In the wake of the James Harden trade, the Sixers are now poised to be the biggest player on the free-agent market next summer. They could carve out more than $55 million in salary-cap space, making them the only playoff-caliber team with that type of spending power.
Sixers president Daryl Morey wouldn’t prefer to wait that long to make his next big splash, though.
“Ideally, we would actually sort of use that cap space early,” Morey told reporters Wednesday after the Harden trade became official. “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, it gives you more flexibility.
“That said, the nice thing is we do have the back-end optionality that if we don’t use it early on players we want to re-sign or have longer deals, then what we want to do is go after the best players who are in free agency, which people are too down on.”
LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are among the players who could become free agents next summer if they turn down the 2024-25 player options in their respective contracts, although all three seem like unrealistic targets for the Sixers. The same goes for Klay Thompson, unless extension talks between him and the Golden State Warriors remain at an impasse.
Toronto Raptors forwards OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam might be more realistic options, but the free-agent class quickly begins to drop off from there. Miles Bridges should be considered radioactive given the allegations that he’s currently facing, and veterans like DeMar DeRozan and Gordon Hayward likely wouldn’t move the needle on the Sixers’ championship chances.
With Joel Embiid’s long-term future with the Sixers potentially hanging in the balance, Morey doesn’t want to leave it up to chance in free agency next summer. He’s seemingly hoping to make his big splash by the trade deadline, provided the right players become available by then.
You might wonder why Morey would prefer to spend assets to acquire a soon-to-be free agent like Anunoby or Siakam when the Sixers could just sign them four months later without giving up any assets. The answer lies in how they’d round out the rest of their roster in either scenario.
The Sixers could create more than $55 million in cap space next summer, but that would require renouncing the rights to all of their free agents other than Tyrese Maxey, including Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton. They could keep the cap holds of Melton ($15.2 million) and Kenyon Martin Jr. ($2.1 million) on their books and still have north of $41 million in room, but they’d only have the $8.1 million room mid-level exception and veteran-minimum contracts from there.
Depending on how this season goes, perhaps veterans like Patrick Beverley, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris Sr. and/or Nicolas Batum would be happy to return next year on min deals. Otherwise, the Sixers might have limited financial resources to fill out their bench once they make their big free-agent splash. The Phoenix Suns, who were in a similar boat this past offseason, could prove to be an informative guinea pig in that regard.
If the Sixers instead take their swing by the trade deadline, they wouldn’t necessarily have to renounce any of their free agents next July. They could use Bird rights to re-sign Maxey, Melton, Harris and/or Martin, even if they’re over the salary cap. How much they spend on their incumbent free agents would determine which—if any—version of the mid-level exception they received (the $13.0 million non-taxpayer or $5.2 million taxpayer), but they’d be much better positioned to retain their depth.
In that scenario, the Sixers’ biggest obstacle would be the luxury-tax threshold. Unless Josh Harris hands Morey a blank check to spend on players, the Sixers might have to make some tough decisions about which free agents to bring back next season and which to let walk. But from a CBA perspective, there would be nothing preventing them from re-signing anyone whose Bird rights they held. The only potential roadblock would be Harris and the other owners.
Making that move by the trade deadline could thus bring about more long-term certainty than waiting until next offseason. That might not be so if they acquire a soon-to-be free agent like Anunoby or Siakam, but it would if they land someone on a multi-year deal—like, say, Zach LaVine?
That Bird rights dilemma will be one of many variables that Morey and the Sixers’ front office have to juggle in recent months as they weigh how best to use the assets they acquired in the Harden trade. There are pros and cons to each approach—making the move ahead of the trade deadline or waiting until next offseason—with no clear right answer.
Luckily, the Sixers’ have time on their side for now. They aren’t allowed to aggregate the contracts of Morris, Batum, Covington or Martin with any others in a trade until Jan. 1. It’s far too early in the season for any team to be considering detonating its roster, too. (Although the Chicago Bulls might not be far away.)
Once January rolls around, expect the Sixers to find their way into plenty of trade rumors. Until then, enjoy the Harden-less, Doc Rivers-less ride for the next two months. (Ball movement? Player movement? I don’t know if you’re allowed to do that.)