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A Return to Optionality: the NBA trade deadline and the Sixers’ future

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

April 6, 2016. It’s been almost four years since Sam Hinkie “resigned” and so much of the process we came to know and love, died. Whether it’s been the disturbing trend of selling 2nd round picks, the inability to fairly evaluate player values in trades, or simply looking at the overall roster construction around the team’s two centerpieces, the current front office has done little to instill confidence in the fan base.

The most disturbing part for me, however, is the corner they have seemingly painted themselves into with the Al Horford contract. You can check the receipts, but I was legitimately terrified when it became clear that Horford was about to be the Sixers main free agent prize after hoarding max cap space for THREE seasons. Like any good fan, I obviously talked myself into it. It would hurt the Celtics (theoretically), provide cover for the inevitable 25 games Embiid won’t play, yada, yada, yada. At this point, we’ve all made the “should’ve signed Brogdon/should’ve signed Bojan/should’ve brought back JJ and used the rest of the money on quality veteran bench pieces” arguments. Unfortunately, there is nothing we (or they) can do about it now.

However, as we approach the scary final few days of another Elton Brand led deadline, I do believe there may be a way out. While I’d be a proponent of almost any deal that would ship Horford out of town, I think there is a unique opportunity available this summer that would allow the team to recreate some of the optionality that has slowly eroded since Sam left. Before we get to the BIG deal, though, there is one deadline move I believe the Sixers must make: trading Mike Scott and the OKC 1st for Nemanja Bjelica.

Why is trading for a Top-5 enemy of Sixers Twitter such an important move? Our good friend Derek touched on this already last week, but I want to take it a bit further. Besides how big of an upgrade he’d be over Mike Scott (sorry, Hive), and how helpful his shooting and passing would be for the team this year, it’s the construct of his contract that is even more appealing. To bring you up to speed – after reneging on a verbal agreement with the Sixers two off-seasons ago, Bjelica signed a 3-year deal, worth $20.4M. His third year – next season – is for $7.1M and is unguaranteed.

Having that sort of flexibility rather than Mike Scott’s $5M guaranteed salary on the books would be huge for a team on the brink of a catastrophic tax bill. Bjelica stinks? No biggie, you can just let him walk with no negative cap implications. Outplays his deal? Awesome, you have him at lower than an MLE salary for another year and then full bird rights. And one final benefit to consider, added to Josh Richardson’s $10.8M next season, you’d have that sort of mid-tier salary matching to go after a better player fit in the low $20M range.

So now that I’ve given you the appetizer, here is the main course. The Atlanta Hawks have the worst record in the East and seem interested, if not desperate, to add some veteran talent around a promising (as we saw on Thursday night) group of young players, led by All-Star starter Trae Young. The Hawks will have between $70-80 MILLION in cap space this summer with one of the weaker free agent classes in recent memory. The Hawks could absorb Al’s entire 2020-21 salary and still have space for a max free agent plus another $15M or so to spend.

So let’s start with what’s in it for the Hawks. Obviously we’ve seen the Andre Drummond rumors and we can only speculate what sort of deal he would get this summer on the open market with so few teams truly having cap space. Drummond does have some leverage with his ability to opt-in for his final season and be a free agent instead in what could be a more lucrative 2021 summer. My guess is an extension now would be somewhere in the 4-yr/$80-$90M range and there is still the possibility that to ensure they get him, the Hawks may have to trade something of value now to the Pistons.

Against that backdrop, a Horford reunion seems more realistic and palatable. Again only guessing, but I’d imagine the Sixers would need to give up at least (1) future protected 1st round pick to get Atlanta to bite. And while I have been made aware of some potential bad blood between Al and Atlanta with how things went down when he left town, I’m of the impression that Al still maintains an offseason home in Atlanta and I also believe time (and draft assets) can heal most wounds. Worst case, the Hawks could divert him to a third team where they’d take some smaller salaries back and possibly pick-up another asset. Even with Al’s poor play so far this season, I believe at least a couple of teams will see it more as a fit issue. If the Hawks did intend to keep Horford, the other benefit is that his deal would be expiring when it came time for what would most likely be a massive extension for Young and possibly other pieces of the Hawks young core.

So why can’t the Sixers just deal him to one of the other handful of teams mentioned above that would actually have interest in Horford? Because the best asset the Sixers can hope to come out of from a Horford trade, and the best chance they have at restoring some optionality, is a massive trade exception they would receive by trading with the Hawks this summer. Allow me to explain: by moving Al to the Hawks in a deal with no returning salary, not only would it drop Philly below the tax next year (opening back up the full MLE and possibly BAE), but would also give the Sixers a $27.5M trade exception. Here are some players that fit within that exception: Buddy Hield, Jrue Holiday, Gary Harris, Eric Gordon, Dennis Schroder, Patty Mills, Spencer Dinwiddie. Now just having a TPE alone doesn’t get you any of the aforementioned players, but it at least provides you with a pathway to doing it. Right now, the Sixers are in no man’s land. Getting this TPE and Bjelica’s contract is a massive step in the right direction.

The timing of this deal would be crucial; ideally you’d want to do it somewhere around July 5th or 6th, where you’d still have time to leverage it during this summer’s free agency when some team may be looking to dump a surprising name in favor of signing a free agent. More importantly is having it last into the very beginning of 2021 free agency when a team like the Raptors or Nets or any other team “star-hunting” has to dump a productive player or two to make room for a max free agent.

The front office got it wrong when they went all in and built this ill-fitting roster around two superstars barely in their mid-twenties. That’s ok – it’s commendable how committed they are in their convictions that Ben and Joel are championship caliber. They are. The rest of the roster currently is not, and this summer provides the first, and maybe only, chance to fix that.