Nemanja Bjelica reneges on verbal agreement with 76ers, will stay in Europe instead

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4766/" data-ylk="slk:Nemanja Bjelica">Nemanja Bjelica</a> had agreed to terms on a one-year deal with Philadelphia on July 5 … but he never actually signed it. (Getty)
Nemanja Bjelica had agreed to terms on a one-year deal with Philadelphia on July 5 … but he never actually signed it. (Getty)

After watching midseason buyout pickup Ersan Ilyasova bolt early in free agency for a three-year, $21 million deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers found themselves in need of a new front-court floor-spacer off the bench to open up room for the interior rampages of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They thought they’d found one, and at a comparative bargain, when they reached a one-year, $4.4 million agreement with Nemanja Bjelica, a 6-foot-10 Serbian power forward who shot a sparkling 41.5 percent from 3-point range for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year.

There’s a reason, though, that we discuss those early-July reports as “team and player agree to terms” rather than “team signs player.” The reason: team doesn’t always sign player.

Nemanja Bjelica won’t be going to Philly, after all

The rumblings started early Tuesday morning that something was amiss in the reported deal between Bjelica and the Sixers. Niko Varlas of the European basketball website Eurohoops.net reported that the two sides had “not finalized yet their contract for next season,” that Bjelica and his camp had “expected a better and especially a longer deal than the mid-level exception of the Sixers for one year” after the Wolves rescinded their qualifying offer to make him an unrestricted free agent, and that there was a chance Bjelica — who starred for Turkey’s Fenerbahce and won EuroLeague MVP honors before jumping to the NBA in 2015 — might be more interested in returning to Europe than plying his trade for one year in Philadelphia.

Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, who covered Bjelica in Minnesota, confirmed the uncertainty, and less than an hour later, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news:






What does losing Bjelica mean for the 76ers?

Well, it hurts. For one thing, it’s never great to think you’ve reached a deal with somebody only to have them decide at the last minute, for one reason or another, that they’ve instead decided to go another direction. Maybe player and team will finally come together in three years — it has happened before — but for now, you wouldn’t blame the Sixers’ still-GM-less decision-making collective for feeling jilted.

For another, Bjelica was in position to play a real role for the 2018-18 Sixers. While elite young talents like Embiid and Simmons make Philadelphia a fascinating team on the rise, they also make building a consistently high-functioning offense sort of difficult; an at-the-rim-only point guard and a possession-hoovering post-up threat require shooters everywhere else on the floor to effectively operate.

With Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli leaving in free agency, it seemed likely that head coach Brett Brown would look to work Bjelica into the lineup as a pick-and-pop threat or an off-ball option, coming off pindown screens to either catch and shoot or attack off-balance closeouts to get into the paint. (For a solid breakdown of Bjelica’s strengths and weaknesses in a Sixers-specific context, I’d recommend this piece by Mike O’Connor of The Athletic.) He wouldn’t quite replace Ilyasova and Belinelli — the former’s a 4/5 combo, the latter’s a 2/3 mix, and Bjelica’s kind of stuck between as a functional 3/4 on offense who can really only guard power forwards — but he’d be able to replicate at least some of their function for Philly’s purposes, adding another plus shooter to a team that could always use more of that to open up the floor for its brightest young things.

Where do the 76ers turn now?

The bad news: losing out on the player you wanted this late in July means that you’re left with awfully slim pickings on the free-agent market, and with hardly any money to spend on what’s left.

Only nine of Yahoo Sports’ top 50 2018 NBA free agents are still on the board. Four of them are restricted free agents (Houston Rockets center Clint Capela, Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Rodney Hood, Los Angeles Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell) whose current teams would be able to match any offer a suitor throws their way. Not that that’s really a problem for the Sixers, considering they don’t have any cap space left anyway.

Two of the still-available top 50 (Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki) are only theoretically available in the sense that if they’re going anywhere, it’s most likely back to the teams for whom they’re franchise legends. Of the remaining options, only Michael Beasley seems like he might make some sense as a combo forward who’s shot 51.5 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from 3-point range over the past two years, can rebound and create with the ball in his hands. (Consider me officially here for the Embiid-Beasley buddy cop pilot that I assume Michael Levin is already writing.)

Perhaps, though, the Sixers will elect to keep the $4.4 million room exception Bjelica has now turned down available for in-season use — maybe someone interesting shakes loose on the buyout market — and just elect to fill the gap he leaves with in-house options. They’ve got a few.

Incumbent starter Dario Saric, who blossomed into an almost perfect complementary player in Philly last year, could (and probably should) see an uptick on his 29.6 minutes per game. All-Defensive First Teamer Robert Covington, who played just under a quarter of his minutes at the four spot last season, could spend a bit more time there in small-ball lineups; according to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, Covington-at-power-forward lineups outscored Sixers opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions last season, a very strong number.

Just-imported forward Wilson Chandler’s a versatile frontcourt piece, too, having spent plenty of time at the four for the Denver Nuggets over the past couple of seasons. And Simmons, ostensibly Philly’s point guard, divided his defensive time as a rookie fairly evenly across the four guard and forward spots, according to positional analysis by Krishna Narsu, affording Brown the flexibility to be able to have his rising sophomore triggerman initiate the offense on one end and guard the opposing four on the other.

By removing a new addition from an already crunched roster — Philly’s got 14 players on guaranteed contracts — the Bjelica development might also have cracked the window open a bit for another contributor to emerge in a way that both maximizes the existing talent on hand and makes next year’s Sixers even funkier than last year’s 52-win model. Maybe hard-charging, athletic defense-first forward Justin Anderson or Summer League hero Furkan Korkmaz prove to be worth a longer look. Maybe exciting rookie Zhaire Smith gets more reps on the wing early in the season.

Maybe, after a complicated first year, Markelle Fultz emerges reborn, fully formed and firing from deep, pushing his way into the lineup at the point or two-guard spots to add another athletic presence into the mix. Maybe, with all that length and some steps forward in the shooting department, the Sixers already have more than enough answers on hand to provide whatever Bjelica would’ve offered as a shooter and complementary playmaker.

Or, maybe, the Sixers will find the gears of their offense grinding without an additional shooter to keep things running smooth, curse Bjelica’s preference head back home to Europe, and find themselves once again seeking frontcourt aid on the buyout market. Provided they sit tight and keep their powder dry, they’ll still have the room midlevel to search for another Ilyasova/Belinelli-type addition as needed in the heat of a playoff push after the calendar flips to 2019, the trade deadline passes and vets on going-nowhere squads find themselves itching for a buyout to spend late winter and early spring vying for a postseason spot.

There’s too much talent already on hand for Bjelica’s last-minute reversal to scuttle the Sixers’ chances of improving on last year’s finish. It does complicate things, though, and make an already kind of underwhelming offseason for one of the NBA’s most exciting young teams feel like a bit more of a letdown.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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