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Sixers Pull Off Superb Recovery With Muscala Deal

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers’ trade of TLC and Justin Anderson for Mike Muscala looks like a solid deal, with two deep-bench players being traded for a big who is better than either of them. But in fact the deal is even better for the Sixers than it appears, a real coup, though of course a minor one. Still, even though a Mike Muscala deal is never going to have the impact of a trade for a star, getting the little things right is the hallmark of a well-run team, and this was a little thing the Sixers got right.

First, Muscala is good. He put up positive offensive and defensive RPM last year, making him the 33rd-rated center overall. The year before he was almost as good. He shoots in the high 30s from three and does it on volume; in particular last year he shot 5.7 threes per 36, which would be a lot if he were a wing and is really a lot given that he’s a big man, and hit 37% despite playing on an Atlanta team that was not brimming with other threats for opponents to focus on. His 8 rebounds and 2 stocks per 36 are solid and are consistent with the suggestion from the on-off numbers that he is average, not a liability, defensively. Again, there’s no pretending he’s a star; but plenty of teams are starting guys at center or PF who have less-impressive numbers than Muscala’s, and for us he’ll be fighting to avoid being #3 at either of those positions (battling Amir for backup C and Chandler for backup PF).

So, great, we added a solid player and didn’t give up much. Look, both Justin and TLC are young enough that they could still develop into good players. But they are unlikely to be good this year, and a year from now Justin will be a free agent while TLC will have just one year left on his deal. We have a number of wing players who are either younger, better, more promising, or some combination thereof, including Robert Covington, JJ Redick, Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, Wilson Chandler, and three guys who can play both point and wing, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and TJ McConnell. It was hard to see a path to playing time for TLC or Anderson.

But, the thing was, they had guaranteed contracts. So they really were creating a problem. They were filling two roster spots with players that Brett Brown didn’t want to use in situations that mattered. But the obvious solution — cutting them — would have been very costly. That’s because once you cut a player, their cap money is dead for the year, with no hope of resurrection. Recall this was the reason that, despite intense pressure from the media, it was important for the Sixers not to cut Jahlil Okafor last year — by keeping him on the roster, we kept alive the possibility of trading him along with other assets for a player who earned real money. The player they ended up getting, Trevor Booker, was not a great fit, and in the end we got incredibly lucky and were able to add Ersan for the veteran minimum in the buyout market. Consequently the fact that we preserved Jah’s cap money by not cutting him ended up not mattering. But you know, if there’s a 60% chance of rain and you bring an umbrella and it doesn’t rain, that doesn’t mean bringing the umbrella was foolish. It could easily have turned out that another team was interested in Ersan and Atlanta told us they’d only trade him to us for a second-rounder. We’d have been eager to do it but with Jah’s money dead, it would likely not have been possible. Whereas the ability to include Booker in such a deal — even if Atlanta cut him right after the trade — might have made the whole thing go. (In point of fact Booker made more than Ersan, so if you prefer do this example with another, higher-paid player than Ilyasova to make the cap math work).

Oh, and this is also the reason the constant calls for the Sixers to cut or buy out Jerryd Bayless are misguided. I mean, if Bayless were willing to be bought out for a pittance, then, sure, great. But that’s not likely. What people expect is that Bayless will take a buyout for something like the difference between his contract and the veteran minimum, a gap of $6 or $7 million. I see almost no chance the Sixers will be desperate enough for a roster spot to make such a move wise; killing all that cap money would be most unfortunate. Imagine if, at the trade deadline, Minnesota is willing to trade Jimmy Butler for draft picks and expiring contracts. With our current roster we could offer Wilson Chandler, Bayless, and picks, and, if the Wolves accept, have a team that is probably the best in the East. If we buy out Bayless, then we’ll be reading media reports about how the only way to make the cap number work is to add in Markelle Fultz! Let’s not put ourselves in that position, shall we?

The upshot is, it really would have been bad to cut TLC and JA just to fit everyone on the roster. But not cutting them would have left us thin in terms of quality guys. So much so that a trade of JA and TLC plus a second-rounder or something in return for the dreaded “minor cash considerations” would not have been out of the question, or necessarily a bad idea.

But instead of having to give something up to clear their roster spots while preserving the cap slot, we got a good player in return — remarkable! I understand this stuff can be confusing, and I admit my explanation here will win no Pulitzers for its crystal clarity. So let me explain it another way:

  1. A week ago we had Bjelica, Justin, and TLC, and I thought that was a good-not-great situation, good because Bjelica is good, not great because JA and TLC aren’t, but we couldn’t cut them without painful consequences.
  2. Muscala is around as good as Bjelica; perhaps a bit less good last year but at age 27 rather than 30 his expectation for this season is probably very similar as players generally get better going from 26 to 27 and get worse going from 29 to 30.
  3. So we had Bjelica, TLC and JA, which I was happy with. Then we lost Bjelica, and I was bummed. But now we have replaced Bjelica with Muscala (breakeven) and JA+TLC with $4.4M in cap space (huge upgrade). This, of course, because Bjelica reneging means we now have the $4.4M “room exception” free again.
  4. So in fact we’re better off now than we were 5 days ago, when I was happy, even though we suffered a setback (loss of Bjelica) in the interim. We nade the Bjelica-ditching lemon into sweet, sweet Muscala-plus-cap-space lemonade!

With reports now coming that the Sixers have another deal in the works we may quickly see that $4.4M converted into a real, live, quality player, which, were it to happen, would make this whole story a lot clearer. But I’d be fine if we just hold the room exception for use at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. We’ll see how it plays out. But for now, the Sixers took care of their need for a player to fill the backup-4-in-the-regular-season, stretch-5-in-the-playoffs role that has become so important in the NBA, and did it in a way that preserves what could be crucial millions in cap space. Let’s hope the next move is just as shrewd. Word is just out — literally I finished the above article and am now adding this! — that the Sixers are talking with Cleveland about a deal of the form “Bayless plus something for Korver.” Obviously the appeal of that deal depends on what the “something” is, but if it’s second-rounders, it’s a fantastic deal for us; Korver was an exceptional player this past year and even with the risks associated with aging, he is, in expectation, a tremendous addition. Last year the top five shooting guards in RPM were, in order:

Jimmy Butler

Victor Oladipo

Tyreke Evans

Kyle Korver

Donovan Mitchell

The usual caveat that RPM is mysterious and imperfect applies. I won’t do a deep dive on KK as this is just an addendum to a piece on the Muscala deal, but I’ll say this: per RPM, Korver was awful the year before last. But over the 4 years ESPN has computed RPM other than last year, Korver has ranked 4th, 1st, 7th, and 1st among SGs. And he’s generally been a plus defensively, which is rare at SG. Even counting the lousy year, he’s well over a +2 average across the five-year span. My guess is only Butler has rated better at the position.

So if we can get a guy like that without sacrificing a significant asset, that would be amazing. And even if we had to give up our 2019 first-rounder, it’s a good deal — recall people thought it might cost us a first to shed Bayless even without getting a fine player back in return. Fingers crossed!