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The Sixers might thread the needle on the gap-year plan thanks to the James Harden trade

Daryl Morey wanted the Sixers to be competitive this year while maintaining flexibility after the James Harden trade. Mission accomplished?

Philadelphia 76ers Introduce New Players - Press Conference Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In July, Sixers team president Daryl Morey explained his long-term vision for the team in the wake of James Harden’s trade request.

“What we’re attempting to do is have the best team possible this year, but also have the ability that, if we get into a next-season situation, to be a very unique team with the most cap room of a team that’s as good as us,” he told 97.5 The Fanatic’s Anthony Gargano. “That’s a very unique situation to have.”

Three-and-a-half months later, he appears to have accomplished that mission.

The Sixers are sending Harden, P.J. Tucker and Filip Petrusev to the Los Angeles Clippers for the expiring contracts of Marcus Morris Sr., Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Kenyon Martin Jr., two future first-round picks, a first-round pick swap and two future second-round picks, according to multiple reports. While the Sixers still appear to be a tier below the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks in the East, they’re comfortably in the playoff picture and now have the optionality to find a third star to pair with Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.

We shouldn’t get carried away after two early-season wins over the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers, both of whom might not even make the play-in tournament, much less the playoffs. With that said, the vibes around the Sixers have been shockingly positive so far, particularly with the noxious Harden cloud hanging over them up until Tuesday.

Under new head coach Nick Nurse, the Sixers have noticeably more ball and player movement than they did under Doc Rivers. Embiid, whose long-term future in Philadelphia came into question this summer amidst the Harden drama—which was in part his own doing—sounds elated about the new offensive system thus far.

“The pace that we’re playing at, we’re playing fast,” Embiid said after the win over the Blazers. “The ball is moving. Guys are cutting. You know, I’ve been preaching that since training camp started: I’m gonna find you. Cut to mean it. Just expect the ball, ‘cause I’m gonna find you. And I think guys are starting to get it. Everybody’s cutting with a purpose. I like the ball movement. I like guys cutting, the ball is not sticking, and we’re playing well together.”

Had the Sixers welcomed Harden back into the fold, he could have jeopardized the early-season promise they’ve shown in that regard. The Sixers did have the league’s third-best offense last season with Harden running the show, but they had the fourth-slowest pace in large part because of his, erm, methodical style. (As Process legend Boban Marjanovic would say: “He bouncing it. He bouncing it. He bouncing it again…”)

With Harden out of the picture, Embiid currently leads the team with 7.0 assists per game, while Tyrese Maxey isn’t far behind at 6.3. De’Anthony Melton has also taken on a larger playmaking role in place of Harden, as he had four dimes in each of his first two games and a team-leading eight assists in the win over the Blazers on Sunday.

The Sixers’ offense could come crashing back to earth at some point, particularly whenever Maxey or Embiid miss time. But between how good they’ve looked so far and the depth they added in the Harden trade, they seem poised to cruise to 45-plus wins and a top-six seed in the East.

They aren’t done adding, either. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, “teams around the league believe the Sixers will be active the remainder of the season to see if they can go get another star-caliber player.” Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine and Toronto Raptors swingman OG Anunoby have already emerged as “names to watch,” and more will assuredly be added to that list as the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaches.

The Sixers could try to flip the package that they received for Harden in a trade for another star, or they could use the expiring contracts of Morris, Batum and/or Covington in smaller deals. If they don’t add another long-term salary this season, they’re also in line to have more than $55 million in cap space next summer. That could make them a real threat to sign a star like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Pascal Siakam or Anunoby, or they could throw an offer sheet at a restricted free agent such as New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickly or Atlanta Hawks forward Saddiq Bey. They’ll have plenty of options either way.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the Sixers “had wanted to get two first-round picks out of a Harden trade and believe that those assets—coupled with the second-round picks and a pick swap—give them a chance to pursue another high-level guard in a trade to partner with” Embiid and Maxey. On ESPN’s Get Up, Woj said the Sixers now “feel like they have a package comparable to what Boston gave up for Jrue Holiday.”

“The hope is Philly can have a team by the trade deadline that can compete for an Eastern Conference championship, and then they can go star-hunting this summer around Embiid,” he added.

As agonizing as the Harden trade saga was, the next step could be even more grueling. We’ll inevitably spend plenty of time debating when to cash those chips in and on whom. With Embiid’s long-term future in Philly potentially hanging in the balance, the stakes are crystal-clear.

To be clear: Regardless of what they do from here, the Sixers are highly unlikely to win this year’s championship. But thanks to the Harden trade, they’ve now positioned themselves to get right back into that conversation as soon as next year.

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