Thanks to the Detroit Pistons’ decision to void the three-team trade that sent a second-round pick to Philadelphia at the trade deadline, the 76ers effectively waived JaKarr Sampson for no reason.
There’s no sugarcoating it: That sucks.
But with an impending roster crunch, Sampson’s time in Philadelphia was almost certain to come to an end this summer one way or another. His diminishing role in the last month should’ve been a warning to us all that the end of the Point JaKarr era was near.
Barring any trades, the Sixers already have eight spots almost certainly accounted for next season: Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Nik Stauskas, Richaun Holmes, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant and Carl Landry. Assuming Dario Saric comes over from Europe — both he and his father have indicated that’s the plan, despite the financial ramifications of him being locked into a rookie-scale contract — that’s a ninth roster spot taken up before factoring in draft considerations and those signed to nonguaranteed deals.
The Sixers also figure to have three, if not four, first-round picks this June (their own and those from the Heat, Thunder and perhaps the Lakers). Even if the Lakers pick doesn’t convey and they use the Miami or Oklahoma City first-rounder on a draft-and-stash, that adds two more players to their roster total, bumping it up to 11. Kendall Marshall, Hollis Thompson, Isaiah Canaan and T.J. McConnell, meanwhile, are all signed to team-friendly nonguaranteed deals through the 2016-17 season. The odds of all four being on the team heading into opening night in October are slim to none, but that’s precisely the point: With those four factored in, the Sixers would already be capped out in terms of the roster limit.
Hinkie can free up a roster spot this summer by waiving Landry and agreeing to swallow his $6.5 million guaranteed salary. On the off chance he takes the same approach to free agency he has the past three summers — i.e., staying firmly on the sidelines and signing no one of particular import — that would leave the Sixers with one roster spot, which they’d presumably use to attempt re-signing Ish Smith.
To steal a phrase from Hinkie, the Sixers’ quest to “build an orchard” is set to enter its next phase this offseason. The hiring of Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations/dictator/demigod signaled the start of Phase 2. After staying dormant during free agency for the past three summers, the Sixers are poised to begin rounding out their roster to complement their plethora of young bigs.
To start, they’ll need an infusion of reinforcements in the backcourt. As much as we’ve grown to love Smith for helping salvage an otherwise lost season — and particularly for saving Nerlens from going crazy and driving off the Ben Franklin Bridge during the All-Star break — there’s a reason he’s played on nine teams since joining the league in 2010. He’s the definition of a journeyman point guard — a fine one at that, but at 27 years old already, he’s not going to evolve into a title-caliber starting floor general. If the Sixers are serious about building around a Twin Towers frontcourt — whether that’s Okafor-Noel, Embiid-Noel or Embiid-Okafor — they’ll desperately need reliable floor-spacers at the other three positions in their starting lineup. Ish doesn’t fit that bill.
Considering Okafor’s defensive concerns, particularly in pick-and-roll coverage, they’ll also need at least one lockdown wing defender. Covington could grow into that role — according to Vantage Sports, he’s been one of the league’s top perimeter disruptors this season — and with LeBron James, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony looming as potential playoff opponents in the coming years, having a wing stopper will be crucial to the Sixers’ hopes of advancing deep into the bracket. Teams can never have enough three-and-D players, though, so Hinkie may decide that’s another area of need.
They’ll have plenty of avenues to improve their roster this summer, whether it’s through trades or free agency. According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer — as with all transaction rumors, take this with a grain of salt — the Sixers offered “some combination” of Stauskas, Smith and a 2016 first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Dennis Schroder prior to the trade deadline. They also reportedly “considered adding a player with an expiring contract” — who Pompey identified as Sampson — but the Hawks “ultimately decided to keep Schroder.” That said, Pompey’s source “said he expects the Sixers and Hawks to revisit trade talks for [Schroder] during the NBA draft on June 23.”
According to the Boston Herald‘s Steve Bulpett, Okafor almost made his way to the Boston Celtics at the trade deadline, too. (Danny Ainge at least reportedly had interest in the rookie center). It’s unclear what the Celtics offered for Okafor—all Bulpett revealed was “the deal was dead on Wednesday and that the other club pulled the plug” — but once the pingpong balls fall into place at May’s lottery, there’s reason to believe the two sides could rekindle discussions, particularly if the Brooklyn first-rounder that the Celtics own doesn’t fall within the top two selections.
While this year’s free-agent class quickly goes from stunning to depressing once you move outside the top 20 or so players — HoopsHype has Philadelphia favorite Evan Turner listed as its 25th-best free agent — the Sixers could emulate what Portland did this past offseason, investing larger-than-expected deals in young, unheralded players on the same developmental curve as their franchise pieces. While guys such as Kevin Durant, Mike Conley and Nicolas Batum aren’t likely to give Hinkie the time of day, the Sixers could sign, say, Allen Crabbe, E’Twaun Moore, Kent Bazemore and/or former Sixer Moe Harkless to cobble together a vastly improved perimeter rotation.
Assuming Pompey’s sources are correct, it appears as though Hinkie and Colangelo approached the trade deadline with one eye toward the offseason. The former’s comments following the deadline certainly implied such, as he told reporters (via Derek Bodner of Philly Mag), “If I’m not thinking about the future, who is?” That three-for-one offer would have helped the Sixers consolidate their talent and beef up their point guard rotation while freeing up two roster spots, effectively killing two birds with one stone.
So, yes, waiving Sampson and not receiving the expected second-round pick is unfortunate. That said, given Donatas Motiejunas’ back issues this season — the fourth-year big man had suited up just 14 times for the Rockets prior to the trade deadline — the Sixers had to have known him failing Detroit’s physical was within the realm of possibility. Could they have waived Elton Brand rather than Sampson, assuming the demand for a moderately productive 22-year-old would be greater than that for a 36-year-old who hasn’t suited up once this season? Certainly. But Sampson also cleared waivers at 6 p.m. ET Sunday, meaning the Sixers at least could have attempted to bring him back if so desired. (He instead signed a two-year deal with the Denver Nuggets on Monday, with the second year nonguaranteed.)
Many of us grew attached to Sampson over the past year-and-a-half because he was a human embodiment of the Process. He was an undrafted nobody who forged a decent NBA career out of nowhere. Whether he continues his journey in Denver, Philadelphia or elsewhere, Sixers fans should root for him to remain productive.
Let’s not pretend his loss is a devastating setback for the overarching goal of constructing a title-caliber team, though. Given the roster-space crunch that the Sixers will face this summer— and his diminishing role on an historically bad NBA team — Sampson’s departure was less a matter of if than a matter of when.