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Is Star Hunting still a viable option for the 76ers? Cap analysis, free agency, and trades

With the trade deadline in February and free agency in July can the 76ers land another superstar?

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The Philadelphia 76ers have won five out of six, and are off to a good start during a brutal leg of their schedule. And while the players and coaches may be hyper focused on their next opponent, the collaborative front office has some huge decisions to consider regarding the club’s future. There are big names popping up in trade rumors on a daily basis, and some A-List stars are set to test the market this summer.

So are the Sixers still star hunting? It seems some fans hope so:

If the Sixers are still in the market for a star like they were before acquiring Jimmy Butler then they will have their work cut out for them. But it’s critical to understand what the options are this summer in order to properly evaluate the types of trade rumors we will hear over the coming weeks. Acquiring Mike Conley from the Memphis Grizzlies tomorrow costs them the chance to keep Butler and also sit down with Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson in July. But a bird in hand... you know. Plenty to consider. So let’s review the possibilities ahead.

The Situation

Recently Zach Lowe reported that the Sixers want to re-sign Butler this summer. Per ESPN:

The Sixers went into the Butler experience with eyes wide open, and still hope to re-sign him this summer, sources say.

If that’s the case, the team is looking at just shy of $20m in cap space this summer if they retain Butler’s cap hold for 150% of his salary this year (all cap figures in this piece were calculated from EarlyBirdRights.com, an invaluable resource). It’s essentially the last summer (before Ben Simmons signs an extension) that they will have so much cap space.

That number ($19.9) factors in retaining T.J. McConnell, something Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN has implied they might want to do. It also projects them for the 26th pick in the upcoming draft.[1]

Now Keith Pompey doesn’t think the Sixers can lure any A-listers.

Per his Philly.com podcast:

“free agents at least A-list free agents…are not signing with the 76ers. You know, I’m sorry that’s just how it is.”

But let’s just say the team wanted to try. Kevin Durant is the A-lister. He will be a free agent and heading into his 12th season can command upwards of $38m so he’s out of the equation (unless Butler does not re-sign).

But max level players in the 7-9 year experience range would cost a new team $32.7m in the first year of a four-year deal. That list could include players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kris Middleton, Kemba Walker, and Tobias Harris.

Some Examples

If the Sixers were to retain Butler for the max $188.7m over five years he will be eligible for, it’s very difficult to also offer $32.7m to a player like Kyrie Irving. For example, if Philadelphia kept everyone under contract for next year except Markelle Fultz (by trading him for expiring salary) they could offer $28.6m to a free agent. That would be about $4m less (in the first year) than Irving were eligible for and would cost Irving around a total of $17m over the four years.[2]

In fact, if the team traded away Markelle Fultz, Zhaire Smith, and their upcoming first round pick for no returning salary they would still only have $32m available to offer; still shy of the requisite $32.7m for this type of player.

Threading the needle precisely would allow the team to keep Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Butler, McConnell’s cap hold and their upcoming 2019 first round pick while gutting the rest of the roster to reach the requisite $32.7m they’d need.

Compromises

Butler and Irving have long been the subject of rumors pairing them together. Butler once stated Irving would be his top choice for a teammate if he could choose among superstars. For arguments sake, we’ll continue to use Irving as an example.

A lineup with Butler, Embiid, Simmons and Irving would be top heavy and a questionable fit chemistry wise. Filling in the rest of the roster with minimum salaried bargains would be difficult and the team would be fragile with so many eggs in just four baskets; although they might very well be finals favorites as well.

That scenario is not for the faint of heart although if the team agreed in principle with Irving, Thompson or Leonard it seems unlikely they would (or should) balk. It’s too much high end talent to walk away from. The decision becomes a bit trickier if the name is Middleton, Walker or Harris.

But what if the front office could convince Butler and/or possibly another star to take a small pay-cut? It would take some sacrifice from one or both to realistically work.

Let’s say the Sixers wanted to keep Embiid, Simmons, Landry Shamet, Zhaire Smith, and accrue 7 empty roster charges. That leaves them with a max offer for Butler and ~$31.4m (a total of $134,928,619 over four years) for Irving. If Irving were ok leaving about $6m on the table (over four years) it becomes feasible for Philadelphia. For remaining roster spots they’d be left with minimum deals and one Room Exception for a two-year deal starting at $4.76m.

There are also ways Butler and a fourth star could “split the cost” and each sacrifice a little. Assuming this might be a joint negotiation process, there are myriad ways to make it work depending on each player’s preferences. If they both insisted on an absolute max, the Sixers would almost certainly have to part with Zhaire Smith using this example.

For what it’s worth, Zach Lowe said yesterday on his podcast that he doesn’t think Butler will get a full five-year max. Perhaps the “compromise” could come from Butler.

If this last situation played out, ownership would have one year (before Simmons is eligible for extension) to avoid what quickly becomes a very expensive team given the NBA luxury tax. Although that is something ownership has indicated they would be willing to do in the past to field a contender and deliver the city a championship.

Ramifications for the upcoming trade deadline

In order to create a scenario where the Sixers can afford a player like Thompson, Leonard, or Irving the Sixers don’t have to do too much before the trade deadline. They are positioned so that the assets they would likely need to move (like their first round pick, Fultz, McConnell, Smith or Jonah Bolden, ) are either relatively inexpensive or will have a significant market come July.

They don’t need to view any of their assets as “salary dumps” nor should they feel any pressure to unload a young player with upside before the deadline. If they got a ‘yes’ from Butler and another star in July they could figure it out then.

That being said, the upcoming free agency period and its enormous bearing on the team’s future somewhat mitigates the risk of parting with these assets as well. For example, if the Sixers were to part with Fultz or their own first round pick for immediate help in the form of a cost controlled or expiring contract, it might “hurt less” knowing it opens up more possibilities (via cap space) for star hunting come July; while also improving the team’s chances come playoff time, something that could make signing longterm in Philly more appealing.

Knocking the Raptors, Celtics, or Bucks out of the playoffs could carry the double benefit of making Philly more appealing to free agents on their own team (like Butler) while also shaking up an opponent’s core. This works the other way as well. A disappointing loss in the second round could increase the chances of not re-signing Butler or luring any other top end talent.

With so much at stake, there is certainly incentive to remain aggressive this deadline.

Many of the stars discussed in this piece are not likely to join the Sixers. Knowing this, the front office could consider “hedging” their bets and looking towards B-list players who could become available for a fraction of the cost. Think: could Atlanta’s Taurean Prince give you 65 percent of what Tobias Harris offers for one-tenth the salary next season?

And of course there is Anthony Davis, a player who would rock the entire NBA landscape if he changed teams and he was recently linked to Philadelphia by Chris Sheridan of Get More Sports.

Most likely the Sixers will make some non-seismic shifts this trade deadline. But either way it’s fun to think about some of the different possibilities they may be considering. Buckle up.

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[1] Should Philadelphia finish where 538.com projects, they’d drop to the 27th pick and that would marginally increase their spend. The team improving their conference standing became more likely with Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo getting injured last night. This is not likely to be the difference between landing a star versus a role player but a little extra cap space come July is one more reason to root for the team as it chases home court advantage.

[2] If for example Irving were deciding between that type of deal and a full max in Boston he’d be leaving around $76m on the table in total. It seems highly unlikely a star of his caliber would do that. It seems at least possible that a player like Tobias Harris on the other hand might be obtainable for somewhat less than a full max.