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Could the Sixers cost themselves Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris by getting cold feet on paying the luxury tax?

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New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This Sixers ownership has long held that they’d be willing to pay the luxury tax. We very recently got confirmation from them in February, March and again in May that that was still the case and applied specifically to this core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.

Ever since Elton Brand made a huge splash back in early February when he added Tobias Harris to the team’s core, we’ve heard that the Sixers intend to keep this core together because they believe it’s title worthy. Even if that means paying the luxury tax. After seeing how close they were to defeating the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semi Finals, and before he even knew the Raptors would go on to plow through the Bucks and Warriors with less resistance than his Sixers showed, team owner Josh Harris was adamant he’d pay the tax once again. Per Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

“We’ve said it repeatedly and we’ll keep saying it,” team owner Josh Harris said last month. “We’re committed to do what it takes to bring a championship to Philly, including spending into the luxury tax. ... It’s a system where if you make the wrong decisions financially, you hamstring your team. So there’s a lot to consider.”

So is there any reason to think they may have changed their minds? After all, smart folks like Zach Lowe are saying things on ESPN podcasts like this:

“They’re really good. They’re close to being a championship team now. Better than I thought, better than the Raptors thought before that series. Better than anyone thought.”

But maybe they have changed their minds in the last few weeks.

Here is what Rich Bucher of Bleacher Report wrote today:

• Sub-max offers could be determining factors elsewhere as well. Tobias Harris, league sources said, is being offered less than a max contract by the Philadelphia 76ers, giving both the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets hope they can swoop in and lure him away. The Nuggets would have to renounce the rights to re-sign veteran power forward Paul Millsap, but a rival Western Conference executive said they appear willing to do that.”

Yikes. If Tobias Harris feels insulted by this, or even if he feels he can make more money in the long run than this (by getting a 3+1 and playing a featured role on a team rather than the role he played on Philadelphia, then opting out as a 10 year vet) he might leave. It’s not like the team or players carved out a major role for him when they were all in the lineup together.

In fact, Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski don’t sound at all like they know if the Sixers will offer five-year max offers for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Lowe discussed this possibility that they try to save on Harris’ fifth year of his deal which he predicted could risk insulting him:

Do you play with that 5th year? And try to get [Harris] on a little bit below the max? If you do that do you have plan B if he says ‘well screw you I’m leaving’?”

The team wouldn’t have suggested Brand offer Landry Shamet and four picks and then risk losing Harris because they wanted to offer $175m instead of $189.66 would they? Now probably isn’t the time to suddenly risk losing a potential All-Star plus what it took to land him just to save under ~$3m bucks a year spaced over 5 years is it?

Even when we’re reassured that the Sixers plan to be “aggressive” in keeping Butler, we hear equivocation in phrasing. Woj mentions the possibility of offering Butler a four-year max, (basically the same amount every other team can offer him. Per Woj for ESPN:

“The Sixers plan to be aggressive in signing Butler to a new deal, sources said, and could blunt a Rockets push with a full five-year, $190 million offer at the start of free agency on Sunday night. The Sixers could offer Butler a four-year, $146.5 million deal, too.”

A four year deal would basically be begging Butler to leave for a coastal, larger market who could offer him $141m over four years. That would be the opposite of being “aggressive” in keeping him. Now the Rockets front office believes they have “a firm place in the lead” for Butler’s services, per Kelly Iko of The Athletic. They have certainly done more than Philadelphia to demonstrate publicly how desperately they want him. Could all of their peacocking actually have an impact?

Rich Bucher’s piece mentions Butler’s desire to join LeBron James in LA. And Jackie MacMullan talks about his “wandering eye.” Woj thinks it would be hard for Butler to turn down a full five year max. If it seems difficult to gauge Butler’s mindset and that there is a bit of an auction frenzy effect here, well that’s exactly how Butler and his agent probably want it to feel.

One would think the biggest advantage the Sixers have is that they could signal publicly they’re very much prioritizing their own team and still willing to do what they’ve very recently reassured everyone they would do. Is there an advantage in leaving everyone guessing since some of the strongest suitors for Butler and Harris will only be turning to each player as fall-back plans after bigger names like Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant go elsewhere?

Tobias Harris especially has been a player that was not in the master plans for the Bucks, Magic, Pistons and Clippers. A new destination for him would be his 6th team. The Sixers could very clearly signal to him that he is absolutely their priority now if they wanted to. And maybe they have privately, who knows....

But if it feels stressful or confusing here is a possible clue as to why. On the Lowe and Woj pod linked above, Woj said this about the Sixers’ front office:

“…There are a lot of voices in Philadelphia. Elton brand is a General Manager and he is in charge but you’ve got multiple owners you have other strong voices in the front office and on the business side and sometimes this conversation goes round and round there because there isn’t an easy answer….”

As far as we know the team has already drafted up a full five-year max for Butler and Harris and each player knows that.

What we do know is this. The Sixers gave up a lot of their best trade assets to go star-hunting and that was the right idea, even if you did not love the details about each trade they made. Finding cheap talent to help stars is much much easier than getting the requisite star talent it takes to win titles in the first place. And as of now, Philadelphia has a leg up financially to maintain that edge.

(Just think, if Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets are willing to fully gut a great team to bring in a third star, shouldn’t the Sixers be willing to simply pay the full allotment of cash for their 3rd and 4th stars? By any measure they’d be a better team as is than Houston with Butler anyway, and in the East).

It wouldn’t even necessarily cost them Mike Scott or JJ Redick to do so, and certainly wouldn’t cost them Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. And it would buy them a larger exception ($9.246m) to operate as an over-the-cap team. Even with their flaws and some recent missteps, the Sixers could well be the closest the NBA has to a super team if things broke right for them in this scenario.

At least they’re in position to offer the pair of five-year max offers they always suspected they’d have to offer in order to keep this group together. If this ownership group let Elton Brand know he had the green light to spend big on Butler and Harris, with the idea of keeping them, then got to see that they were absolutely right in doing so, it would be weird to get cold feet now.

Andrew Unterberger of RightstoRickySanchez.com thinks paying would get it done:

If you were willing to pay the tax for this group in mid may when you lost to the Raptors, then almost everything that has transpired since should leave you feeling validated. The team owners were right. Not everyone knew it. This team was a title contender. Then things like the Raptors winning a title, the Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson injuries, Kyrie Irving and possibly Kawhi Leonard changing teams, all of this is further evidence. They should drop a full max on Butler and Harris. Make them feel as wanted as humanly possible. Offer their buddies and friends the type of side-jobs other teams will be offering them. Trying to offer less than that for either might well cost you both.