Anyone can have a blog about an NBA team, but some set themselves apart from the rest with the dedication and valuable insight they bring to their craft. We’ll be sharing some knowledge from these dialed-in writers on Hoops Rumors with a feature called Top Bloggers. As with The Beat, our ongoing series of interviews with NBA beat writers, it’s part of an effort to bring Hoops Rumors readers ever closer to the pulse of the teams they follow. Last time, we spoke about the Nuggets with Adam Mares, site manager of SB Nation’s Denver Stiffs. Click here to see the entire Top Bloggers series.
Next up is Bryan Toporek, a Quality Editor at Bleacher Report. He’s also a contributor to BBALLBREAKDOWN, Hardwood Paroxysm, Today’s Fastbreak and Hoop 76 of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can follow Bryan on Twitter at @btoporek. Check out his stories here, here, here and here.
Hoops Rumors: The Sixers have been at or near the bottom of the NBA in payroll the past two seasons as part of the team’s rebuilding plan. With the increase in the salary cap that is set to occur this summer, the salary floor will also go up proportionally as a result. Philly seems unlikely to be a destination for the top free agents this offseason, so what moves do you see the team making to try and get above or close to that dubious payroll demarcation line?
Bryan Toporek: Honestly? I hope they don’t cross the salary floor. The Sixers are set to have over $60MM in cap space this offseason, and since they’re not likely to be a major free agent destination, spending all of that money on second- and third-tier players is a recipe for disaster. Overall, I believe they should follow the model the Portland Trail Blazers did last offseason: target undervalued players in their mid-20s who are on the same developmental curve as their top homegrown pieces. Since the Sixers are currently so frontcourt-heavy, they’ll need to round out their wing and guard rotation in free agency, but they should mainly go after guys who have the potential to develop into reliable 3-point shooters. Building around a Twin Towers lineup necessitates having a bevy of consistent floor-spacers, which the Sixers sorely lack at the moment.
Early on, I’d like to see them be aggressive in restricted free agency, targeting players such as Allen Crabbe, Evan Fournier and Jordan Clarkson. E’Twaun Moore has been on my wish list since January, even before the Bulls made him a starter and drove up his likely asking price. Bradley Beal‘s injury history scares me, but I wouldn’t mind floating a hefty offer his way if only to force the Wizards’ hand. I’m not wild about the prospect of maxing out Harrison Barnes, but I also wouldn’t totally hate it. The free agent point guard market is weak, so I think they’ll have to pursue a trade to fill that void. (The Hawks make sense as a logical trade partner, especially given Philly’s reported interest in Dennis Schroder at the trade deadline.) Fiscal restraint will be hard to come by this summer, but the worst thing the Sixers could do is attempt to accelerate the timeline of their rebuild by handing huge, long-term deals to players who don’t fit the team concept such as Rajon Rondo or DeMar DeRozan. If they stay below the salary floor, the only penalty is distributing the shortfall to the players on the roster, so they should pay no heed to that in free agency.
Hoops Rumors: One major criticism of former GM Sam Hinkie during his tenure was his failure to build a cohesive roster by stockpiling big men (Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor) instead of addressing other needs. The pairing of Noel and Okafor was not a successful one, with the two players’ skill sets not being especially complementary. With Embiid on track to finally make his NBA debut in 2016/17, the frontcourt looks to get even more crowded in a hurry. Whom do you believe the team will ultimately end up building around moving forward?
Bryan Toporek: Embiid is the one frontcourt member who has the potential to develop into a franchise cornerstone, so the hope is that he can stay healthy and avoid any further setbacks with his foot. Among the remaining bigs, Dario Saric seems like the best fit next to Embiid, as he’s a floor-spacing four with the ability to handle the ball in a pinch, too. That leaves Noel, Okafor or both as possible trade bait. At that point, it comes down to two factors for me: Which player has the higher trade value, and which player is more willing to accept a reduced role? With regard to the former, I’d assume Okafor is more highly valued around the league given his undeniable scoring ability and having three cost-controlled years left on his rookie contract (compared to just one for Noel). Personally, I’d rather have Noel coming off the bench as a rich man’s version of what Bismack Biyombo is providing Toronto this year, as his defensive instincts are second to none. Additionally, I could see him fitting better with Embiid on both ends of the court than Okafor will. I’d love it if Okafor embraced an Enes Kanter-esque role off the bench, readily dominating second-unit bigs, but I’m skeptical of that actually happening. Because Okafor’s defensive deficiencies (particularly guarding pick-and-rolls) make him more of a liability than Noel’s offensive limitations, I’d choose to trade the former and keep the latter.
Hoops Rumors: While it didn’t translate into wins, the arrival of Ish Smith in Philadelphia certainly gave the team a boost and illustrated what a glaring hole the Sixers had at the one spot. Has Smith shown enough to warrant the team re-signing him, and if so, should he be the starter next season?
Bryan Toporek: It all depends on the price. Noel loves Ish, as does Brett Brown, and for their sanity alone, I’d like to see him back in a Sixers uniform next year. That said, I’d be reluctant to give him a contract worth much more than the $5.628MM mid-level exception. He’s a career 29.8% shooter from deep, which is the exact opposite of what the Sixers need, particularly if they wind up with Ben Simmons in June. That said, he’s the Sixers’ only point guard capable of reliably feeding the post, which helps explain why the team went from cover-your-eyes awful to capable of winning the occasional game upon his arrival. Ideally, the Sixers will upgrade the point guard position this offseason, but I’d still like to see Smith brought back as a reserve, so long as the cost isn’t too prohibitive.
Hoops Rumors: It’s extremely difficult to properly judge Brown’s ability as a head coach given the lack of talent he’s had surrounding him. With the regime change that’s taken place with the Sixers, just how safe is Brown’s job?
Bryan Toporek: I don’t think it’s all that safe, which is an outright crime. Given the talent he’s had to work with over the past three years, the fact Brown coaxed 47 total wins out of those squads is remarkable. The Sixers were an above-league-average team defensively in 2014/15 despite relying on Noel and mostly D-League-caliber players. For him to keep the team mostly upbeat and engaged despite the losses rapidly piling up was a herculean task. If Hinkie were still in charge, I’d think Brown would have at least two more years of job security before ever having to worry about the hot seat. New team president Bryan Colangelo is a total wild card, though, particularly if interest in assistant coach Mike D’Antoni heats up.
Hoops Rumors: The Sixers have a 26.9% chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick (including their right to swap first-round picks with the Kings) in this year’s NBA draft lottery. Keeping in mind that Saric, who’s also a frontcourt player, is likely to head stateside in the near future, whom should the team select if it finally nabs that elusive top pick?
Bryan Toporek: Choosing between Simmons and Brandon Ingram will be incredibly tricky for any franchise, but the Sixers’ clogged frontcourt only further complicates the decision. On one hand, Ingram is the perfect fit as a floor-spacing three who can relieve some offensive pressure from the bigs. He’s the natural evolution of the direction the NBA is heading, making him a tantalizing addition to any roster. On the other, Simmons’ passing ability sets him apart as a potentially transcendent prospect. Selecting him would open the door for unconventional lineups, as it would reduce the Sixers’ need to have a ball-dominant point guard running the offense on every possession. Personally, I’m going Simmons by a hair, even though Ingram is the better fit at the moment. The Sixers not having an established point guard actually works in Simmons’ favor, as he can immediately enter the starting lineup as a true point forward. That said, I’m not throwing my remote through my TV on draft night if the Sixers do go with Ingram at No. 1. So long as they land a top-two pick at the lottery, they’re golden either way. (If they fall to fourth, though, I’m burning my apartment down.)
Hoops Rumors: Now for a trip to the hypothetical side of things. Say you were given the opportunity to go back and reverse one decision the team made over the past three seasons (trade/hire/draft pick/signing). What would you change?
Bryan Toporek: This one’s easy: I’d pick Kristaps Porzingis over Okafor at No. 3 overall last year. It was no secret that the Sixers entered the 2015 draft with their eyes on D’Angelo Russell, so when the Lakers picked him second, taking Okafor seemed like somewhat of a panic move. Sure, he seemed to have a much higher floor, but Porzingis’ skill set is a significantly better fit for the modern NBA game. I don’t think an Okafor-Noel pairing is feasible long-term, which effectively necessitates trading one in the coming years, but Noel and Porzingis would have far better complemented one another. And given Embiid’s ability to step out and knock down mid- and long-range shots, he and Porzingis could have one day ruled the league as a pair of virtually interchangeable 7-footers. Given everything that unfolded over the past year, I now can’t help but wonder if Hinkie wanted to select Porzingis over Okafor only to get overruled by team ownership.
Honorable mention goes to the hiring of Jerry Colangelo, which led to Hinkie’s resignation and the hiring of Bryan Colangelo as team president. The Okafor-over-Porzingis decision likely played a role in that, though, particularly considering the string of negative off-court incidents that the Duke product endured early in the season.
Chuck Myron contributed to this interview.