Somebody asked Josh Harris what he would be looking for in his next general manager, and the Sixers owner responded with the same boilerplate list of abstractions that you often hear in hiring searches. Leadership, integrity, intelligence, the ability to surround oneself with a talented staff. It is difficult to argue with those characteristics, but any job interview might be better off starting with a more concrete question.
What would be your plan for dealing with Jerryd Bayless’ contract, and what steps would you take to avoid having to dealing with such a situation in the future?
There’s a good chance that Bayless, a 29-year-old guard who joined the team before the 2016-17 season, has played his last game in a Sixers uniform. By the end of this past season, it was easy to forget that he had entered the year expected to play a significant role in Brett Brown‘s rotation. Marco Belinelli’s late-season arrival from the Hawks effectively ended any chance Bayless might have had of garnering meaningful minutes down the stretch. It’s not as if he had been a disappointment: In 42 games in a Sixers uniform, he had more or less been the same player whom Bryan Colangelo had deemed worthy of a three-year contract a couple of offseasons earlier. He averaged 23.7 minutes per game and shot .371 from three-point range with an effective field goal percentage of .503. None of those numbers represented a marked drop in performance: in the three seasons prior to his signing, he’d averaged 24.4 minutes per game while shooting .380 from three-point range with an eFG of .484 in stints with the Bucks, Celtics and Grizzlies.
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The problem is that the player who Bayless was clearly wasn’t worth the three-year, $27 million deal that Bryan Colangelo gave him in the recently departed general manager’s first offseason at the helm. Within the context of the massive amounts of dead or underperforming salary that sits on the books of NBA teams, the $9 million that remains on Bayless’ contract hardly amounts to an albatross. But it does offer an important reminder of the exponential impact of roster decisions in today’s business environment, which is something the Sixers must keep at the forefront of their thinking as they contemplate the vast array of possibilities that await them this summer.
Since the end of the Sixers’ season in Boston last month, the team has spent a considerable amount of time answering questions about the possibility of landing a marquee veteran via free agency or trade. But there’s an argument to be made that the biggest challenge they’ll face isn’t in persuading LeBron James or Paul George to sign or the San Antonio Spurs to part ways with Kawhi Leonard. In all three of those situations, there aren’t a whole lot of variables that the Sixers control. They can offer James or George a max contract, and the Spurs a competitive package of assets, but everything else is largely dependent on the wishes and motivations of the players or teams involved.
Take James, for instance. There’s certainly a chance that Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Brown can impact his decision during the recruiting process, perhaps selling him on the benefits of inserting himself into a pre-existing core of young players and a roster that is already playoff ready. But if James would rather finish his career where it started, or cobble together a new super team of handpicked veterans, or play in a market like Los Angeles, then there really isn’t anything the Sixers can do to overcome such a mindset.
“We’ve got to attract the best in the league,” Harris said. “I think from our point of view, there is a relatively small number of people that we want, but if we want them we’re going to have convince them because they’re going to have a lot of opportunities.”
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Again, though, the sales process will be relatively straightforward. The more complex question concerns what direction the Sixers should go if they don’t end up landing one of those players on their short list of candidates. The difficulty lies in the fact that the Sixers’ window for contention is officially open after a season in which they finished with the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. At the same time, they still have two offseasons to spend their considerable cap room before it comes time to negotiate a contract extension with Simmons and, potentially, Dario Saric. What is the optimal way to allocate their resources so that they improve the roster for the 2018-19 season while also maintaining the necessary payroll flexibility to accommodate a max contract should an opportunity present itself beyond this offseason?
Those are the types of value judgments that differentiate executives from one another in today’s NBA, and the benefit of having an established decision-maker with a well-thought-out long-term plan is probably the biggest argument for getting such a person in place before the July 1 start of the new league year. The Sixers are in better cap shape than the vast majority of NBA teams. Although the Bayless contract is more of an inconvenience than a significant problem, it would be a shame if the unsettled situation in the front office results in the Sixers’ entering into a similar mistake. As bright as their future is, they do not have a lot of margin for error when it comes to making their stated goal of title contention a reality.
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