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This Sixers era may come down to Game 7 on Sunday

The Sixers may never have a better shot to win a championship with Joel Embiid than they do this year.

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2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Heading into Game 6 on Thursday night, the Sixers had a golden opportunity in front of them. With a win in front of the raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd, they could have sent the Boston Celtics packing for the summer and would have moved on to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in more than two decades.

Instead, their offense went stagnant down the stretch, and they mustered only 13 points in the fourth quarter as the Celtics went on a game-ending 14-3 run. They’re now heading back to Boston for a do-or-die Game 7 on Sunday, which could wind up determining how we remember this era of Sixers basketball.

If the Sixers defy the odds and beat the Celtics—they’re currently 7.5-point underdogs in Game 7, per DraftKings Sportsbook—they’ll have home-court advantage throughout the rest of the playoffs. They’ll face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, whom they’d likely be heavily favored against. The Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers would present unique challenges in the NBA Finals, but neither of them look like an unstoppable juggernaut against whom the Sixers wouldn’t stand a chance.

But if the Celtics beat the Sixers on Sunday and knock them out of the playoffs for the third time in the past six seasons, it will likely have long-lasting ramifications.

The Houston Rocketsinterest in reuniting with James Harden this summer—the feeling appears to be mutual—is perhaps the NBA’s worst-kept secret. If Harden does head back to Houston in free agency, the Sixers will have no realistic way to replace him, particularly his playmaking. They already have $117.1 million in guaranteed salary on their books tied up in only seven players, and next year’s salary cap is projected to be $134 million. This summer’s free-agent class isn’t exactly teeming with enticing options, either.

Even if the steady trickle of Houston rumors are only Harden’s attempt to leverage the Sixers into giving him a full four-year max contract, doing so could tie their hands, too. Based on the $134 million cap projection, Harden’s max contract would begin at $46.9 million next season. Signing him to that deal alone would push the Sixers over the projected $162 million luxury-tax threshold, and they also have to weigh whether to re-sign Shake Milton, BBall Paul Reed (restricted), Georges Niang and Jalen McDaniels this offseason, too. Looming over those negotiations will be the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, which contains far more draconian penalties for teams that go deep into tax territory.

The new CBA introduces a second salary-cap apron, set $17.5 million above the tax line, which limits the flexibility of teams above that threshold. According to Yossi Gozlan of HoopsHype, teams above the second apron in 2023-24 won’t have access to the taxpayer mid-level exception in free agency—which means they’ll only be able to offer veteran-minimum contracts for external free agents—and they’ll “be limited to taking back 110 percent of outgoing salaries in trades instead of 125 percent.”

It gets even worse in 2024-25. Beginning that season, teams above the second apron “won’t be able to take back more salaries than they’re giving out in trades, aggregate players in trades, use trade exceptions from previous seasons, convey cash in trades, or receive players on existing contracts by sign-and-trading their own free agents,” per Gozlan. In other words, teams above the second apron will have far less ability to retool their roster than teams below the second apron will.

So, even if the Sixers re-sign Harden, they’ll be limited in how they can round out the supporting cast around him, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey because of the second apron. They’d likely explore a Tobias Harris trade, if only to break his contract apart into multiple depth pieces, but title hopefuls below the second apron will have more flexibility to add impact players this offseason.

That brings us back to Sunday. With a win, Embiid, Harden and Doc Rivers could all change the perception around them in the playoffs.

Embiid has never been past the second round before. Harden often shrinks in high-leverage games, which was on full display during the fourth quarter of Game 6. Rivers has more blown series leads than any coach in NBA history. Losing on the road to the current title favorite wouldn’t be an upset like their Game 7 meltdown against the Atlanta Hawks two years ago, but it would be yet another stain on all of their career resumes. It would also raise bigger-picture roster-construction questions about this team, regardless of what Harden decides to do this summer.

With the Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks already eliminated from the playoffs, the Sixers may never have a better opportunity to win a championship with Embiid than they do this season. On Sunday, we’ll find out whether they can capitalize on that.

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

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