Daryl Morey is in the midst of a challenging time in his Sixers tenure.
There’s a lot of work to be done in what has thus far been a tortuous offseason. The Sixers president of basketball operations admitted to that much during a radio appearance with 97.5 The Fanatic a couple weeks ago. James Harden’s trade request looms over everything the Sixers do — now and for years to come.
If you look toward the future — or squint your eyes and dream for a trade right now — the Raptors’ OG Anunoby is a name that makes perfect sense for the Sixers. He is the ideal player to bridge the gap between winning now and in the future.
Morey made it clear: the Sixers won’t trade Harden unless it’s for a star-level player or the necessary assets to acquire a star-level player. Harden is on an expiring contract, meaning the flexibility his money coming off the books provides could be extremely valuable. Entering the 2024 offseason with max cap space is more appealing than say taking back Norman Powell and the three years and nearly $60 million left on his contract from the Clippers.
We don’t know exactly what Los Angeles, seemingly Harden’s only true suitor, is offering. Whatever it is, it clearly doesn’t match Morey’s aforementioned criteria. Sure, if Harden attempts to sit out — or make camp a living hell for new head coach Nick Nurse — the conversation could change, but taking back a smorgasbord of role players on expiring deals isn’t moving the needle.
And, sure, Terance Mann is a fine player, but reports from L.A.’s side would lead you to believe he’s the next Kawhi and is only 22. In reality he’s probably a fringe NBA starter and he’ll turn 27 in October. For what it’s worth, a league source said first-round picks from the Clippers aren’t viewed as especially valuable league-wide. Even if the team sees its franchise players walk, they’ll have a new arena, a new practice facility and the city of L.A. to entice future stars to come via trade or free agency — meaning the likelihood of the Clippers tanking or bottoming out seems low.
As our Bryan Toporek wrote about recently, the future flexibility Morey spoke of could be franchise-altering. In addition to Anunoby, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Pascal Siakam and Klay Thompson are among the players who could become free agents next summer. Those are some mighty big fish — and the Sixers might be the only competitive team with the proper bait.
Now, this is all contingent on Anunoby declining his player option for the 2024-25 season. It’s reasonable to believe that happens. The option is for $19.9 million. As Toporek has suggested before, the Sixers could have roughly $50 million to dole out next offseason since they decided to wait until then to negotiate an extension with Tyrese Maxey. Maxey will only count for $13 million against the cap, allowing the Sixers to go after a franchise cornerstone-type player — and perhaps being the only contending team with the ability to do so.
While taking a big swing on LeBron or Kawhi or PG would certainly be on the table if they become available, Anunoby matches Morey’s goal to get better now and still be a competitive team for the future. He recently turned 26, perfectly bridging the gap between Joel Embiid (29) and Maxey (22). Like Maxey, he seems to only be scratching the surface of the type of player he can ultimately become.
As a 25-year-old, Anunoby was arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, taking home Second Team All-Defense honors and leading the league in steals per game. His versatility at 6-foot-7 and 232 pounds is nearly unmatched. He’s shown the ability to guard one through four at a high level.
Offensively, he’s still developing, but there are plenty of encouraging signs. The jumper is already there. He’s made 38.2 percent of his threes on over six attempts a game the last three seasons. He’s proven to be a highly efficient wing despite a modest usage rate. He boasted a 58.6 true shooting percentage with a usage rate under 20 last season. Though there have been reports that he was interested in a bigger role in Toronto, he’s a player that hasn’t required a ton of touches to have an impact.
And with that said, he would definitively be the team’s second or third option every night — behind Embiid and going back and forth with Maxey — unlike with the Raptors where the scoring was a lot more spread out. Over the past three seasons, Anunoby has averaged 13 field goal attempts per game. As the Sixers’ third option, Maxey averaged over 15 (Harden actually took less at 14.5).
Really, the entire offensive ecosystem would change drastically by the 2024-25 season. The Sixers will be a full year into their system with Nurse. Harden and Tobias Harris will (very likely) be gone. If Anunoby is the player they sign, the trio of Embiid, Maxey and OG will lead the way.
And the Nurse factor feels very real in all of this. Nurse talked about Anunoby being an indispensable part of the Raptors while mentioning his growth — and that there’s even more there as far as creation and finishing ability. Anunoby had been with Nurse his entire NBA career (Nurse was an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff during Anunoby’s rookie season before taking over the head job). Just as important as Nurse’s admiration is Anunoby’s praise for his former head coach, despite a difficult season.
"I think Nick's a great coach, I love playing for him, he's a very respected coach, my teammates love playing for him," -- O.G. Anunoby.— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) April 13, 2023
There have been whispers about a possible Anunoby trade for awhile now, but given how Masai Ujiri operates, the price is likely exorbitant. This is an executive that chose to keep Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet when both players would’ve fetched extremely valuable assets at the deadline. Instead, Lowry went to Miami with a meager sign-and-trade return and VanVleet is now a Houston Rocket. Perhaps Ujiri will get a little pressure to move Siakam and Anunoby before the team suffers the same fate. More likely, Ujiri keeps the price high for both and Anunoby is in Toronto for the 2023-24 season.
All of this to say, sure, it would be great to have Anunoby in tow this season and sign him to an extension, but the much more likely scenario is him opting out and the Sixers swooping in with cap space to sign him.
It’s a difficult pill for Sixers fans to swallow, but next offseason could be the pivotal one. That’s not an easy sell for a team that continues to stagnate in the second round of the playoffs and is going through it’s second messy potential divorce with its starting point guard in three years.
But if it ends up with the triumvirate of Embiid, Maxey and Anunoby leading the Sixers into a new era, the short-term misery could be worth the long-term success.