Thanks to the assets they acquired in the James Harden deal earlier this season, the Sixers are now poised to be power players on the NBA trade market. They have more than $80 million in expiring contracts to dangle, along with as many as three first-round picks and six second-rounders.
The Sixers have already been linked with Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, and they figure to be connected with plenty of other players between now and the Feb. 8 trade deadline. While they could have more than $55 million in salary-cap space this offseason, team president Daryl Morey has already said that he’d prefer to use that cap space early to give the Sixers both “front-end flexibility” and “back-end flexibility” to re-sign anyone on an expiring contract whom they acquire.
Morey will assuredly monitor the trade market over the coming weeks, but don’t expect the Sixers to make a major move over the holidays. They’re far more likely to take their swing closer to the trade deadline—if they do at all this season.
On Dec. 15, most of the players who signed with teams as free agents this past summer become eligible to be traded. That applies to Patrick Beverley ($2.0 million), Kelly Oubre Jr. ($2.0 million) and Mo Bamba ($2.0 million), but the Sixers have another restriction that will limit their flexibility for two more weeks.
Everyone whom the Sixers acquired in the Harden trade—namely Marcus Morris ($17.1 million), Nicolas Batum ($11.7 million), Robert Covington ($11.7 million) and KJ Martin ($1.9 million)—can’t be aggregated with any other contracts in a trade until Jan. 1. Outside of Morris, Batum and Covington, Tobias Harris ($39.3 million) and Joel Embiid ($47.6 million) are the only other Sixers players with eight-figure salaries this year, and it seems safe to say that Embiid isn’t going anywhere.
The Sixers would be allowed to trade Harris in a package for LaVine or another star player on a max- or near-max contract right now. But if they’re hoping to use the contracts of Morris, Covington and/or Batum as their primary salary filler in such a deal, they’ll have to wait until Jan. 1 before finalizing said trade.
The new collective bargaining agreement also looms large over any Sixers trade talks. They currently have around $169.6 million of salary on their books, which leaves them only $2.8 million below the $172.3 million first salary-cap apron. Teams above that line can only take back 110 percent of the salary they send out in a trade, whereas teams below that line can take back up to 125 percent of the salary they send out, plus $250,000.
A Harris-for-LaVine framework would be legal regardless of whether the Sixers stay below the first apron or go above it, and the Bulls could swing such a deal and still remain under the $165.3 million luxury-tax threshold. Harris got off to a scorching start this season before plummeting back to earth as of late, but perhaps a productive veteran player like him would appeal to the Bulls if they aren’t open to embarking on a full rebuild yet.
According to Michael Scotto of HoopsHype, rival executives around the league believe the Bulls are “looking for players that can help them win now and maybe a pick down the line if they can add to their cupboard,” not necessarily “straight draft capital.” Harris would fit that bill, but negotiations between the Sixers and Bulls would likely hinge on how much draft compensation the Sixers are willing to include with Harris’ contract.
The Sixers have to ask themselves two things before swinging a deal of that magnitude: Which holes (if any) does this player patch up, and would they be better off waiting until closer to the trade deadline to reevaluate the market? The last thing they can afford is to blow through their assets early, only for a better fit to become available later.
Before the Toronto Raptors extended their losing streak to four games with a 136-130 loss to the New York Knicks on Monday, Shams Charania of The Athletic wrote that teams believe “now, more than ever” that Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby could become available by the trade deadline. Siakam might not be the best conceptual fit alongside Embiid in Philadelphia—and it’s unclear whether he’d be interested in a reunion with head coach Nick Nurse—but Anunoby would make a ton of sense.
The Bulls and Raptors are obvious teardown candidates if they don’t turn their seasons around soon, but lottery-bound teams such as the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and San Antonio Spurs could also decide to enter the seller’s market between now and Feb. 8. If they do, Pistons wing Bojan Bogdanovic, Wizards guard Tyus Jones and Spurs sharpshooter Doug McDermott could be among targets of interest, particularly since all three should be far less expensive to acquire than LaVine, Anunoby or Siakam.
The Sixers’ next three games won’t tell us much about their championship chances—they’re facing the Pistons on Friday, the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday and the Bulls on Monday— but their schedule begins to ramp up in difficulty from there. A home game against the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 20 and a road contest against the Miami Heat on Christmas Day could help the Sixers identify what holes (if any) they need to fill ahead of this year’s trade deadline.
As evidenced by Covington’s inconsistent role as of late, the Sixers still appear to be evaluating their new-look roster. Backup point guard appeared to be one of their biggest needs early in the season, although Beverley’s recent offensive explosion could be pushing that down the list of priorities. Once the Sixers determine which of their weak spots they can’t shore up with the players on their current roster, they can see who’s available on the trade market and inquire how much it’d cost to acquire them.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Sixers make a move ahead of the trade deadline, whether it’s landing a third star or a more minor deal to bolster their supporting cast. Thanks to the aggregation restriction on Morris, Covington and Batum, it would be fairly shocking if that move came before the new year, though.