Elton Brand and the Sixers’ front office were willing to gamble this season. So will their biggest bets pay off? We’ll learn a lot more over the next 6-7 weeks. When Brand traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler, who was always expected to opt out of his contract and test free-agency, it placed plenty of pressure on the team to retain Butler’s services long-term. Butler at the time, it was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, preferred to play for the Los Angeles Clippers, the New York Knicks, or the Brooklyn Nets, apparently in that order; all teams who could pursue the four time All-Star this July.
Fully pivoting away from “Processing,” Brand kept his foot on the gas-pedal by trading Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, two first round picks and two second round picks for free agent to be Tobias Harris, as well as Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanović. Now there is a ton of pressure on Brand and the Sixers self-proclaimed “collaborative front office” to retain one or both of the biggest acquisitions of the year, Butler and Harris.
To help me venture guesses about how the team might look by the start of next season, I enlisted some help from Jeff Siegel, Founder of earlybirdrights.com and NBA salary cap wizard. Jeff was generous with his time, feedback and cap-creativity for all the scenarios below.
[Be sure to follow Jeff on Twitter @jgsiegel, and on his site’s handle as well @earlybirdrights. Jeff’s articles tend to be the best source of available info on NBA cap-related topics as he takes things a few steps further than mainstream outlets do. For fans who crave more details but don’t understand all the cap complexities (like me) it’s a must-visit.]
As a disclaimer, The Athletic’s Derek Bodner started his own must-read cap analysis, including many of the same themes this piece will explore. Theirs was published today before this piece, although the Liberty Ballers’ cap-analysis was completed last night, pending final edits from EarlyBirdRights.com. This was written entirely before any one of us had a chance to read The Athletic’s terrific and thorough cap-breakdown.
Without further ado, let’s dive into a few of the burning questions the team faces this summer.
What if the team is able to convince Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and JJ Redick to stay, how might the full-roster look?
This first version above is an approximation of a roster iteration which assumes two things: 1) Harris and Butler get max contracts, and 2) team ownership wants to kick the luxury tax can down the road a year (when Ben Simmons, who is expected to sign a max-extension this summer, gets a huge raise).
Now Managing Partner Josh Harris has stated team ownership is willing to pay the tax, which would be a big competitive advantage for Philadelphia. This ownership group does not have a history as taxpayers, and they’ve almost certainly been able to save some cash during all of the relatively inexpensive “Process” years spent hovering around the salary floor. But if they were still concerned about repeater taxes down the road, above is how they could avoid the tax in 2019-2020, while still retaining their core.
As you can see, it’s extremely tight, it requires JJ Redick take a well-below-market deal and it still leaves little flexibility, posing many of the same depth issues that doomed the team against Toronto in the playoffs.
In this example above, the entire Mid-Level Exception ($9.246m) has not been used yet, leaving Philadelphia a bit of spend should a player become available via trade or buyout market. Recall the Detroit Pistons were recently able to swoop in and sign Wayne Ellington this winter because they had more than the minimum to offer him, utilizing a similar strategy of retaining some of their MLE for later.
Optionality: Straddling the Luxury Tax Fence
In the above example, the team gives max contracts to Harris and Butler and again retains Redick at a below-market rate. Here they have crossed the luxury tax threshold ($132m) but duck the “Apron,” maintaining the larger Non-Taxpayer’s MLE exception. They used some but not all of that MLE for 2nd rounders, and a cheap free agent. Of course, paying Harris and Butler less than a full max each would loosen the belt a little, though failing to offer them top-dollar is a very dangerous game with big-market suitors - each player has already been linked to - circling the waters.
The advantage above is that they can take a “wait-and-see” approach to being taxpayers as the season progresses. If a potential trade arises, or the buyout market presents opportunity, they could pounce and go “all-in.” In this instance, they have used just $5.711m of the full Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. This could be utilized to offer a signing player more cash beyond the 2019-20 season. For example, if a player signed a contract that spans three years max (including options) and starts at $5.711M; the advantage here is, say weeks or months into the season the team decided the window was open for a title run, they could take on more salary (via trade or buyout), remain tax payers, and even surpass the apron ($138.21m). Doing that would decrease the size of the exception they were allowed to offer from $9.246m down to $5.711m. They would be covered for that possibility in advance and could retroactively apply the lesser exception to whichever player accepted the $5.711m contract back during the summer.
If they decided this wasn’t their year (maybe a surprise tailspin or an injury to a star) they could trade out of the tax.
I know, it’s a mouthful.
Siegel’s crafty suggestion here is a very complicated way of saying the team could keep their main core together, and decide at some point during next season whether or not to accrue tax penalties in order to support their big five. The benefit is that by beginning the season by straddling the fence they leave themselves wiggle room to go all-in or save some money/cap-assets* for the future.
If you’d like them to “run it back” like many fans (and the front office) presumably do, above is one of your best-case scenarios. The Sixers’ starting 5 performed almost as well as any other unit and really just needed time to gel plus a bench to allow them some more rest.
Of course, the tricky part will be convincing the key free agents (Butler, Harris, Redick) to take the Sixers’ money. If they can’t....
Butler Leaves, Harris Stays for a Max
In this instance, Butler has abandoned “The Process,” likely for NY or L.A., which leaves the Sixers over the cap but well-under the tax. The size of the exception here decreases to the Room Exception ($4.761m). Some breathing room for ownership’s wallets until next year. But potentially less talent (and jersey sales).
By stretching Jonathon Simmons, there is just enough room to replace Butler with, say, Danny Green and Cory Joseph (or other free agents for comparable salary totals) and retain Redick and Mike Scott. As you can see, the team spends much less overall in this instance than the prior ones; Green and Joseph here make far less combined than just Butler. That’s a testament to the value of having a player’s Bird Rights, something the Sixers placed a premium on in their two blockbuster trades this season.
While it’s fun to play “arbitrage” games like “would you rather sign Tobias Harris for five years at $190m or Malcolm Brogdon for four years $92m deal?” the truth is that because of Bird Rights, a team may not get to actually spend (some or all of) what appears to be savings if they opt for the free-agent leaving a rival team. It’s closer to an either-or-choice where ownership simply winds up paying extra as a team goes above the cap to retain players already on the roster.
The above case where Butler leaves is a good thing if you prefer the flexibility of smaller contracts like Green and Joseph to Butler at a max plus a vet-min deal. It’s a bad thing if you don’t think this (or another) duo can make up Butler’s skill set.
Tobias Harris leaves, Jimmy Butler stays for the max
Butler has a bigger cap hold than Harris. If Butler were to leave and Harris were to stay it would create more to spend than the other way around. A big part of Harris’ value is that he takes up less space with his cap hold than Butler does ($8.4m less). In this instance above, Harris abandons “The Process” and there is about $27m to distribute among JJ Redick and a couple of free agents. Maybe Danny Green or Pat Beverley plus a $3.5m player?
For what it’s worth, I don’t love the Sixers’ chances of keeping both Butler and Harris. I think their odds increase of keeping either if the other leaves since there will simply be more shots to go around and the sales pitch probably becomes easier.
Butler and Harris both leave in FA
This one isn’t pretty unless the Sixers are landing at least one marquis K-named free agent (e.g. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton). It means the team burned almost every non-Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons asset that “The Process” accrued and has little to show for it except cap-space on a secondary FA market.
Here they could keep Redick and then go big for a restricted free agent like Malcolm Brogdon, praying Milwaukee isn’t motivated to keep a potential championship roster together. Then target a couple players like Danny Green, Pat Beverley, Jeremy Lamb, Kelly Oubre, Dewayne Dedmon, and explore sign-and-trade possibilities.
There are loads of players to look at in some of the different scenarios above. Keeping the Sixers’ current core in town will mean playing the margins on vet-min contracts, hitting on late round picks, divvying up salary exceptions, trading, and being ready to pounce in buyout markets. Losing one or both of Harris and Butler will mean much bigger decisions ahead. The potential swings this summer are massive and will certainly impact whether or not they can build a roster capable of helping (or leading) Embiid and Simmons to a title.
*Things like their Bi-Annual Exception