One month into the 2022-23 NBA season, injuries have wreaked havoc on the Sixers.
James Harden suffered a foot strain against the Washington Wizards in early November and isn’t expected to return for another few weeks. Tyrese Maxey suffered a small fracture in his left foot Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks and is expected to miss the next three-to-four weeks, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Joel Embiid is now out for at least the next two games with a left mid-foot sprain, the team announced Monday.
Tobias Harris has missed the past two games with left hip soreness, although he’s listed as probable for Tuesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets. Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Jaden Springer are all nursing injuries as well. At this point, it might be easier to name the Sixers players who aren’t hurt.
Although the shorthanded Sixers put up a valiant fight Saturday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, that loss exposed their limitations. With De’Anthony Melton and Shake Milton as the only two healthy guards, the Sixers turned the ball over a season-high 22 times and went through multiple prolonged scoring droughts before staging a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
While some fans are already clamoring for reinforcements—go check out Daryl Morey’s Twitter mentions before Elon Musk murders that hellsite for good—that will be easier said than done. They can’t sign players to 10-day contracts until Jan. 5, and trade restrictions, their proximity to the luxury-tax apron and their relative lack of salary-matching contracts will hinder their ability to make a big splash on the trade market for now.
The Sixers do have an open roster spot, but they don’t appear inclined to sign someone as a short-term fix, a source told Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice on Monday. “The team still values the extra room they have against the hard cap in this case, viewing that as more valuable in potential trades than it would be if the team were to sign somebody off of the street right now,” he added.
Since the Sixers signed P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception and bi-annual exception, respectively, they cannot exceed the $156.983 million luxury-tax apron at any point between now and June 30. They currently have $151.4 million in salary on their books, which leaves them roughly $5.5 million below the apron.
Anyone who they’d sign to fill that open roster spot would push them that much closer to the hard cap. It would also affect their flexibility leading up to the trade deadline, as their open roster spot allows them to swing a two-for-one or three-for-two trade without having to dump anyone.
Don’t expect a trade anytime soon, either. The Sixers can’t trade anyone whom they signed in free agency this past offseason—Tucker, House, James Harden or Montrezl Harrell—until Dec. 15. Harden can also veto any trade since the Sixers have his Bird rights and he could be in the final year of his contract (provided he declines his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season).
It’s hard to imagine the Sixers trading Harden or Tucker regardless, but House and Harrell could be valuable salary-matching chips leading up to the deadline. For someone who typically values optionality, Morey would likely prefer being able to include them in trades as needed. That means waiting until Dec. 15 at the earliest.
The bigger issue is making the money work on any prospective deal. As a taxpaying team, they can receive no more than 125 percent of the salary they send out in a deal, plus $100,000. Balancing those rules against their proximity to the apron will be among their biggest challenges while negotiating trades over the next few months.
For instance, say the Sixers were hoping to acquire exiled Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder, who is making nearly $10.2 million this season. They would have to send out almost $8.1 million to bring him back in. Korkmaz ($5 million) could serve as the main salary filler, but beyond that, Thybulle ($4.4 million) and Georges Niang ($3.5 million) are the only two realistic trade candidates earning enough to make it a two-for-one deal. Once Dec. 15 comes around, they could include House ($4.1 million) instead of Thybulle or Niang.
Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon was another popular rumored Sixers target throughout the offseason, but he’d be even more complicated to acquire. He’s earning almost $19.6 million this season, so the Sixers would have to send out nearly $15.6 million in salary to acquire him. Unless they included Harris ($37.6 million), Tucker ($10.5 million) or Melton ($8.3 million), they would have to send out at least four players for salary-matching purposes (Korkmaz, Thybulle, House and one of Niang or Harrell).
Hypothetically, if the Sixers did trade Korkmaz, Thybulle, House and Harrell for Gordon, they’d be left with 11 players under contract and would be only $1.9 million below the apron. While veteran-minimum contracts do prorate based on how much of the season is remaining—they would cost roughly $600,000 right after the trade deadline—the Sixers would have to stagger their ensuing signings to ensure they remained under the apron.
Given their relative lack of salary-matching contracts, the Sixers might have only one big move left to make this year. While it might be tempting to patch their backcourt holes until Harden and/or Maxey return, they’d be better off standing pat and re-evaluating their needs once they’re closer to full strength. If anything, they could probe the free-agent market for a guard who’s willing to sign a two-way contract for now. (Neubeck reported Monday that they’re “in the process of looking at potential upgrades on who they have signed” to two-way deals.)
By late January or early February, the Sixers should have a far more complete picture of their biggest needs. Even though the next few weeks might be rough without Harden, Maxey and perhaps Embiid, it would behoove them to remain patient given their financial restrictions.