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David Murphy: Four big questions facing the Sixers this offseason, starting with Damian Lillard, Ben Simmons and the dominoes to follow

David Murphy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — The player at the center of the Sixers' offseason isn't Ben Simmons. It's Damian Lillard. Simmons is right there with him in the bull's-eye. But if we're talking dominoes, Lillard is tile numero uno. Everything starts with him. And nothing starts with Simmons until Lillard's fate is determined.

That might seem like an awkward position for Daryl Morey. The Sixers have a whole lot of dominoes lined up behind Lillard and Simmons, and there are a whole lot of routes those dominoes could take. But it's even more awkward for the rest of us schlubs. Morey? He has a whole team of assistants feeding him firsthand information on the shape of the offseason marketplaces. By Aug. 2, when teams can begin negotiating with free agents, the Sixers should have a pretty good idea of how the dominoes will end up falling. Us? We can only guess.

The Big Dates

— July 29: NBA draft (Sixers pick at Nos. 28 and 50).

— Aug. 1: The last day for decisions on options and qualifying offers (Sixers' restricted free agents are Gary Clark and Rayjon Tucker).

— Aug. 2: Free agent negotiations begin (Sixers' free agents: Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Furkan Korkmaz, Mike Scott), last day to waive George Hill before contract becomes guaranteed.

— Aug. 6: Teams can make signings official, extend players, complete trades.

The Big Unknowns

— 1) Is Lillard willing to play for the Sixers, or are the Sixers being played?

The Sixers' pursuit of James Harden should leave little doubt about how aggressively they'll vie for Lillard. Morey knows that pairing Joel Embiid with an elite scorer who has an elite handle is the only obvious formula for lifting the Sixers off their current plateau. And he has to know that Lillard might be his last chance to make it happen.

Problem is, Lillard would make a lot of teams a lot better, and a lot of those teams have a lot to offer, including two who play in more traditional NBA destinations. The Sixers have to hope that Lillard's primary goal is to win a championship in a situation tailor-made for him to thrive. That's the one advantage they have over teams like the Heat, who already have a feisty ball-dominant perimeter guard in Jimmy Butler, and the Knicks, who would have to do a lot of heavy lifting just to get a supporting cast equal to the one that Lillard would be leaving behind in Portland.

— 2) How does the rest of the NBA really feel about Ben Simmons?

 

We know how they're going to front like they feel as they engage with Morey in trade discussions. Simmons gave rival GMs plenty of ammunition for playing down his value. There will be several teams who see him for what he is: a player who offers a rare combination of win-now impact and potential ceiling. Simmons might be far from the dominant two-way superstar he was projected to be out of college, but he is still a versatile offensive player whose size/speed/handle combination helps win a lot of regular-season games. And his defensive ability is unquestioned. The Blazers would still have a lot of reason to believe they are a competitive playoff team with Simmons playing next to CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkić, and, potentially, Norman Powell.

But the Blazers wouldn't be the first team to turn down the opportunity to acquire him. That's worth noting, however much personal grudges factored into the Rockets' decision to trade Harden to the Nets. The Knicks have 21-year-old RJ Barrett coming off a season in which he averaged 17.6 points per game while shooting 40% from three-point range. Throw in 23-year-old big man Mitchell Robinson and 22-year-old wing Immanuel Quickley and they at least have quantity. The Heat? You can argue that either Tyler Herro or Bam Adebayo would be a more attractive trade centerpiece than Simmons.

That being said, barring a Herro/Adebayo package, the Sixers should have what it takes to win the bidding. Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, a boatload of picks — them winning the bidding is far from their biggest issue.

— 3) Assuming they do not acquire Lillard, can the Sixers actually make themselves a better team while trading Simmons?

To do it, they'd need to add each of the things that Simmons is: a point guard, an elite perimeter defender, and a player who is capable of guarding the four. The extent to which they need each of those things depends on who they end up landing for Simmons. A guy like Lillard would dramatically diminish those other needs. Beyond him, though, it's hard to find a potential trade centerpiece who doesn't open up sizable holes elsewhere. The goal isn't just to be different. It's to be better.

— 4) Can the Sixers get better if Simmons stays?

Sure, as long as they are willing to spend some luxury-tax dollars and everything else works out perfectly. The Sixers currently have nine players under contract for roughly $127 million, with $10 million of that a partially guaranteed deal to Hill that could be moved in a deal. Removing Hill and adding someone like Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade at $20 million per year would leave them staring at a payroll of at least $132 million, still below the luxury-tax line of $136.6 million but needing some serious veteran minimum help that would likely push them into the tax.

You could easily talk yourself into a lineup that has Lowry at the point, Simmons at the three, Seth Curry at the two, Tobias Harris at the four, and Embiid, with a bench that includes Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, and some veterans. The Sixers could also re-sign Green, guarantee Hill's salary, and look to swing another trade for a less expensive player than Lowry (they still have an $8.2 million trade exception from the Al Horford deal). Or they can sign a player using their biannual or midlevel exception.

That being said, the Sixers are on a plateau for a reason: plateaus are hard to escape. Morey had much more flexibility last year than he does this year, with contracts to shed in Horford and Josh Richardson. This year, Simmons is the only swing piece, assuming there is neither the inclination nor the ability to trade Harris.

Let the dominoes begin.

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