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If James Harden leaves, the 2024 offseason could determine the Sixers’ future

A ‘punt year’ could be in play for the Sixers ahead of a decisive 2024 offseason if James Harden leaves this summer in free agency.

NBA: MAR 22 76ers at Bulls Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

James Harden plans to become an unrestricted free agent this summer by declining his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season, according to Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes. If he winds up signing with the Houston Rockets in free agency, the Sixers would have no clear path to replace him this offseason.

Joel Embiid, who is firmly in win-now mode, might not have the patience to see through an extensive retool. The Sixers should instead try to sell him on a plan to make an ambitious splash during the 2024 offseason and try to tread water until then. Depending on what other moves they make over the next year, they could potentially create a max-contract slot to find a third star to pair with Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.

Embiid is the only player on the Sixers roster whose salary is guaranteed beyond next season. He’s about to head into the first season of his four-year supermax deal, which is projected to start at $46.9 million and go up to $50.65 million in 2024-25. Beyond that, P.J. Tucker has an $11.5 million player option (which he figures to pick up), while the Sixers have a $4.0 million fourth-year team option on Jaden Springer. If Tucker opts in and the Sixers picked up Springer’s team option, they’d owe $66.2 million to those two and Embiid alone in 2024-25.

Under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap can increase by no more than 10 percent every season. If the 2023-24 cap lands at $134 million as projected, the 2024-25 cap can be no higher than $147.4 million. The starting salaries of max contracts would be $36.85 million (0-6 years of NBA experience), $44.2 million (7-9 years of experience) and $51.6 million (10-plus years of experience).

They Sixers would thus need to maintain at least nearly $37 million in cap space to offer any version of a max contract, which means they could have no more than $110.55 million in salary on their books. That would leave them roughly $44.3 million of wiggle room to round out the rest of their roster with Embiid, Tucker and Springer under contract.

Maxey is the big first swing decision in that regard. He’ll be eligible to sign an extension on July 1, but he’ll become a restricted free agent in 2024 if he doesn’t agree to a new deal by the mid-October deadline. The 22-year-old should be a focal point of the Sixers’ future, so there’s little question of whether they’ll agree to a new deal with him at some point. The question is when.

Maxey might not get a full five-year, $213.8 million max extension from the Sixers this offseason, but he’ll likely use the four-year extensions signed by Tyler Herro ($120 million) and Jordan Poole ($128 million) last fall as the baseline for his expected annual average salary. For cap purposes, the Sixers would be far better off waiting to sign him to an extension as a restricted free agent in 2024 if they could get him on board with that plan.

Maxey will have a $13.0 million cap hold next summer as a free agent if the Sixers don’t sign him to an extension this offseason. That’s far lower than what the starting salary on his new contract figures to be. The Sixers could effectively use his cap hold to create an additional $15-20 million in cap space, then re-sign him after spending that money. With Maxey’s cap hold factored in, the Sixers would be up to $79.2 million in salary, leaving them roughly $31.3 million in wiggle room.

De’Anthony Melton would be the next big decision for them to make, and that’s much more of a toss-up. Under the new CBA, the Sixers are allowed to offer Melton a four-year extension this offseason starting at 140 percent of his 2023-24 salary ($11.2 million) or 140 percent of the estimated average salary for that season (approximately $16.5 million). Using the latter figure as the starting salary, the Sixers could offer Melton a four-year, $73.9 million extension, whereas the current CBA limited them to a four-year, $63.4 million deal.

Melton’s cap hold would be $15.2 million if he becomes an unrestricted free agent, which is roughly $1.3 million less than the max starting salary of his extension. While the Sixers would have to maximize their remaining cap space to create a max-contract slot, a $1.3 million difference isn’t enough to justify risking losing Melton for nothing in free agency. His $18.5 million AAV would put him right around the range of Marcus Smart ($19.1 million) and Norman Powell ($18 million), although the Sixers would likely love to sign him for less than both.

If the Sixers gave Melton the full bag, they’d have $97.7 million in salary/cap holds on their books, leaving them only $12.8 million of cap space before they cut into their max spot. Their impending free-agent decisions with Paul Reed (restricted), Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton thus may be the final determining factor as to whether the Sixers can preserve max cap space in 2024.

The easiest way to do so would be offering no more than one-year deals to any of the four. That approach might be fine for Niang, McDaniels and Milton—regardless of whether they stayed or left—but allowing Reed to become an unrestricted free agent in 2024-25 could be an own-goal if they strike out in free agency that offseason.

While it’s technically possible for the Sixers to carve out a max-contract slot in 2024, it would take a number of dominoes to fall their way. They’d have to get Embiid on board with the plan, convince Maxey to hold off on an extension, try to sign Melton to a below-his-max extension and steer clear of non-minimum multiyear deals for Niang, McDaniels and Milton in particular. That may be feasible, but it isn’t necessarily realistic.

If the Sixers sign Maxey to anywhere near a max extension this summer, it would all but certainly cut off their path to a max spot next year. He and Embiid alone would account for up to $87.5 million in salary, leaving only $23.0 million in wiggle room before they blew past the max-slot line. They’d have to renounce the rights of nearly all of their free agents—including Melton and Tobias Harris—to have a shot at being able to offer a max contract to a third star.

The Sixers wouldn’t necessarily have to preserve a max cap slot in 2024 to land a max player, though. As long as they gave themselves enough financial wiggle room—say, $20-25 million—they might be able to cobble together enough salary to use in a sign-and-trade for a third star. They’d have to stay below the first salary-cap apron—roughly $7 million above the luxury-tax line—for the remainder of that season, but the tax line could be north of $175 million by then.

With Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Pascal Siakam and Jaylen Brown among the potential free agents in 2024, the Sixers could finagle their way into having enough cap space to sign one of them if they time their moves correctly. A sign-and-trade seems far more likely than carving out a full max-contract spot, but the Sixers might not be that far away from being able to make a major splash either way.

It’s just a matter of getting everyone on board with that vision between now and then if Harden does leave this summer.

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

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