Are the Sixers the best destination for LeBron James?

ByKevin Pelton ESPN logo
Sunday, July 1, 2018

Would signing with the Philadelphia 76ers make sense for LeBron James in basketball terms?

In theory, the Sixers are an ideal destination for LeBron to continue chasing championships. He could join a team that finished two games ahead of his Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference standings, maintaining the relatively favorable path to the NBA Finals he has enjoyed during eight consecutive trips.

Better yet, the Sixers posted the East's second-best point differential -- better than the Boston Celtics, who beat them in the conference semifinals -- led by two young stars (Ben Simmons, 21, and Joel Embiid, 24) with a combined one year of NBA experience entering the season. James could watch the talent around him flourish rather than wither, as has been the case in his most recent stint in Cleveland and time with the Miami Heat.

Yet the pairing of LeBron and Simmons, who did not make a single 3-pointer during his Rookie of the Year campaign, is hardly ideal. So, setting aside the personal factors that will go into James' decision, does Philadelphia make sense?

With James' reps and the Sixers meeting on Sunday, according to a report by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, let's take a look.

Sixers on the rise

Whether the 76ers can sign LeBron this summer or not, they're set up to contend in the East for years as a product of Sam Hinkie's rebuilding process. Alongside Embiid and Simmons, the 76ers started 24-year-old Dario Saric and 27-year-old Robert Covington, both of whom will be part of the team's core, barring a trade. Saric still has two years left on his team-friendly rookie contract, and Covington signed a four-year extension last fall that will pay him a reasonable $47 million after a renegotiation bumped up his 2017-18 salary.

As a result, Philadelphia could fit in James' max salary with few changes. To clear the necessary space, Philadelphia would need only to deal little-used guard Jerryd Bayless (making $8.6 million in the final season of his contract) and, depending on where the salary cap is set, one additional young player (likely Justin Anderson, Furkan Korkmaz orTimothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, though the 76ers also could choose to waive or trade Richaun Holmes or T.J. McConnell).

There's more young talent on the way, too. The Sixers reached the second round of the playoffs with only minor contributions from 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, who played sparingly in the postseason after a shoulder injury sidelined him most of his rookie campaign. If Fultz can move past a case of the yips (as described by his new trainer, Drew Hanlen), he could give Philadelphia a third young star.

In addition to signing LeBron, the 76ers have the trade chips to add more veterans in an effort to win now. Most obviously, that would mean pursuing Kawhi Leonard in the event Leonard prefers to join a Sixers superteam instead of signing with one of the L.A. teams next summer.

Even after using cap space to sign James, Philadelphia could still offer the San Antonio Spurs a package headlined by Covington and either Saric or more likely Fultz. The unprotected 2021 Miami first-rounder that the Sixers acquired on draft night also would be an appealing part of such a trade. Giving up multiple players for Leonard would be too risky if he's reluctant to commit long term, but if he changes his mind Philadelphia is better positioned than the Lakers to bowl San Antonio over with an offer -- one that would get Leonard out of the Western Conference.

Fitting LeBron in Philly's lineup

As easy as the fit is financially to bring James to the Sixers, the fit on the court is trickier. Presumably, LeBron would slide into JJ Redick's spot in the starting lineup. Barring a sign-and-trade for James, Philadelphia would have only its room midlevel exception (estimated at $4.4 million) to offer Redick to return.

Swapping Redick for LeBron and keeping the rest of the starters intact would produce a versatile defensive lineup for the Sixers. Amazingly, James would be Philadelphia's shortest starter, at 6-foot-8. Last season, 76ers coach Brett Brown took advantage of having the 6-10 Simmons at point guard to shuffle defensive matchups on a night-to-night basis rather than match by position. Adding LeBron would take that to another level and allow the 76ers to confidently switch any pick not involving Embiid.

The questions about James' fit come entirely at the offensive end, where he's a totally different player than Redick. During the 674 minutes Philadelphia's primary starting five played, Redick held the ball just 10 percent of the time on offense, according to Second Spectrum tracking, instead frequently sprinting around off-ball screens. By contrast, James held the ball 45 percent of the offensive minutes he played with Cleveland -- nearly as much time of possession as Simmons enjoyed with the Sixers' starters (51 percent).

Many of James' possessions as ball handler came via pick-and-rolls (33.7 per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum) or isolations (15.2 per 100 possessions), two things Brown's motion-based offense de-emphasizes. Remarkably, James alone had more isolations per 100 possessions than Philadelphia did as a team (9.4), and the 76ers ran barely more pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions (40.4). Philly ranked last in the NBA in the frequency of both play types.

Adjustment for Simmons

I'd expect Brown to be flexible with his system if the Sixers added LeBron. Nonetheless, it would mean a big adjustment, especially for Simmons, who would have to play off the ball far more than he did as a rookie. That's not all bad; we saw when McConnell moved into the starting lineup during Philadelphia's series against Boston that a second playmaker can relieve some of the ballhandling pressure on Simmons.

Still, Simmons and to a lesser extent Embiid seem to fall into the category of players who are best with the ball in their hands that I recently found have been less effective when playing alongside James. Conversely, there's also the matter of how having a non-shooter like Simmons spacing the court affects James' ability to play one-on-one.

The most successful Cleveland lineups in recent years featured multiple shooters around LeBron. Check out how the Cavaliers performed during the 2017-18 regular season based on the number of other players on the court with James who averaged at least one 3-pointer per 36 minutes.

When all four other Cleveland players averaged at least one 3-pointer per 36 minutes -- in lineups with either Kevin Love or Channing Frye at center -- the Cavaliers' 115.2 offensive rating was a full three points per 100 possessions better than the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets managed last season (112.2).

Take one of those shooters off the court -- typically replaced by one of Larry Nance Jr., Derrick Rose, Tristan Thompson or Dwyane Wade -- and Cleveland's offensive rating dropped by 3.1 points per 100 possessions. And in the limited time James played with two non-threats from 3-point range, the Cavaliers barely scored better than the league average offensive rating of 106.2 points per 100 possessions.

The good news is because Embiid averaged 1.2 3-pointers per 36 minutes last season, the Sixers' presumptive starting five would still have three shooters around LeBron. But their combined 6.5 triples per 36 minutes would be on the relatively low side for such a group.

Philadelphia found ways to overcome spacing challenges a year ago. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Embiid averaged more points per chance (1.10) on post-ups when playing with Simmons last season than with Simmons on the bench (0.88). And that increased to 1.15 points per chance when opponents double-teamed with Simmons on the floor, so they weren't able to take advantage of his non-shooting by bringing extra help.

So I think LeBron could feel comfortable that, despite the fact there would surely be an adjustment period if he signed with the Sixers, they'd present him a better opportunity to win next season than staying in Cleveland (where, of course, he'd have to deal with this Philadelphia team as a rival).

It's difficult to compare the 76ers to the Lakers, who remain something of a blank slate depending on which other stars they can acquire (though Paul George remaining in OKC certainly doesn't help them). But now that James has declined his player option, essentially ruling out the Rockets, Philadelphia probably offers the best chance to win both now and in the future.

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