The Philadelphia 76ers weren't planning to embark on summer vacation this soon.
Now, the City of Brotherly Love ballers are sent scrambling into an offseason sure to shape the organization's short- and long-term future. The Sixers have already made one critical decision, choosing to retain head coach Brett Brown. But that's just the first of many items on a summer checklist that could lock up this nucleus going forward or dramatically reshape the roster.
Does Philly see enough growth potential in this group to run it back at a ballooning cost? Or might it feel some elements are fatally flawed and can only be corrected through sweeping change?
All cards are on the table, and the Sixers' ability to play them correctly could reverberate across the league.
Setting the Stage
While disappointment is surely the prevailing emotion in Philly now, that should shift to pride sooner than later.
The Sixers followed a 51-win season by falling just one victory shy of the conference finals, despite orchestrating a pair of blockbuster deals in-season and following the lead of a 22-year-old point guard (Ben Simmons). This team bet big on talent being enough, and it almost received a massive return on that investment.
The individual pieces might not line up perfectly on paper, but that didn't matter. The quintet of Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid proved a powerhouse, posting a plus-17.6 net rating together in the regular season before bumping it to plus-24.9 in the playoffs.
"Chemistry is overrated," Embiid said after the Sixers jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the conference semis. "When you have great basketball players, it's easy."
At times, Philly made it look painfully easy. At others, seeds of doubt were planted by limited quantities of shooting and depth, plus a potential overabundance of ball-dominance.
Considering this core came together on the fly and has yet to reap the rewards of a shared training camp, it's possible the Sixers chalk their issues up to growing pains. The only complication, though, is they aren't guaranteed to see this growth process through.
Just four players hold guaranteed deals for next season: Embiid, Simmons, Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden. Excluded from that group are Butler (player option), Harris and Redick, or 60 percent of Philly's favored five.
Keeping all core parts could cause Philly to rocket past the luxury tax. Sixers ownership has expressed a willingness to foot the bill, though it's fair to wonder whether there's a limit on the hit it would take.
Priority No. 1: Determine Ben Simmons' Standing
For all the discussion on the futures of Butler and Harris (which we'll dive into later), Philly's title hopes likely hinge on two things: Embiid's health and maximizing Simmons' potential. The former is outside the organization's control. The latter is the most critical calculation it will make this summer.
Simmons is equal parts incredible and incredibly frustrating.
On one hand, he's a 6'10" point guard with explosive athleticism, preternatural court vision and defensive versatility. On the other, he's someone who plays on the perimeter but almost never shoots from it. Spacing is the lifeblood of modern basketball, and he short-circuits it by losing his effectiveness as soon as he steps beyond the restricted area (38.2 percent shooting outside of three feet).
His strengths are tremendous, but his limitations are self-sabotaging. Each of the two seasons he's played have ended with a disappearing act in the second round, most recently managing just 11.6 points and 4.9 assists and a red plus/minus in Philly's final series.
"Unless his shooting improves drastically, it's always going to be really hard to build a team around him," a front-office evaluator told Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman. "At some point in the postseason, you're going to run into the same problems."
So...should the Sixers give up on Simmons? It's rarely advisable to pull the plug on an All-Star sophomore, and it would surely take something major for Philly to do so. But one Western Conference executive told NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh Philly might explore a Simmons-for-LeBron James swap, and there have been whispers of a Simmons-for-Anthony Davis deal before.
On the opposite end of the Simmons spectrum, the Sixers could give him a five-year, $168 million max extension. He is, after all, one of only two players to average at least 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists each of his first two seasons and still early in the developmental stage of his career.
"He's 22 years old," Brown said recently. "And his game, as he grows his shot and tries to get a better command of his position, and deals with the stage of the NBA playoffs. Shame on us for thinking like he's going to be all day, every day, here he is and he's just going to go knock it out of the park. It's just not fair."
Can Simmons discover a serviceable jumper? Can he be a superstar without one? Can he be a superstar without one playing next to Embiid?
These are critical questions for Philly's future, and all must be answered already this summer.
Priority No. 2: Paying the Price for Butler, Harris
The Sixers seemingly went on a spending splurge to add both Butler and Harris, sacrificing an unprotected 2021 first-rounder (via Miami), Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet and more.
But Philly hasn't come close to seeing the final bill yet.
Butler and Harris are each eligible for a five-year, $188 million max from the Sixers. Butler, a four-time All-Star, thinks he'll get a max deal "anywhere I choose to go." Harris, who has raised his scoring average in all but one of his eight NBA seasons, won't be short on suitors should his current club offer him less than the max.
Lock them up with a new deal for Simmons, and the franchise might have to fork over its luxury-tax payments in comically sized bags with big dollar signs on the front. But the team publicly claimed it is prepared to do exactly that.
"We gave up a lot to get Tobias and Jimmy on our team," Sixers owner Josh Harris told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. "We think they're exceptional talents. We're going to try to keep them. We know we are going to have to pay these guys in an appropriate way."
Of course, the owner also said the club's primary goal was to probe deeper in the playoffs than last year "at a minimum." Could the fact that Philly was ousted in the same round cause the front office to rethink that stance?
It's not like Butler and Harris are no-doubt, max-caliber investments. The 29-year-old Butler has battled injuries in the past and averaged more minutes than anyone since becoming a full-time starter in 2013-14. Harris has never been an All-Star, is more of a good scorer than a great one and has some gaps in his skill set when it comes to distributing and defending.
Plus, what's sometimes lost in this discussion is that the Sixers aren't in control of this situation. Butler and Harris are free to choose whichever contract offer they desire. Being able to offer a longer, richer deal than other suitors potentially helps Philly, but any deal these players ink will be Powerball-sized.
Retaining both might be the best way to maximize this core's ceiling, but it also crunches the budget once the focus shifts to addressing the lack of depth that plagued the team during the playoffs.
As usual, the post-Process Sixers are loaded with draft capital. They own five selections in the upcoming talent grab—Nos. 24, 33, 34, 42 and 54—and while they likely aren't looking to add five NBA newbies, they have a decent chance of plucking a rotation player or two.
Assuming Philly plans on retaining its key components, three areas stand out as potential focal points on draft night: point guard depth, three-point shooting and a reliable Embiid backup. Each could potentially be addressed with either Philly's first-rounder or one of the early seconds.
Kentucky product Tyler Herro could scratch the itch for outside shooting. He wasn't quite a net-shredder for the Wildcats (1.6 triples made per night at a 35.5 percent clip), but the eye test loves his upside. He'd fit the Redick role of racing around screens or launching quick-strike transition triples. North Carolina's Cameron Johnson is another option with a similar game.
As for a backup big man, Maryland's Bruno Fernando and Arkansas' Daniel Gafford could be potential targets. Fernando is an elite athlete who's still rough around the edges with decision-making and defensive awareness. Gafford is a rim-runner whose offensive production might not extend beyond lob finishes and put-backs.
Purdue's Carsen Edwards is a score-first point guard with elements of Lou Williams in his game. Defense could be a challenge throughout the 6'0" Edwards' career. Virginia combo guard Ty Jerome isn't much of an athlete or shot-creator, but he has the shooting, passing and toughness of a typical role player.
If the Sixers are willing to gamble, Iowa State's Talen Horton-Tucker and North Carolina's Nassir Little stand out as boom-or-bust options who might make it to the mid-20s. Horton-Tucker is an 18-year-old guard with a 7'1" wingspan who flashes intriguing shot-creating ability. Little, a former McDonald's All-American MVP, boasts incredible physical tools, though they weren't always noticeable in his brief stint with the Tar Heels.
Once Philly has made its decisions on Butler and Harris, it must quickly pivot to Redick.
The 34-year-old is aging like fine wine, having established career highs in scoring each of the last two seasons. For a team trying to maximize spacing around Embiid and Simmons, Redick has proved the best at creating it. He's splashed the ninth-most triples since the start of last season and owns the 11th-best conversion rate among players with 250-plus threes over that stretch.
He also hopes to stick around in Philly as long as possible.
"I would love to be back with the Sixers," Redick said, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Noah Levick. "I'd love to finish my career here and all that. But again, you don't know how it's going to play out. I'm mature enough to recognize that the Sixers have other priorities, just as they did last summer."
Not to belabor the point, but keeping Redick, Harris and Butler would break the bank. But maybe this is the best time to do so. The Boston Celtics (Kyrie Irving), Toronto Raptors (Kawhi Leonard) and Milwaukee Bucks (Khris Middleton) all have their own marquee players heading to free agency, so there could be a chance to seize control of the LeBron-less East.
The Sixers' other free agents are infinitely more expendable than those already discussed, although Mike Scott's instant offense and outside shooting would be nice to have on the second unit. Fans might push for TJ McConnell to come back, although his role looks murky if Butler comes back and operates as the second team's initiator again.
If Butler and Harris are back and Redick returns for roughly $10 million, the Sixers could have up to $7.7 million of their midlevel exception and minimum deals to fill out the roster without going over the tax next season (they would in future years), per ESPN's Bobby Marks.
Maybe that's enough for Danny Green, who'd add both three-point sniping and another long-limbed defender to the mix. Terrence Ross could perk up the second unit with athleticism and spacing. Tyreke Evans would expand their shot-creation abilities. Patrick Beverley might be an ideal first guard off the bench, given his range, defensive intensity and ability to add value off the ball.
As the Sixers turn their attention to the bargain bin, they'll surely court Philly native Wayne Ellington, a career 37.9 percent finisher from distance. JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried or Ed Davis might fill the backup 5 spot for cheap. Thabo Sefolosha isn't a bad target for a budget three-and-D forward.
These admittedly aren't the sexiest options, but if Philly is spending big on an external target, that means something went wrong on the home front.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.