The 76ers have their “free agents welcome” sign out.
Bryan Colangelo is standing outside the entrance waving big wads of cash, making it clear the Sixers are open for business.
The question is whether the Sixers can convince anyone to come inside for a visit.
The Sixers aren’t exactly a desirable destination in free agency. They have plenty of money available under the salary cap, but they’re also a 10-win team that is probably at least a few years away from contending for a championship.
The Sixers planned well to have loads of money available under the salary cap. To their misfortune, the salary cap is increasing from $70 million to a projected $94 million this year, and may rise as high as $111 million next year. This means that almost every team has extensive room under the salary cap, negating what the Sixers had hoped would be one of their advantages this summer. Consequently, other elements may factor more prominently in players’ decisions.
Top free agents will get their money somewhere. But they would prefer to go to a contending team, not a team in the early stages of rebuilding.
The challenge for the Sixers when free agency opens Thursday at midnight will be to convince players that they are a team worth joining.
Stop fantasizing about the top free agents. It would be shocking if Kevin Durant visits with the Sixers, let alone sign with them. And LeBron James isn’t going anywhere.
The Sixers have many areas of needs. The only thing they don’t need is a young big man. They already have a surplus in that area, with Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. They’ve been trying to trade either Noel or Okafor, without any success.
So let’s start at point guard, which is the Sixers’ most glaring need. The list of point guards on the roster last year included Isaiah Canaan, T.J. McConnell, Tony Wroten, Sonny Weems, Phil Pressey, Kendall Marshall and Ish Smith. After Sam Hinkie allowed Smith to walk away following the 2014-15 season, one of the first things Jerry Colangelo did after being brought in as an executive last December was to trade for Smith.
Smith was a drastic improvement, but shoots too much, particularly at the end of close games, and is too erratic to be a good point guard on a winning team. Smith is an unrestricted free agent. That makes him a fallback option if the Sixers can’t find something better. Canaan is a restricted free agent, but there are reports that the Sixers will not make him a qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.
At the top of an unimpressive free-agent point guard class is Mike Conley. He may stay with the Grizzlies. If not, his 15.3 points, 6.1 assists and steady veteran presence would fit in well with the young Sixers. But Conley will have multiple suitors if he hits free agency. Unless he has a burning desire to mentor young players rather than compete for a championship – which he’s never won – why would he choose the Sixers?
The Sixers will likely have to choose among backups who want a chance to prove themselves or players with baggage or injuries.
Rajon Rondo comes with plenty of baggage. After the Celtics unloaded the undisciplined Rondo on the Mavericks, he quickly wore out his welcome in Dallas, even getting into a shouting match with head coach Rick Carlisle during a timeout. He redeemed himself somewhat with the Kings, averaging 11.9 points and 11.7 assists. Rondo could be an exciting player who will fill up the stats sheet, but he may not be the type of player the Sixers need to mentor their young players.
Another possibility is Jeremy Lin. A sensation a few years ago with the Knicks, Lin has played for five teams in six NBA seasons. He averaged 11.7 points last season with the Hornets, primarily in a backup role. He would likely be a starter for the Sixers.
If the Sixers want to get a point guard relatively cheap, Greivis Vasquez could be an option. He only played 23 games with the Bucks last season due to foot surgery. He’s probably not a long-term option, but could be an affordable stop-gap measure.
Conley, Rondo, Vasquez and Lin are all unrestricted free agents. Mario Chalmers, the former Heat point guard, is also an unrestricted free agent. If the Sixers want to take a shot at a restricted free agent, an option could be Matthew Dellavedova. Known as a scrappy or dirty player, depending on your perspective, Dellavedova averaged 7.5 points and 4.4 assists in backup role for the Cavaliers. If the Sixers offer Dellavedova starter’s money, the Cavaliers may decide not to match. The question, of course, is whether Dellavedova deserves starter’s money.
If the Sixers come up dry, they could always try to re-sign Smith and pair him with McConnell for one more season.
The Sixers desperately need consistent outside shooters. The made a qualifying offer to retain Hollis Thompson, the player with the longest tenure with the Sixers. Nik Stauskas, acquired from the Kings last summer, was a major disappointment. Stauskas is a one-dimensional player, and he wasn’t very good at outside shooting, which is supposed to be his specialty. As noted in the previous section, the Sixers won’t make a qualifying offer to Isaiah Canaan, a streaky shooter.
The top unrestricted free agent is the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan. It’s hard to believe the Raptors would let DeRozan leave. If they do, he will have numerous options, which makes it unlikely he’ll choose to come to the Sixers.
Bradley Beal is the top restricted free agent at shooting guard. The Wizards would probably match any offer made to Beal. And, like DeRozan, if he leaves, it’s unlikely he would choose the Sixers.
There are a lot of guards near the end of their careers available via free agency. It makes little sense for the Sixers to pursue those players.
Among the unrestricted free agents, Eric Gordon is an interesting option. Gordon averaged 15.2 points for the Pelicans last season. He has battled a series of injuries during his eight-year career, which is why he may be available at a reasonable price. He would probably be a starter with the Sixers, which may appeal to him more than coming off the bench for a contender.
Former Episcopal Academy teammates Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington are unrestricted free agents, although Ellington has a player’s option to remain with the Nets. But neither is known for having an above-average outside shot, which is what the Sixers desperately need.
Another guard with local connections is Dion Waiters. He is young (24) and can score. But Waiters brings some baggage with him. He is not a disciplined player. The question is whether coming home to Philadelphia would be a benefit to Waiters or a distraction. The positive view is he is a young player who could grow with the Sixers’ young nucleus. The negative view is the Sixers need to add a responsible veteran presence to the mix rather than an undisciplined young player.
A restricted free agent whose name has come up frequently with regard to the Sixers is Allen Crabbe. He averaged 10.3 points for the Trail Blazers last season and is a good shooter. He’s only 24, so he could be a welcome addition to the Sixers’ young nucleus. But the Blazers have made a qualifying offer to Crabbe, just as the Magic have done with Evan Fournier, another young restricted free agent. Unless the Sixers overpay for one of these players, it’s unlikely they would leave their current teams.
The Sixers already have two young players, Robert Covington and Jerami Grant, at small forward, although Grant has yet to develop the outside shot needed to play effectively away from the basket.
The Sixers’ level of need at this position is complicated due to the uncertainty regarding the status of Dario Saric and first-round pick Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, selected last week with the 24th overall pick. If Saric can get out of his contract with his Turkish team and/or Luwawu-Cabarrot is bought of his contract with his Serbian team, the Sixers have less need at this position than they would if both players remain overseas.
How Ben Simmons, the top overall pick, fits into the Sixers’ system is another variable. Will he truly be a power forward, playing in place of either Okafor or Noel? Or will he spend a lot of time as the smaller forward, which would fit his self-described point-forward skills?
If the Sixers choose to pursue small forwards, Harrison Barnes has been the most frequently mentioned name. But the Warriors exercised their option to match any offer to the restricted free agent. Unless the Warriors land Durant, it seems unlikely they wouldn’t match any reasonable offer to Barnes.
Unrestricted free agents include Nicolas Batum (Hornets, formerly of the Blazers), the often-injured Chandler Parsons (Mavericks) and Kent Bazemore (Hawks). Forward Maurice Harkless, drafted 15th overall by the Sixers in the 2012 draft, is a restricted free agent, but the Blazers have made a qualifying offer.
The Sixers won’t get the pick of the litter. Their best incentive to attract players is probably the opportunity to start and the likelihood of extensive playing team. If they aren’t able to sign a player like that, their best option would be to see which teams sign the top free agents to big contracts, and then to target those team’s restricted free agents with the hope that they no longer have the money available to commit to their role players.