Thanks to the James Harden trade, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is now in a pickle.
Pascal Siakam is in the final season of his four-year, $136.9 million contract and is set to become a free agent in July. Fellow forward OG Anunoby has a $19.9 million player option for the 2024-25 season that he’s a virtual lock to decline. The Raptors can only offer Anunoby a four-year extension worth roughly $117 million, but longtime NBA reporter Marc Stein said in early October that he’s expected to “rebuff any extension attempts” and test free agency next summer.
In the wake of the Harden deal, the Sixers suddenly have the ability to carve out more than $55 million in cap space next summer. With both Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. set to become free agents, they might have a glaring need at forward to pair with Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid.
If Siakam or Anunoby are open to hearing out offers in free agency, the Sixers lurk as a legitimate threat to sign either one. That sets up a fascinating game of chicken between Ujiri and Sixers president Daryl Morey over the next three months.
If the Raptors’ slow start to the season trickles over into 2024—which is when Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington and Kenyon Martin Jr. can have their contracts aggregated with others in a trade—Morey figures to place a call to Ujiri ahead of the trade deadline. Although Ujiri tends to drive a hard bargain in deals, Morey can leverage the Sixers’ cap outlook to his advantage in negotiations.
The Sixers can effectively say to the Raptors: “You can trade us either Anunoby or Siakam ahead of the deadline and ensure you get something in return for them, or you can stand pat, we’ll sign them in free agency and you’ll lose them for nothing. Your choice!”
As their incumbent team, the Raptors do have the ability to offer Anunoby and Siakam more money and an additional year than any other team on their next contract. If the Raptors are willing to make that type of financial commitment to either one next summer, they can treat the Sixers as an empty threat. But if they aren’t, they’ll have to ponder whether they can afford to lose either player for nothing in free agency, much like they did with Fred VanVleet this past offseason.
It’s unclear whether Ujiri intends to shop either Siakam or Anunoby ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Third-year forward Scottie Barnes is off to a sensational start this season, which should shape Ujiri’s long-term vision for the Raptors moving forward. Siakam is more than seven years older than Barnes and is off to a slow start this season amidst Barnes’ breakout, which could make him the more expendable of the two.
It’s unclear how interested the Sixers might be in Siakam, though, and whether that interest is mutual. In March 2021, Siakam wasn’t happy with then Raptors-head coach Nick Nurse and let him “know about it, loudly and aggressively with words beyond standard cursing,” multiple sources told Michael Grange of Sportsnet. “It got personal, lines were crossed and teammates had to intervene,” he added.
In September of that year, Siakam said that he had since smoothed things over with Nurse.
“It’s frustrating losing and those are things that two people who care about winning, you know, you go out there and sometimes you get frustrated,” Siakam said on the Bob McCowan Podcast (h/t Aaron Rose of All Raptors). “I think it was nothing more than that, just being frustrated about not being able to accomplish what we feel like we’re capable of doing and it was just a disagreement, and we kind of moved past that a long time ago.”
If there truly is no bad blood between Siakam and Nurse and he’d be open to coming to Philly, the Sixers would have to weigh whether he’s the optimal fit alongside Embiid and Maxey. During a recent appearance on the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, Morey described the archetypes that he’s targeting in the wake of the Harden trade.
“I would say first off, they need to be pretty solid on both ends,” he said. “As you get into the playoffs, it gets very hard for your top guys to be elite one way. It has worked; it’s very rare, though. The other thing would be, we probably need them to have a bit of playmaking, connector, ball-movement aspects. We are a little short on that, and it becomes more important in the playoffs.”
Siakam is a more refined playmaker than Anunoby at this stage of their respective careers. His assists per game have increased in each of the past three seasons, from 3.5 in 2019-20 to a career-high 5.8 last year. He also averaged more than 21 points per game in each of the past four seasons. However, Siakam is also a career 32.8 percent three-point shooter on middling volume.
Anunoby has shot 38.4 percent from three over the past four seasons and is knocking down a career-high 42.5 percent in the early going this year. He would fill far more of a defensive need for the Sixers alongside Embiid and Maxey than Siakam would, too. With Jayson Tatum lurking like a final boss in the playoffs for the next half-decade, the Sixers desperately need a lockdown wing defender who can harass him into off shooting nights.
Both the Sixers and Raptors figure to take the next few months to evaluate their rosters under their new head coaches. Once mid-January rolls around, they’ll take stock of where they are in the standings and whether it’s worth adding pieces, tearing down or standing pat. From there, it’ll come down to whether the Raptors are willing to entertain offers on Anunoby or Siakam, and whether Ujiri demands an unreasonable price for either (or both).
The trade deadline will force Ujiri’s hand one way or another, though. With Anunoby and Siakam both heading into free agency and the Sixers lurking as a legitimate threat to sign either one, he’ll have to weigh whether it’s worth risking possibly losing them for nothing in July. If not, Morey’s stated preference is to acquire someone before the deadline, if only to optimize the Sixers’ optionality next offseason.
In other words: Get ready for a lot of Sixers-Raptors trade rumors over the next three months.