Everyone knew the Toronto Raptors would go to Kawhi Leonard when it mattered most.
The superstar carried the Raptors this far and got his chance to win game seven against the Philadelphia 76ers with just 4.2 seconds to go.
Leonard got the ball on the inbound pass, drove to the baseline and fired a fadeaway jumper over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid. Leonard squatted to view the shot as the stadium stood in silence, and after four almost impossible bounces off the rim, the ball fell into the hoop.
The shocking 92-90 win sent the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals to take on the Milwaukee Bucks. It marked the end of the season for a Sixers team with high expectations and prompted tears to flow from Embiid on the court (and likely many others throughout the Philadelphia area).
It also signified the start of a long, yet critical, offseason for the Sixers.
Three Sixers’ starters, J.J. Redick, Tobias Harris, and Jimmy Butler, are set to hit free agency, as well as role players T.J. McConnell, James Ennis III and Mike Scott. There is no doubt this team could look very different next season.
The first priority will be signing superstar Butler to a long-term deal. Since being traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves, Butler has been key for the Sixers. He has shown that by being a clutch performer on multiple occasions, hitting game winners against the Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets.
He showed up in the playoffs, averaging 19.4 points a game and even hitting the equalizer layup aganist Toronto in game seven. Then lastly, he has developed into a leader on the team, with both head coach Brett Brown and Embiid praising his locker room presence.
Butler will demand a maximum contract basically anywhere he goes, and he will probably get it. Luckily for the Sixers, they can extend a five-year offer, while other teams can only offer four-year offers. The difference is an extra $47 million in total value, which may be too good for Butler to pass up.
Harris is a more interesting case. Another mid-season trade acquisition, Harris showed flashes of brilliance, but also had moments where he struggled, especially in the playoffs. Regardless, his three-point proficiency is a huge asset and something many teams could use.
The question is how much do the Sixers value Harris? They gave up a lot to trade for him, but they may be hesitant to bring out the Brinks truck for him. Harris likely isn’t deserving of a maximum contract, but that may be the price the Sixers have to pay to keep him around.
The Sixers have the ability to keep this core together, but it will come down to how much they can go over the cap to sign Reddick, Harris and Butler due to their possession of bird rights. But in doing so, the Sixers will almost assuredly be putting themselves into the luxury tax. Maybe not next season, but for sure when all-star Ben Simmons is up for a contract extension.
General Manager Elton Brand has expressed that going into the luxury tax won’t be an issue to keep this team together, but that is yet to be seen.
Another element to this offseason is the status of head coach Brett Brown. Rumors circled around on Sunday before game seven that if the Sixers couldn’t make the Eastern Conference Finals, Brown would be out of a job.
Multiple players came out in support of Brown, including Embiid who called the report “bulls–t” and said, “[Brown] has done a fantastic job.”
Luckily on Tuesday, Sixers principal owner Joshua Harris announced at a press conference that Brown will return for the 2019-20 season. It will be Brown’s seventh season with the team.
In the end, the best solution for the Sixers may just be to run it back. Bring back the same core, with Butler and Harris, and let the starters have more time to develop chemistry with each other. That, paired with a progressing Ben Simmons and a healthy Joel Embiid, could still be dangerous in the East.
Hopefully next time, the Sixers won’t need many bounces to go their way to make it far in the playoffs.