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The Sixers have been short on wings and excitement this offseason, and they attempted to solve at least one of those problems on Monday evening, agreeing to a one-year deal with veteran Kelly Oubre Jr.
Oubre’s deal with the Sixers is for the veteran’s minimum, PHLY Sports confirmed on Monday evening.
Looking at the situation from Oubre’s perspective, this is about as good of a landing spot as he could hope for late in the offseason. Jalen McDaniels’ exit in free agency and Philadelphia’s subsequent moves left the Sixers with few true wings on the roster. One could argue that Danuel House Jr. was the only true wing on the roster, with their other options either forwards masquerading as wings (Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker) or guards pulling the reverse job (a la De’Anthony Melton).
Whatever Oubre’s weaknesses are, and we’ll get to them in a second, he is a small forward with prototypical size, good athletic traits, and a decent set of score-first skills. You’re not going to run a ton of offense through him if you want to win, but he can put it on the floor if you ask, finish around the rim, and make a catch-and-shoot three here and there as long as you can deal with wild swings in effectiveness.
If nothing else, Oubre is confident, and he will get shots up if you simply tell him he’s permitted to let it fly. On an undermanned Hornets team last season, he got up over seven threes per game, which would have been more than every Sixers player not named James Harden. Oubre got to do basically whatever he wanted in Charlotte, and it was enough to pile up counting stats to the tune of 20.3 points per game, the high mark of his career to date. And the Sixers have long been in need of more players who see an open shot opportunity and seize it.
Unfortunately, Oubre only connected on 31.9 percent of those threes and has been below-average from deep throughout his career, which helps tell the story of his career and why he was available on a minimum contract in mid-September. It’s the Jeff Goldblum question from Jurassic Park:
The reason you have to use phrases like “prototypical size” to describe the merits of an eight-year pro like Oubre is that there has often been a gulf between what he is or should be good at and what he tends to do on a basketball court. Shot selection has been a constant problem for him throughout his career, mostly because Oubre is a tunnel-vision player. When the ball swings his way, there’s a better chance than not that a shot is going up.
Oubre has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league at sharing the basketball:
|Season||Assist to Usage Ratio|
|2019-20||0.32 (7th percentile)|
|2020-21||0.34 (5th percentile)|
|2021-22||0.30 (5th percentile)|
|2022-23||0.24 (1st percentile)|
Those numbers are ugly. There’s a fine line between having the confidence to succeed as an NBA role player and losing sight of team structure. While the Sixers have been in need of players with more confidence to let it rip on the swing, there does need to be some understanding of when to continue moving the ball vs. when to let a shot fly.
For a player to justify that level of black-hole play, they would have to be an absolute dynamite scorer, and Oubre has not been that. Scaling on a good team (a distinction the 2022-23 Hornets do not qualify for) has been difficult for him. Golden State’s acquisition of Oubre was viewed as a coup in 2020-21, but he ended up being an odd fit in their free-flowing, motion-based offense that relies on pace, cohesion, and sacrifice.
That doesn’t make this a poor signing for Philadelphia. On a one-year deal for the minimum, Oubre is a low-risk signing who might be able to find a niche for the Sixers as a play finisher and (theoretical) defender. In the event that James Harden buys back in and re-joins the team, Oubre makes even more sense as a cutter and slasher who will move off of the ball-dominant Harden/Embiid combo. By taking self-creation out of Oubre’s hands, a talented passer like Harden would take the burden of decision-making off of him and allow him to focus on what he’s best at. He’s also a potential weapon in transition, if only as a lane-filler and lob threat.
Will he be an asset on defense to make up for these concerns? The short answer is maybe sometimes. You can throw him at a wider variety of matchups than Melton, for example, strictly on the back of the size difference. If you can keep him engaged away from the play, there’s also a world where he’s an interesting weakside defender in lineups with Embiid, perhaps even scaling up and playing minutes at the four. He does have the length and hops to challenge shots at the rim if guards funnel drivers toward the big man in the middle. And Nurse has loved turning long, athletic defenders loose and Oubre could be an asset jumping into passing lanes and as part of the plan to trap ballhandlers.
In a world without Harden, however, there will be concern over Oubre’s ability to play winning basketball on a team that will need to playmake by committee to make up for the star guard’s absence. Tyrese Maxey would have plenty of growing pains as the full-time floor general, and as Maxey learns the balance between deferring and leading, a shot-happy wing like Oubre could end up with a larger share of the offense than he ought to. Look hard enough at this signing within the context of Philadelphia’s current roster and you can certainly find a way to say, “Hey, I get it.” The problem at this juncture is that other teams have felt the same way, only to let Oubre move on to the next opportunity without much of a fuss.
The Sixers are making a lot of bets on players exceeding expectations on prove-it deals, which might pay off in a big way before major cap space opens up next summer. Maybe you get bounce-back years from veterans who need the right opportunity in the right spot, and you still preserve the upside of a spending spree in 2024. But getting the best from Kelly Oubre in Philly might require buy-in from the star currently at odds with the franchise, which isn’t a comforting thought.