Leading up to free agency, it was seemingly a foregone conclusion that James Harden would decline his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season to become an unrestricted free agent. But when the Houston Rockets turned their attention to Fred VanVleet and the Sixers went radio silent on Harden to avoid another round of tampering penalties, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic, he instead opted in with the intention of being traded elsewhere.
The Sixers are reportedly in no hurry to trade Harden, but the uncertainty about his future—and what they’ll receive in return—may be limiting what else they can do in free agency for now.
As other title hopefuls beef up their supporting casts, the Sixers have arguably gotten worse since free agency began. Georges Niang agreed to a three-year, $26 million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Shake Milton agreed to a two-year, $10 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Jalen McDaniels agreed to a two-year, $9.3 million deal with the Toronto Raptors. Niang was the only one of that trio who played a meaningful role in the Sixers’ playoff rotation, but all three are notable losses nevertheless.
The Sixers had full Bird rights on Milton and McDaniels, so they could have re-signed them to any salary up to a max deal despite being over the salary cap. They had Early Bird rights on Niang, which would have allowed them to offer more than what he ended up getting from Cleveland. Instead, they appear to be prioritizing financial flexibility with Harden’s future so far up in the air.
Since free agency began, the Sixers have signed Patrick Beverley, Mo Bamba and Montrezl Harrell (lol) to one-year veteran-minimum contracts. All three will count as only $2.0 million against the Sixers’ cap sheet (the minimum salary for a player with two years of NBA experience), and the league will reimburse the Sixers for the rest of their respective contracts ($1.2 million for Beverley, $870,000 for Harrell and roughly $325,000 for Bamba). They also matched the three-year, $23.5 million offer sheet that Paul Reed signed with the Utah Jazz and signed Filip Petrusev to a two-year, $3.0 million partially guaranteed contract. (Only 50 percent of his salary in 2023-24 is guaranteed until Jan. 10, and his entire $1.9 million salary for 2024-25 is nonguaranteed until January 2025.)
In September, the Sixers rounded out their roster by signing both Danny Green and Kelly Oubre Jr. to one-year, minimum-salary contracts. Green’s deal is fully nonguaranteed until opening night and then incrementally guaranteed from there, while full specifics have yet to emerge about Oubre’s deal.
With Harden under contract (for now), the Sixers currently have roughly $176.7 million in salary committed to 16 players. That leaves them $11.4 million above the luxury-tax line, roughly $4.3 million above the first salary-cap apron and $6.1 million below the second salary-cap apron.
That proximity to both aprons could explain why the Sixers have largely sat out the first wave of free agency. If they use their $5 million taxpayer mid-level exception, they’ll be hard-capped at the second apron, which means their payroll could not exceed $182.8 million at any point between now and June 30, 2024. If they wanted to spend the full $12.4 million non-taxpayer MLE, they’d be hard-capped at the $172.3 million first apron, which they’re already over. And if their payroll does exceed $182.8 million at any point, they’ll lose access to even the taxpayer MLE.
Although the Sixers are currently $6.1 million under the second apron, that wiggle room could dry up quickly if they take back more salary than they send out in a Harden trade and use the taxpayer MLE. That could explain their reluctance to sign anyone to more than a minimum deal over the first few weeks of free agency.
The new collective bargaining agreement also prohibits teams over either apron from taking back more than 110 percent of the salary they send out in a trade, plus $250,000. Throw in the salary-matching issues that Harden’s trade kicker could present, and it’ll be difficult enough for the Sixers to construct a legal trade as is. Without knowing how much salary they’ll take back if (when?) they trade Harden, the Sixers would be unwise to hard-cap themselves before resolving his future one way or another.
It’s also unclear how much—if any—additional salary they want on their books beyond next season if they do trade Harden. During an episode of The Hoop Collective in early July, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said the Sixers have “not shown an interest” in trading Tobias Harris’ $39.3 million expiring contract. “And if anybody does trade for him, it’s been made known that it would only be for expiring contracts,” Windhorst added.
The Sixers also don’t plan on signing Tyrese Maxey to a contract extension this summer, according to multiple reports. They still see him “as a big part of their future,” according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, but they want to keep his $13.0 million cap hold on their books instead of the starting salary he receives on his new deal. After they spend however much cap space they’re able to manufacture, the Sixers could then use their Bird rights on Maxey to re-sign him to anything up to a max contract. (That begs the question: What are they up to?)
There may be one other reason why the Sixers are prioritizing financial flexibility heading into next offseason: fear of the repeater tax. If they stay above the luxury-tax line this season, they’ll become subject to the repeater tax in 2024-25, which became far more punitive in the new CBA.
The new repeater-tax rates don’t go into effect until the 2025-26 season, but at that point, being more than $20 million or so above the tax line will likely be financially prohibitive.
If you start hearing about NBA teams trying to duck the luxury tax in 2025-26 and beyond, this is why. pic.twitter.com/rHLsNUvwqC— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) July 5, 2023
It’s worth noting that the tax brackets will increase at the same rate that the salary cap does each season. If the cap jumps the full 10 percent in both 2024-25 and 2025-26, the tax line should land at around $182 million and $200 million in those respective seasons. That means teams wouldn’t need to begin sweating the truly onerous repeater-tax penalties until their payrolls exceed $200 million in 2024-25 and $220 million in 2025-26.
Still, don’t be surprised if resetting the repeater-tax clock is an unspoken goal for the Sixers over the next two seasons. That could give them more flexibility to build out their roster as they head into Maxey’s prime.