In late June, PHLY Sports’ Kyle Neubeck broke the news that the Sixers weren’t planning to sign Tyrese Maxey to an extension this summer. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne said he was “still seen as a big part of their future, but the team wants to delay an extension for him to preserve flexibility.”
Shortly thereafter, James Harden picked up his $35.6 million player option and requested a trade, setting in motion a series of dominoes that finally culminated Wednesday with his move to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Following Harden’s trade request, Sixers president Daryl Morey told Anthony Gargano of 97.5 The Fanatic that he was attempting “to 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.” By flipping Harden, P.J. Tucker and Filip Petrusev for the expiring contracts of Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington and Kenyon Martin Jr. and multiple draft picks, Morey accomplished that goal and then some.
Salary-cap projections are highly subject to change, especially at this time of year, but the NBA is currently projecting the 2024-25 salary cap to be $142 million. That’s only a 4.4 percent increase over this year’s cap—the ongoing struggles of regional sports networks are likely driving that bearish projection—although the cap could go up by as much as 10 percent annually under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Based on that projection, the Sixers are currently poised to have more than $55 million in cap space next summer if they renounce all of their incumbent free agents, including Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton and the four players whom they just acquired from the Clippers.
Joel Embiid ($51.4 million) and Jaden Springer ($4.0 million) are the only two players whom the Sixers have on guaranteed contracts beyond this season. Paul Reed’s $7.7 million salary for 2024-25 will become guaranteed if the Sixers advance past the first round of the playoffs this year, and Maxey will have a $13.0 million cap hold until they re-sign him as a restricted free agent.
Had the Sixers signed Maxey to an extension this past summer, the starting salary of his new deal would have gone on their books right away next July. Instead, they can keep his $13.0 million cap hold on their books, spend the rest of their cap space and then use his Bird rights to re-sign him despite being over the cap. By holding off, they’re effectively creating an additional $20-plus million in cap space that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
If they don’t make their big splash by the Feb. 8 trade deadline, the Sixers will have plenty of optionality heading into free agency next July. Here’s a look at three paths they could take.
The Status Quo
This is the scenario that ESPN’s Bobby Marks threw out after the Harden trade. They’d have Embiid, Reed and Springer under contract and keep Maxey’s cap hold on their books, but they’d renounce all of their incumbent free agents, leaving them eight players short of the NBA’s roster minimum in the offseason.
When teams have fewer than 12 players on their books (including cap holds), they get an incomplete roster charge equivalent to the minimum salary for a rookie that year temporarily added to their cap sheet. The minimum salary increases at the same percentage as the cap, so it currently projects to be $1,168,824 in 2024-25.
Add eight of those incomplete roster charges to the Sixers’ books (for a total of $9.35 million), and they’re left with nearly $56.5 million in cap room.
Based on the $142 million cap projection, a max contract would be $35.5 million for someone with 0-6 years of NBA experience, $42.6 million for someone with 7-9 years and $49.7 million for someone with 10 or more years. The Sixers would have enough cap room for any of those three, which could put them in the conversation for veterans like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George if the Clippers’ Harden gambit blows up in their faces.
The Sixers would have the $8.1 million room mid-level exception to round out their roster as well, but beyond that, they’d be limited to veteran-minimum contracts. So, while it might sound tempting to hold off until the summer and take a swing at a star like Leonard or George, filling out the remainder of the roster could be difficult in this scenario. They’d have to go bargain hunting like the Phoenix Suns did in the opening hours of free agency this past offseason.
The Clear-The-Decks Approach
Embiid and Maxey presumably aren’t going anywhere, but the Sixers likely aren’t as married to Reed and Springer long-term.
If the Sixers fail to make it past the first round of the playoffs, Reed’s $7.7 million salary for 2024-25 will be fully non-guaranteed until Jan. 10, 2025. The Sixers could waive him next summer to create even more cap space, and they wouldn’t be left with a dead-cap hit.
After picking up Springer’s $4.0 million fourth-year team option, his salary is guaranteed for the 2024-25 season. Waiving him wouldn’t create any additional cap space, although they could look to salary-dump him to a rebuilding team to maximize their financial flexibility ahead of free agency.
If they clear their books outside of Embiid, Maxey’s cap hold and 10 incomplete roster charges ($11.7 million), they’d have nearly $65.9 million of cap space. That means they could sign a free agent to a 35 percent max contract and still have more than $17 million in cap space left over.
Again, the question would be how to fill out the remainder of their roster spots in that scenario. The combination of $17 million in cap space and the $8.1 million room MLE wouldn’t leave them completely empty-handed, but is that enough to round out a championship-caliber rotation? They’d have to hit on a vast majority of their free-agent signings—particularly their non-minimum deals—which would reduce their margin for error to virtually nil.
The Don’t-Rescind-Everyone Approach
The Sixers don’t necessarily have to rescind their rights to all of their incumbent free agents, though. In fact, they’re all but certain to keep their rights to Martin since his $2.1 million cap hold next summer isn’t much higher than the $1.2 million incomplete roster charge.
Melton is the swing piece in this scenario. He has a $15.2 million free-agent cap hold (190 percent of his current salary), which would meaningfully cut into their cap space. But since they have his Bird rights as well, they could take the same approach with him as they are with Maxey: spend the remainder of their cap space first, then re-sign the two of them.
If the Sixers keep Embiid, Reed and Springer along with the cap holds of Maxey, Melton and Martin and six incomplete roster charges ($7.0 million), they’d have roughly $100.5 million on their books, leaving them with nearly $41.5 million in cap space. That would take them out of the running for someone looking for a 35 percent max, but they’d have just enough room for a 30 percent max. (They’d be left with less than $60,000.)
On paper, this looks like the most logical path for them. They could roll out a starting lineup of Maxey, Melton, their star free-agent signing (OG Anunoby?), whomever they sign with the room MLE and Embiid, with Reed, Springer, Martin and the rest of their veteran-minimum signings off the bench. They’d likely go soaring over the $172 million luxury-tax line once they spent their cap space and then re-signed Maxey, Melton and Martin, but that’s a concern for the Sixers’ billionaire owners and only them.
The Sixers might not even have to wrestle with which approach to take leading into free agency. Team president Daryl Morey told reporters Wednesday that he’d prefer to use that cap space earlier (presumably ahead of the trade deadline) rather than next summer.
“Ideally, we would actually use that cap space early,” he said. “That’s generally better, because then you both have the front-end flexibility and then the back-end flexibility to re-sign them, and then you can see who becomes available. So in the parlance of how teams talk, we would like to use it early if we can. In terms of acquiring the people we might re-sign or bring back early, it gives you more flexibility.”
Either way, the Sixers now have plenty of options when it comes to rounding out their roster beyond Embiid and Maxey moving forward.