As each team is eliminated from the NBA playoffs, The Post’s Tim Bontemps will analyze the biggest question facing the franchise as it enters the offseason. Next up are the Philadelphia 76ers, who will have the chance to add a star on a max contract in free agency to their impressive young core.
For all of the talk and excitement that has surrounded the Philadelphia 76ers for their play on the court this season — and there has been plenty of that with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid tearing through the NBA this season — there has been even more focus directed toward their upcoming offseason. With the ability to create max cap space — plus a pair of first-round picks in this year’s NBA draft and a roster bursting at the seams with young talent — Philadelphia is set up to be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference for the next 10 years.
That, of course, has led to plenty of talk about LeBron James potentially joining them in free agency this summer. He has struck up a relationship with Simmons, who is represented by the same agent, Rich Paul. Philadelphia remains in the Eastern Conference, away from the league’s current superpowers, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. It is a team with rich basketball history. And James, of course, remains the best player in the game — even as he comes to the end of his 15th NBA season.
It all makes sense. Except that, when Philadelphia enters free agency this summer, its first target on the market shouldn’t be James.
It should be Paul George.
Why not James?
James wouldn’t nearly be as good a fit as George, next season or moving forward.
It’s a nod to the unique talent Philadelphia has at its disposal, particularly in Simmons. There is a reason, after all, that Simmons has earned comparisons to Magic Johnson; at 6-foot-10, with remarkable athleticism that rarely pops off the screen because of the smoothness with which he plays, Simmons looks like he has a chance to be a generational option running an offense.
To this point, however, Simmons has proven to be extremely deficient in one specific area: shooting. Out of 1,108 shots Simmons took this season across the regular season and playoffs, only 43 were taken more than 15 feet from the basket. And only two of those 43 shots were legitimate three-point attempts (10 others were heaves). He missed them both.
So what does this mean? Simple, Simmons can’t play off the ball. Give Simmons the ball, and he becomes one of the most unique players in the NBA. Take it away from him, and he becomes a liability, a player who doesn’t offer much of a threat to defenses.
If we’ve seen anything about James during his NBA career, it’s that he virtually always has the ball in his hands. This made the initial days of his partnership with Dwyane Wade rocky, as the two men learned how to coexist after both had spent their careers used to having the ball in their hands.
The difference, though, is that Wade was a deadly midrange shooter and capable of wreaking havoc as a cutter within Miami’s offense. Simmons can’t come close to providing the former and will need time to learn about doing the latter. Plus, James and Wade were close friends, which helped facilitate that partnership. While James and Simmons are friendly, everyone would agree their relationship will never be on that level.
So why George, rather than James?
He is the perfect complementary player to place alongside Simmons. He’s a terrific wing defender and, coupled with Robert Covington, would give Philadelphia a devastating pair of defensive options to throw at opposing scorers. It would be similar to the setup George’s current team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, utilized with him and Andre Roberson this season. Except that, unlike Roberson, Covington is a credible threat from three-point range.
George also served as a secondary creator within Oklahoma City’s offense behind Russell Westbrook — something the Sixers desperately need. Yes, that is the role Markelle Fultz was supposed to fill this season, and the hope is that a full offseason of getting his own shooting issues under control will allow last year’s No. 1 overall pick to blossom into the kind of game-changing talent he showed he could be in college.
But part of the reason Philadelphia lost this series to Boston was that none of Philadelphia’s perimeter players — Simmons, Covington, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, T.J. McConnell — were able to create shots for themselves off the dribble. George would immediately be able to do that.
As an excellent three-point shooter, he’d also be able to replace some of Redick’s shooting ability in the starting unit — while providing far more defense and shot creation.
Perhaps most importantly, though, George is both younger than James by 5 1/2 years and won’t completely alter the makeup of the Sixers. Make no mistake: If LeBron James joins a team, it becomes his team – as it should. He is, after all, one of the greatest players – if not the greatest – this game has ever seen.
George, though, perfectly slid into a role alongside Westbrook in Oklahoma City and didn’t try to dominate the team. Instead, he was happy to be a co-star — something that he’d be able to do in Philadelphia playing alongside a pair of young superstars in Embiid (24) and Simmons (21) that the rest of his prime should perfectly match up with.
It is rare that a team with this much young talent also has the potential to add a player of this stature. It’s an opportunity the Sixers would be wise to pursue to the fullest, to give themselves the best chance at turning what currently is an immensely talented young core — one that just learned how hard it is to advance in the NBA playoffs — into one that has the potential to rule the East, and the NBA, for years to come.
James, for obvious reasons, may seem like the best answer for how Philadelphia should spend its money this summer. But for what the Sixers truly need, George is the far better one.
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