's preliminary interest is just the beginning for the Sixers.Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

In a market still bogged down by contracts handed out during the summer of 2016, the Sixers are the rare team armed with significant cap space and a future barely dependent on how they use it.

They are not the Dallas Mavericks or Phoenix Suns, squads that will try leveraging their flexibility into postseason returns. They are not the Milwaukee Bucks or San Antonio Spurs, landing spots with above-.500 resumes that must jump through hoops to create meaningful wiggle room.

They are not even the Houston Rockets, a veritable powerhouse that remains relevant in free-agency discourse because the best player ever is buddy-buddy with Chris Paul.

The Sixers are different. They are the only NBA team with a top-10 record and straightforward access to any cap space whatsoever. That doesn't merely speak to the cost of the rosters around them. They are objectively sitting pretty.

Cake in projected holds for two first-round picks (the Los Angeles Lakers' and their own), and the Sixers still skate to slightly more than $25 million in spending power while picking up options for Richaun Holmes and T.J. McConnell. If they sweeten the pot of a Jerryd Bayless salary dump, that number will soar closer to, and potentially past, $35 million—James territory.

Taking this one step further, the Sixers place third in Spotrac's practical cap space rankings, behind just the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. The Rockets are the lone playoff peer that falls inside the top 10—an achievement unlocked if, and only if, they junk Paul's own free-agent hold.

What high-end free agent who isn't already colluding with the Lakers wouldn't answer the Sixers' call with that much money available? When other cap-rich situations are in short supply? And when, most importantly, they are fielding interest from a team fresh off vying for home-court advantage through the first round of the playoffs?

Fifty wins is not outside the scope of Philly's possibilities.
Fifty wins is not outside the scope of Philly's possibilities.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Sixers may win 50 games. They are that far ahead of schedule, even by the standards of those who consider Sam Hinkie a deity, view The Process as gospel and live year-round on cloud nine.

Closing the year 9-2—14-2 if you count their five-game winning streak—would be no small feat.

Unless the Sixers' stretch-run slate is easy.

Which it is.

As Deadspin's Dan McQuade underscored:

"Look at their remaining slate: vs. Minnesota, vs. Denver, vs. New York, at Atlanta, at Charlotte, vs. Brooklyn, at Detroit, vs. Cleveland, vs. Dallas, at Atlanta, vs. Milwaukee.

"There are only three playoff teams on that remaining schedule, and they're all at home. One is in the last game of the season! The toughest road game remaining is against the current No. 9 seed in the East, the dreadful Pistons. They get to play 21-[52] Atlanta twice down the stretch. Seven of their 22 final games are against the Nets and Hornets alone!"

Philly's scant few remaining matchups with potential postseason participants aren't even worth much concern. The Minnesota Timberwolves remain without Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets are 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions—and 26th when playing on the road—since Jan. 1. The Cleveland Cavaliers are a little more frisky on the less glamorous end but still own a bottom-15 defensive rating after their trade-deadline overhaul. The Bucks are 6-9 since All-Star Weekend.

None of these measuring-stick tilts start or conclude a back-to-back. It might not matter if they did. The Sixers aren't handling Embiid with kid gloves anymore. He played both ends of their past six back-to-backs, and clearing the 30-minute marker is no longer cause for concern or a national holiday.

The Sixers can—and will—still try to rest him. But he won't put on street clothes without a fight:

Embiid won't always win this battle. Head coach Brett Brown made it clear before the win over Orlando that his All-Star center wouldn't appear in every remaining game, per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sarah Todd.

That puts a little bit of a damper on Embiid's 50-win mandate. Philly goes from plus-10.8 points per 100 possessions with him to minus-4.3 when he sits—a stark swing that represents the difference between an NBA-best and bottom-10 net rating.

Sitting Embiid would also preclude the Sixers from rolling out one of league's most lethal three-man combinations. They are outpacing opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays with Robert Covington and Ben Simmons—the best mark among 134 threesomes to log at least 750 minutes.

But the Sixers can afford to punt on two occasions. Embiid shouldn't need more rest than that. He's played all 16 games since the All-Star break, and the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed won't just fall into their lap.

Only five wins separate the third-place Cavaliers from the eighth-place Bucks. The East's middle-class battle royal will spill into the final night of the season, invariably dissuading Philly from resting Embiid more than is necessary.

Besides, who's to say the Sixers cannot win a couple of games without him? They have Covington, Simmons, JJ Redick, Dario Saric and a deep bench to carry the load in his absence.

Philly is plus-3.0 points per 100 possessions for the season when Covington and Simmons run solo—and a ridiculous plus-16.1 since Feb. 1. The second unit has been almost average during the joint Marco Belinelli-Ersan Ilyasova era.

This balance, while on the delicate side, can get the Sixers by without Embiid. Maybe it wouldn't work against the Cavaliers or Nuggets, but it'll fly versus the lesser opponents that make up roughly three-quarters of their remaining schedule.

Leave Embiid at home for the mini road trip to face the Atlanta Hawks on Friday and Charlotte Hornets on April 1, and a 1-1 split looks more like the worst-case scenario rather than the most likely outcome. That feeling wouldn't have existed at the beginning of the year.

What free agent, beyond a shadow of a doubt, would turn down the Sixers?
What free agent, beyond a shadow of a doubt, would turn down the Sixers?Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

And whiffing on James wouldn't crater this growth. Think of what the Sixers could do with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Tyreke Evans. They might not have to choose. They will have money for both. Or one plus another year of Redick. Or, perhaps, all three.

Anyone else the Sixers land would be gravy on top of a postseason noisemaker. Middle-tier free agents stand to elevate Philadelphia's ceiling more than they would most teams'. And that prospect, fueled by growth outside Embiid, should appeal to marquee free agents as much as anything and anyone else they have to offer.

Fifty wins would help. So would winning a playoff series or two. But the Sixers aren't yet the best version of themselves. They don't have Markelle Fultz. Simmons hasn't expanded his offensive range. Embiid's durability remains under the microscope.

And still, they are already here, chasing telltale developmental milestones, including the most revelatory of all: shows of substance and appeal beyond the Joel Embiid Experience.

    

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Saturday. Salary and cap hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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