Injuries to Simmons, Bayless Shouldn’t Cause Sixers to Panic

With injuries to Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless, the Sixers must avoid the temptation of making "win now" moves.

With adversity striking the Sixers in the form of injuries and poor perimeter play, Bryan Colangelo has to keep his eye on what's important long-term | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With adversity striking the Sixers in the form of injuries and poor perimeter play, Bryan Colangelo has to keep his eye on what’s important long-term | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week guard J.R. Smith signed a 4 year, $57 million contract to return to the NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

At 31 years old and with a checkered past filled with run-ins with coaches, it’s the kind of contract that only makes sense on a title contender, and with a dominating personality like LeBron James in the locker room to keep Smith in check.

Buried within that ESPN report of Smith’s contract was an interesting little nugget: the 76ers, with Jerryd Bayless‘ wrist injury creating a vacuum in the backcourt, showed interest in signing Smith this past week.

“Sources told ESPN that, after weeks of scant progress, interest this week from the Philadelphia 76ers in Smith might have helped sparked negotiations with the Cavaliers. The Sixers have roughly $27 million in salary-cap space and, as seen during the summer under new general manager Bryan Colangelo, made a legitimate push to try to sign Manu Ginobili away from the San Antonio Spurs.

The Sixers have a growing need in the backcourt in the wake of a recent wrist injury suffered by veteran offseason signee Jerryd Bayless.”
— Marc Stein, ESPN

The actual details of this are hard to parse. Is there a chance the Sixers did Smith and agent Rich Paul a favor, and the interest ultimately wasn’t that high? What exactly would the Sixers have offered? Many questions we’ll ultimately never know.

Yet targeting Smith, if the Sixers did actually do so, is an interesting tactic, to say the least.

Smith’s NBA career, and personality, is a difficult puzzle to decipher. His teammates, by and large, love him. His coaches, especially early in his career, clashed with him constantly. George Karl at one point said “I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me” in response to J.R.’s shot selection. Smith, when talking about dealing with coaches, noted his philosophy was to “just play your game, because you’ll probably be around a lot longer than they will.” The differences were real, and they were divisive to teams.

Yet most of that seems to be behind Smith now, who seems more receptive to coaching and more at peace with his role with the Cavs. For a team like Cleveland, in need of his shooting, his scoring ability, and, yes, his presence in the locker room, he’s a perfect fit.

The question of whether or not he’d be the perfect fit in the Sixers locker room is much more difficult to answer, though. Clearly a contract approaching the one the Cavs gave him would be a mistake, what with the Sixers not expected to approach anything resembling contention while Smith is still a viable NBA starter. Perhaps the bigger question than what the size (and length) of the contract the Sixers would have offered is exactly how Smith would have reacted to the 76ers locker room, and to losing.

Is Smith a more coachable person because he’s matured, or because he’s playing for a contender? Are his antics endearing rather than divisive because he’s grown up, or because of LeBron’s presence? Would he help the 76ers youngsters avoid the bad habits that come from losing, or would losing cause J.R. Smith to revert back to his bad habits?

It’s hard to know, but at a contract large enough to cause the Cavs to up theirs to 4 years, $57 million, it’s scary to think about. Signing Smith in the Sixers situation would be a very high-stakes game of what-if.

And that presents the bigger concern, which has little to do with J.R. Smith and more to do with how the Sixers navigate the next phase of their rebuild. Bryan Colangelo showed true patience this offseason, something which rightfully won him near universal praise. Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless, and Sergio Rodriguez all have the chance to make the Sixers more functional on the court without long-term consequences, and Colangelo admitting to impatience being the cause of mistakes during his tenure in Toronto was something that reassured many Sixers fans.

But it’s one thing to show patience initially, and it’s another to maintain patience when adversity strikes. When you’re not making the kind of progress you hoped to be making. When the moves you previously made don’t appear to be working out. When moves could make the situation look better from the outside than it currently does.

The Sixers have many high-value future assets likely to be converted to real, tangible pieces in the coming years. Their own 2017 draft pick. The Lakers draft pick, which will either be coming next June (top-3 protected) or in the 2018 NBA draft (unprotected). The Kings unprotected 2019 draft pick. The cap space they can use to supplement their foundation.

With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on the roster, losing for the express purpose to get ping pong balls is no longer required. The Sixers have elite talent already on the roster, and developing them is now the priority. Making moves to win now is a much more legitimate possibility. That shift in priority is natural.

But it still has to make sense.

It’s also a good time to be reminded of what is truly important about this season, which as much as people may not want to hear it, is still not about wins and losses. If Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are healthy in April, the season was a huge success, regardless of if they won 15 games or 30.

The fact that the Sixers were reportedly considering signing J.R. Smith doesn’t mean they’ll dip into their treasure chest of high-value draft picks for temporary fixes, of course. Still, with so many assets at the Sixers disposal, and with injuries and poor perimeter play undeniably clouding the current view of the team, the threat of “win now” moves harming the long-term flexibility of the team is of increased concern.

Stay patient, remain flexible, figure out what you have in Simmons and Embiid and target long-term pieces that can complement them. Reacting to Jerryd Bayless’ injury, if it’s by acquiring a player that isn’t a long-term fixture of the team and dampens your future flexibility because you included high-value assets, isn’t what will define whether this season was a success or failure.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.