Nine years after beginning the Process, the Sixers are now in the endgame.
Former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie and current team president Daryl Morey both love the term “optionality,” but that’s a thing of the past in Philadelphia. The Sixers owe three of their next five first-round picks to either the Brooklyn Nets (unprotected in 2023, top-eight-protected in 2027) or Oklahoma City Thunder (top-six-protected in 2025), and they’re in luxury-tax territory for the third straight year.
The Sixers further restricted their financial flexibility this offseason by signing P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. with the non-taxpayer mid-level exceptions and bi-annual exception, respectively. Because of those signings, they can’t cross the $156.983 million luxury-tax apron at any point between now and June 30, which limits their options on the trade market.
The apron restriction will expire next July, which will give the Sixers a little more wiggle room next offseason. But with Joel Embiid’s supermax extension kicking in then and James Harden in line for a massive new contract as well, they’ll likely be limited to only the taxpayer mid-level exception (currently projected to be $7.0 million) and veteran-minimum contracts ($2.0 million).
Those limitations make it more imperative than ever for the Sixers to hit their moves on the margins. Armed with few draft picks and even fewer ways to upgrade their roster in free agency, they can’t afford to whiff with the minimal resources that they have.
To Morey’s credit, he’s been far better in that regard than his predecessor. Snagging Tyrese Maxey with the No. 21 overall pick in 2020 was his biggest win by far, one that could change the long-term trajectory of the franchise. Convincing Harden to opt out and re-sign for less was also a game-changing move that enabled them to sign both Tucker and House this offseason.
Beyond that, trading Josh Richardson and an early second-round pick for Seth Curry in 2020 was a coup. The same goes for cutting his losses on Al Horford, especially since it only cost a lightly protected first-round pick and brought back Danny Green. Re-signing Green to a partially guaranteed two-year, $20 million contract last summer gave the Sixers additional flexibility, particularly in the wake of him tearing his ACL and LCL in the playoffs. And Andre Drummond, whom they signed to a one-year minimum deal last offseason, had enough trade appeal to be included in the package for Harden in February.
Not every move has been a home run, though. The George Hill trade made sense on paper, but it wound up being a flop. Isaiah Joe has yet to live up to his pre-draft reputation as a sharpshooter. The early returns on 2021 first-round pick Jaden Springer haven’t been encouraging, either. (Especially considering that the New Orleans Pelicans snagged standout wing stopper Herb Jones seven picks later.) Paul Reed and Charles Bassey have intriguing upside for late-second-round picks, but it’s unclear whether either of them will reach it in Philadelphia.
Although the Sixers won’t have a first-round pick in the 2023 draft, they will have two second-round picks—their own and the best of Atlanta, Charlotte and Brooklyn’s—provided that the league office doesn’t strip one as a result of its ongoing tampering investigation. They’ll also have their own first- and second-round picks in 2024, but they won’t have either a first- or second-rounder in 2025. (Both are headed to OKC.)
With the Sixers firmly in win-now mode, those picks are likely to come toward the bottom of their respective rounds in the next few years, making it that much more difficult to find instant-impact contributors. One need only look at Maxey or Jones to see how much of a difference a single non-lottery home run can make on a team’s trajectory, though.
The same goes for the Sixers’ free-agency moves next summer and beyond. They already have an estimated $116.8 million of guaranteed salary on their books. If Harden signs for anything close to a max contract, they’ll be bumping up against the projected $161 million luxury-tax threshold, which will limit them to only the taxpayer MLE and minimum deals.
The Sixers have used their mid-level exception well since Morey came aboard. They inked Joe, Reed and Bassey to three-year deals using portions of the MLE, and they snagged Georges Niang on a two-year, $6.7 million contract last offseason with part of it as well. It’s too early to know either way how Tucker and House will fare, but the Sixers won’t have many avenues to replace either one if they don’t pan out.
The silver lining is that unlike his predecessor, Morey has a keen eye for operating efficiently on the margins. That doesn’t mean every one of his moves will succeed, but he seems to have a clear vision of the archetypes with whom he wants to surround Embiid and Harden. The signing of reigning G League MVP Trevelin Queen this offseason suggests that Morey and the Sixers’ scouting department are trying to find creative ways to bring in fresh, young talent despite their lack of draft picks and salary-cap space moving forward.
Whether they succeed in that mission—and whether those players can crack head coach Doc Rivers’ rotation—may help determine how long the Embiid-Harden era lasts in Philly.