Bjelica choosing Europe over Philadelphia
After three years in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves, 30-year-old stretch forward Nemanja Bjelica has opted to continue his playing career overseas. Bjelica choosing Europe comes as a surprise to the 76ers, who had agreed to a 1-year $4.5 million deal with the 6-foot-10 Serbian.
Following his agreement with the Sixers, Bjelica remained in Serbia with his wife and kids. There, he came to the conclusion that returning home to continue his career would be the best choice for both himself and his family.
Free agent forward Nemanja Bjelica — who had agreed to a one-year deal with the 76ers — informed the team on Monday that he will stay in Europe this season, league sources tell ESPN. He never signed his contract with Philadelphia.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 17, 2018
How was Bjelica supposed to contribute?
Bjelica was signed to replace Ersan Ilyasova, who left in favor of a 3-year deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. Last season, Bjelica shot .41 percent from three, while pulling down seven boards in just over 20 minutes per game.
Towards the end of the 2017-18 season, Ilyasova played a vital role for the Sixers. As a forward meant to stretch the floor off the bench, he averaged almost 11 points in just over 24 minutes per game. Despite his offensive productivity, Ilyasova is a negative on the defensive side of the ball. While showing his heart by drawing the second most charges per game (0.46), Ilyasova is simply incapable of switching on to athletic wings. Bjelica shares this unfortunate defensive trait.
What can the Sixers do now?
One aspect of Bjelica choosing Europe is that the team now has the room exception ($4.4 million) available once again. At this point in free agency, there are few options available that could help the team take a legitimate step towards contention. However, a few have been suggested as options, most notably veteran guard Jamal Crawford.
The Sixers’ guard situation is a little tricky. Between Ben Simmons being the primary ball handler, Markelle Fultz and T.J. McConnell off the bench, and J.J. Redick as the starting two guard, there isn’t much room for a 38-year old vet. The Sixers primary needs as it stands are bench shooting and consistent defending.
The 38-year-old is definitely pushing up on the end of his career. Last season he shot just .33 percent from three, while not being effective on the other side of the ball. At some points in his career, Crawford did show an above average shooting ability. However, last year’s .33 percent clip might show he is no longer that player.
I’m also concerned that should the 76ers decide to sign Crawford, he could take away Fultz’s minutes. I know it’s hard to look at a season this way, but with the current state of the NBA, the Sixers still have no chance at competing with the Warriors for the championship. Therefore, while it is important to contend and take the team as far as it can go, it is more crucial that the team continues to build the talent they’ve already invested in.
The case for standing still
There’s no reason to use money just because it’s there. Bad deals happen when teams decide they have no choice but to use their funds. The Sixers’ have few options at this point in free agency. However, more than the lack of options, the Sixers should stand pat with their current roster because it can provide defensive versatility.
Between Robert Covington and Wilson Chandler, the Sixers have two proven players capable of defending the three and the four. In the modern NBA, that versatility is becoming more rare and valuable. With Simmons, Covington, and bench presence from Fultz and Justin Anderson, the Sixers have a glut of length and athleticism, both in the starting five and off the bench. The ability to exchange Dario Saric for Chandler or Smith will be crucial in clutch defensive situations.
Another aspect of not signing anyone else is it leaves minutes for guys like Smith to get valuable experience. Again, the goal of this season cannot realistically be to win the NBA title. Therefore growth and development must remain a priority. By adding a veteran, the team could slightly improve now, however, it would be at the expense of Smith and company’s minutes.
How will Bjelica choosing Europe change the season?
Bjelica’s decision comes at the cost of the 76ers offensive shooting depth. However, there is more value in doing nothing, than in tossing money at the problem in hopes that it goes away.
This off-season has been a largely fruitless one. Regardless, with Golden State having what feels like all the league’s talent, continuing to develop and retaining salary optionality holds more value than replacing an un-athletic shooting power forward.
For now, the team will be better off holding their money and preparing for next off-season. Hopefully “star hunting” will go a little better.