Throughout the offseason, the Sixers have been dropping hints about their long-term plan. Their decision not to extend Tyrese Maxey this offseason strongly signaled that they were aiming to maintain as much financial flexibility as possible moving forward, which team president Daryl Morey later confirmed to 97.5 The Fanatic’s Anthony Gargano.
“What we’re attempting to do is have the best team possible this year, but also have the ability that, if we get into a next-season situation, to be a very unique team with the most cap room of a team that’s as good as us,” he said. “That’s a very unique situation to have.”
With James Harden still stuck in trade limbo and Joel Embiid’s long-term future suddenly coming into question, the stakes could not be higher for the Sixers over the next 12 months.
“I think this year really is a make-or-break year in the sense that they have all this cap space going forward,” ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne said on NBA Today in early August. “[Embiid is] in very close communication with Daryl Morey and the front office, even owner Josh Harris, talking about their plan and strategy for the future. Their plan is: ‘We’ve got cap space after next year.’ Well, you better do something with that cap space. Does that mean free agents? Does that mean trades?”
Keith Smith of Spotrac currently projects the Sixers to have the sixth-most cap space of any team next summer at $32.9 million, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs ($55.3 million), Orlando Magic ($51.3 million), Utah Jazz ($41.6 million), Charlotte Hornets ($40.7 million) and Detroit Pistons ($32.9 million). Depending on where the salary cap lands and whether they take back any long-term salary in a Harden trade, they could potentially create more than $50 million in cap room.
So… who might they be eyeing as their big prize next summer? Here’s a rundown of some potential options.
The player options
Now that the Los Angeles Lakers have signed Anthony Davis to an extension that keeps him under contract through at least 2026-27, it’s difficult to imagine LeBron James ending his career anywhere but L.A. He could become a free agent next summer if he declines his $51.4 million player option for the 2024-25 season, but the smart money is on him staying with the Lakers.
If LeBron is off the table, the Sixers could instead turn their attention to the Lakers’ crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers. Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have $48.8 million player options for the 2024-25 season, and neither have signed an extension with the Clippers yet. (Leonard is already eligible to sign an extension, while George becomes eligible in September.)
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk told Zach Lowe that the Clippers are in “no rush” to sign Leonard to an extension at the moment (h/t Joey Linn of All Clippers). Earlier this summer, Lowe implied the Clippers might balk at giving either one of them four-year max extensions, as they’ve both missed plenty of time with injuries in recent years. If the Clippers don’t trade for Harden and again fall short of winning a title, how much longer will they be willing to commit to Leonard and George?
Either player would be a dream fit alongside Embiid and Maxey. Despite their respective health concerns, both are star two-way wings, which is the exact archetype that Morey is targeting. He told Gargano that an “elite” wing “who can play both on-ball and off-ball” would be the perfect complement to Embiid.
Might Leonard be interested in a reunion with Nick Nurse, who coached him to an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors in 2018-19? If not, perhaps O.G. Anunoby would. He has a $19.9 million player option for the 2024-25 season that he’s all but certain to decline, as he might be able to double that on the open market. Although the new CBA expanded how much teams can offer players in extensions, the Raptors’ offer tops out at four years and roughly $117 million, which likely won’t be enough to keep him from testing free agency.
As our own Paul Hudrick recently wrote, Anunoby might be the “ideal player to bridge the gap between winning now and in the future” for the Sixers, which sounds like something straight out of the Daryl Morey playbook. Although the Raptors endured a tumultuous 2022-2023 campaign, Anunoby also praised Nurse as a “great coach” and said he loved playing for him.
Jrue Holiday might be the biggest long shot among these options, although it would be hilarious to see the Process come full circle like this. There’s no guarantee that he’d get more than his $37.4 million player option on the open market, and he already revealed earlier this year that he plans to retire at the end of his current contract.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($15.4 million) and Caleb Martin ($7.1 million) aren’t in the same tier of stardom as James, George or Leonard, but they nevertheless could be valuable additions. KCP has already contributed to two championship teams, while Martin helped the Miami Heat make it to the NBA Finals this past season.
The top 2024 free agents
While Leonard and/or Anunoby might be open to a reunion with Nurse, it’s unclear whether the same holds true for Pascal Siakam. In March 2021, Siakam unloaded on Nurse “loudly and aggressively with words beyond standard cursing,” Michael Grange of Sportsnet reported at the time. “It got personal, lines were crossed and teammates had to intervene,” sources told Grange.
Even if Siakam was open to joining the Sixers—perhaps his mutual Cameroon connection with Embiid outweighs any animosity toward Nurse?—he’d be a somewhat tricky fit conceptually. He isn’t a particularly high-volume or accurate three-point shooter, and he tends to operate in the same areas of the floor that Embiid does. If the Sixers are going to commit 60-plus percent of their cap space to the frontcourt, they should ideally find someone who better complements Embiid.
If the Sixers strike out on LeBron, Kawhi, PG13 and Anunoby, DeMar DeRozan might be their next-best option on the wing. The 34-year-old is in the midst of a late-career renaissance in Chicago, where he’s averaged 26.2 points on 50.4 percent shooting, 5.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game over the past two seasons. However, he’s almost a complete non-factor from three-point range, and it’s hard to ignore his lengthy history of having negative on/off splits.
If the Sixers are in the market for a shooter, Klay Thompson might be their best available option. He shot 41.2 percent on a career-high 10.6 three-point attempts per game this past season, and he’s a career 41.6 percent shooter from deep. He’s already proved that he can play a critical role on a championship team, although he’s turning 34 in February and likely has no interest in leaving the Golden State Warriors unless they drastically lowball him.
The Charlotte Hornets wild cards
Miles Bridges is guaranteed to become an unrestricted free agent next summer since he accepted his one-year, $7.9 million qualifying offer with the Charlotte Hornets in July. The Hornets “wanted to bring back Bridges on a new contract, but Bridges’ side didn’t believe there would be the progress necessary to reach what it believed was still his market value,” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Bridges missed the entire 2022-23 season after he was arrested last June and charged with multiple offenses, including felony domestic violence. In mid-April, the NBA suspended him for 30 games, 20 of which he’s already served by virtue of not playing last season.
Prior to his arrest, Bridges seemed like he was headed for a max or near-max extension after he averaged a career-high 20.2 points on 49.1 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game in 2021-22. He’ll now spend the upcoming season trying to reestablish his leaguewide value and convince some team to sign him next summer.
More than two months into free agency, P.J. Washington remains a restricted free agent. Cap space has dried up around the league, leaving Washington with few options outside of negotiating a new deal with the Hornets, taking his one-year, $8.5 million qualifying offer or finding a sign-and-trade partner.
Washington averaged a career-high 15.7 points per game this past season, albeit on only 44.4 percent shooting. His three-point percentage has also dipped in recent years, as have his rebounding totals. He isn’t the best fit conceptually with Embiid, although he’s young enough—he turned 25 in late August—to help anchor a rebuild alongside Maxey if the Sixers eventually pivot away from Embiid.
If the Sixers strike out on their top free-agent targets, they could instead turn their attention toward the 2020 draft class. Any first-round pick from that year who doesn’t sign an extension with his respective team by Oct. 23 will become a restricted free agent next summer.
Among that group, Jaden McDaniels might be the most intriguing long-term target. He took on some of the toughest defensive assignments leaguewide last year yet still finished in the 91st percentile of Dunks and Threes’ defensive estimated plus-minus. The soon-to-be 23-year-old coupled that with averaging a career-high 12.1 points per game while shooting a personal-best 39.8 percent from three-point range.
If the Wolves don’t sign McDaniels to an extension this fall, they figure to match any offer sheet he signs next summer. That could force the Sixers to pivot to Devin Vassell or Saddiq Bey if they’re hoping to land a wing. Vassell averaged a career-high 18.5 points per game last season while shooting 38.7 percent from deep, and Bey drilled 40 percent of his long-range attempts across 25 games following his midseason trade to the Atlanta Hawks.
Patrick Williams is more of a mystery box than McDaniels, Vassell or Bey, but the Sixers might be able to pry him away for relatively cheap if he doesn’t take a big step forward this season. The No. 4 overall pick has yet to attempt more than 8.3 shots per game in any of his three seasons as he competes for touches with DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic in Chicago, although he did drill 41.5 percent of his three-point attempts last year.
If the Sixers do pivot away from Embiid within the next year, Onyeka Okongwu would be worth gambling on. He’s been buried behind Clint Capela in Atlanta, but his per-minute production—he averaged 9.9 rebounds, 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in only 23.1 minutes per game last season—hints at his upside in a full-time role. He’d be an awesome long-term complement to Maxey.
The Indiana Pacers acquired Obi Toppin for only two second-round picks this offseason, as Julius Randle boxed him out of major minutes in New York. In Indiana, he’ll have to compete with both Jalen Smith and No. 8 overall pick Jarace Walker for playing time. Unless he handily wins that battle this season, the Pacers might not sweat losing him next summer since they didn’t have to give up much to get him.
Speaking of the Knicks, the Sixers could try to arrange a Kentucky reunion by signing Immanuel Quickley to an offer sheet. But unless he or Maxey take a major leap forward as playmakers this year, they’d be a questionable long-term pairing as a starting backcourt. Either Quickley or Cole Anthony could make sense as a sixth man, but the Sixers would have to round out their rotation with other free agents as well.
The role players
If the Sixers whiff on the top free agents, they instead might decide to pursue a divide-and-conquer approach. They can spread their cap space around on a handful of role players, much like what the Houston Rockets did after they landed Fred VanVleet this summer.
Longtime future Sixer Buddy Hield could be a far less expensive facsimile of Klay Thompson. Hield is a career 40.2 percent shooter from deep, and Stephen Curry is the only player to have hit more three-pointers than him since he entered the league in 2016-17. Joe Harris (career 43.7 percent from three), Gary Trent Jr. (38.4 percent) and Reggie Bullock (38.4 percent) could also fit the mold of conscienceless three-point bomber.
On the three-and-D wing front, the Sixers could go after Royce O’Neale, who’s taken nearly 70 percent of his total shot attempts from three-point range over the last four seasons. He’s also been in the 70th percentile or higher in defensive EPM in all but one of his six NBA campaigns, including a career-best 81st percentile last year. Taurean Prince could be another option, although he might juice his free-agent value with LeBron and the Lakers this coming season.
One of Prince’s new teammates, Jarred Vanderbilt, isn’t much of a three-point threat, which limits his playoff viability. He’s a capable, rugged wing defender who could ease Embiid’s burden on that end of the floor, though. The same goes for Kyle Anderson, whose playmaking ability would also provide a welcome lift next to Maxey. (Who needs floor spacing anyway?)
Betting on Gordon Hayward to stay healthy at this point of his career is a fool’s errand, but it’s hard to ignore his production over the past few years. Since joining the Hornets ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, he’s averaged 16.6 points on 46.9 percent shooting, 4.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 triples in only 32.4 minutes per game. If he comes at a discount because of his recent injury history, he’d be a high-upside buy-low candidate.
If Maxey struggles as a lead playmaker this year in the absence of Harden, the Sixers should have plenty of point guards from which to choose. They could target a veteran playmaker like Mike Conley or Kyle Lowry, a steady swing starter/backup like Monte Morris or Tyus Jones, a combo guard such as Spencer Dinwiddie or D’Angelo Russell or even pursue a reunion with Markelle Fultz, who’s resuscitated his NBA career down in Orlando after a rocky start with the Sixers. Delon Wright could add some defensive prowess to their backcourt, too.
If the Sixers do go the cap-space route next offseason, they’ll also be armed with the room mid-level exception, which got a major buff in the new CBA. If the cap jumps by the full 10 percent, the room MLE will be worth nearly $8.5 million, which should be more than enough to lure an impact rotation player. Alec Burks, Malik Monk, Malik Beasley, Grayson Allen, Doug McDermott, Kelly Olynyk and Cedi Osman might all be in that price range, while cheaper options could include Otto Porter Jr., Andre Drummond, Mike Muscala, Patty Mills and Gary Harris.
Plenty will change between now and July 2024, but the Sixers should have plenty of free-agent options at their disposal. Whether they land one of the top-tier stars, a restricted free agent or a combination of role players is anyone’s guess, but it will likely determine how much longer Embiid plies his trade in Philadelphia.