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Nicolas Batum is the Sixers’ biggest wild card ahead of the 2024 NBA trade deadline

Would the Sixers consider trading their newfound glue guy?

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the Sixers’ biggest challenges leading up to the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline is balancing their short- and long-term outlooks. Despite Monday’s loss to the shorthanded Chicago Bulls, the Sixers are currently third in the Eastern Conference with an 18-8 record, trailing only the Boston Celtics (20-6) and Milwaukee Bucks (20-7).

Team president Daryl Morey recently expressed confidence in the Sixers’ ability to match up with the Celtics (whom they’re 1-2 against this year) and Bucks (whom they’re 0-1 against). But he also said that he’s pursuing “significant” upgrades ahead of the trade deadline since it’s unclear how long Joel Embiid will continue to play at an MVP-caliber level.

Nicolas Batum might be the biggest swing piece in that regard. He’s been a dream fit in the Sixers’ starting lineup alongside Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, but questions about his future beyond this season could make him expendable.

Batum’s per-game stats don’t jump off the screen—he’s averaging 6.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 24.9 minutes across 17 appearances with the Sixers—but he’s shooting 56.1 percent overall and an outrageous 49.0 percent from three-point range. He also might be the best entry passer on the team, which is a critical skill on a team with a dominant big man like Embiid.

“He’s just been like the perfect piece,” Morey told reporters last week about Batum. “Able to get the ball off quick, shooting, defensively, a glue guy, good passer to Joel. He’s been great.”

The Sixers’ new-look starting five with Batum, Embiid, Maxey, De’Anthony Melton and Tobias Harris has a net rating of plus-34.0 on NBA.com and plus-33.3 on Cleaning the Glass. The latter mark ranks in the 99th percentile leaguewide, trailing only two five-man groups from the Los Angeles Clippers (one of which included Robert Covington).

While a do-it-all role player like Batum has been a revelation to a Sixers team sorely lacking that archetype in recent years, it’s unclear how much longer he’ll be playing in Philadelphia—or anywhere, for that matter.

Batum’s wife, Lily, revealed this past August that Batum was planning to retire from both the NBA and international competition after the 2024 Olympics. It’s unclear whether those plans have changed over the past four months—he wouldn’t be the first player in recent years to backtrack on retirement plans—but the Sixers need to figure that out between now and the trade deadline.

If the Sixers believe they can win this year’s title with Batum in the fold, they might be OK with rolling the dice on keeping him and worrying about next season later. But if they think they’re too far below the top title contenders, they should at least consider trading him for a longer-term piece.

Batum is currently on a $11.7 million expiring contract. The Sixers have full Bird rights on him, which they can use to re-sign him in free agency even if they’re over the salary cap, but they’ll have a $22.3 million cap hold on their books for Batum until they renounce those rights, he signs elsewhere or he retires. If the Sixers want to go the cap-space route this offseason, they’ll have to renounce his rights or re-sign him before handling the rest of their free-agent business.

Losing Batum for nothing this offseason wouldn’t be as big of a blow if the Sixers do intend to become a major player in free agency. Sure, they could have potentially flipped him for another expiring contract, but they likely wouldn’t have received much (if anything) in return. If they plan on being an over-the-cap team, though, they should be open to flipping Batum’s expiring deal for someone on a multiyear contract ahead of the trade deadline.

While the Sixers’ vibes are shockingly high right now (the loss to the Bulls notwithstanding), they’re entering a critical team-building period. Most players who signed in free agency this past offseason became trade-eligible on Dec. 15, and many of the league’s decision-makers are convening in Orlando at the G League Winter Showcase this week to unofficially kick off trade season.

Batum left Monday’s loss with a hamstring injury and has already been ruled out for Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It doesn’t seem as though it’s expected to keep him out for long, but the Sixers will feel the impact of his absence in the meantime. They’ll likely start Kelly Oubre Jr. in his place, which will deprive the bench of its best scoring threat.

If the Sixers crumble in Batum’s absence, that could help decide whether he remains in Philly past the trade deadline. The same goes for if he continues to shut down any retirement speculation both privately and publicly. If he’s willing to play for another year and re-sign with the Sixers in free agency, that would vastly increase the likelihood of him sticking around.

But if the Sixers have no assurances about Batum’s future beyond this season, they’d be doing themselves a disservice if they don’t explore his trade value at the very least.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.

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