Six months before free agency begins, the Sixers’ top targets are already flying off the board.
The Los Angeles Clippers recently signed Kawhi Leonard to a three-year extension, and Paul George might not be far behind. The New York Knicks traded for OG Anunoby in December and seem likely to re-sign him this offseason. And on Wednesday, the Indiana Pacers traded Bruce Brown Jr. and three first-round picks for Pascal Siakam.
If Leonard, George, Anunoby and Siakam are all off the market, the Sixers’ top remaining options in free agency would be James Harden (lol), LeBron James (slightly less lol?), Klay Thompson (dust), Tobias Harris (oh god) and DeMar DeRozan (um...sure?). There will be plenty of other veterans, including Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, Buddy Hield and Mike Conley, but there might not be any high-end starters left.
That might have some Sixers fans ready to denounce the cap-space plan and go all-in by the trade deadline. There’s just one question: For who? Dejounte Murray? Mikal Bridges? Lauri Markkanen, if he’s even available? (Danny Ainge would demand Tyrese Maxey in return, too.)
Instead of panicking about their dwindling free-agent options, the Sixers could be anticipating a unique offseason thanks to the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement.
I think the apron penalties are going to force teams to shed good players. Detroit might be in a position to get one or two. Or maybe they aren't even thinking like that lol— Shamit Dua (@FearTheBrown) January 14, 2024
The introduction of a second salary-cap apron began to create team-building challenges last summer, but it’s set to ramp up even more after this season. Starting the day after the 2023-24 season ends—in other words, before the 2024 NBA draft—teams over the second apron won’t be allowed to aggregate salaries in trades and can’t receive contracts in return when they sign-and-trade away their own free agents.
Plenty will change between now and the end of next season, but eight teams already project to be within $15 million of the second apron. The Boston Celtics project to be more than $12.8 million over, while the Phoenix Suns ($5.2 million), Denver Nuggets ($1.1 million) and Memphis Grizzlies ($27,054) are also above the line for now. The Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks are all close to that line as well, which could result in major roster-construction questions depending on how the playoffs unfold.
If the Sixers enter the offseason with the ability to create $55-plus million in cap space, they could use some of that room to absorb contracts from other teams in unbalanced trades. Teams under the cap don’t have to send any salary back in a trade as long as they remain below the cap after the deal. That could be a huge asset if teams look to trim salary to stay below the second apron.
Last summer, the Atlanta Hawks sent John Collins to the Utah Jazz for Rudy Gay and a second-round pick. In other words, they effectively gave him away for free, just so Utah would take on the three years and $78.5 million remaining on his contract (including a $26.6 million player option in 2025-26). On a related note: The Jazz have gone 12-2 since Collins returned to the starting lineup just before Christmas, including wins over the Sixers, Bucks, Nuggets and Lakers.
There’s no guarantee that the threat of the second apron will cause more teams to salary-dump quality starters like Collins. Some might just decide to live with the team-building consequences, especially if they already have their core locked in for the next few years. The second apron only becomes restrictive for teams that are looking to make major changes via free agency or trades. If teams are fine going without any mid-level exception in free agency and being unable to take back more money in salary than they send out in trades, they might be fine rounding out their roster with minimum contracts and calling it a day.
Some teams likely won’t have that luxury, though. Team ownership groups typically don’t want to shell out that type of money unless they’re paying for a championship contender. Teams that fall well short of that threshold this offseason could be in salary-shedding mode, and the Sixers would be poised to benefit.
The Timberwolves profile as an obvious problem spot. With Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels’ extensions kicking in next year, they’re projected to be less than $3.8 million below the second apron, and Conley is becoming a free agent this offseason. Unless he’s willing to take a min deal, re-signing him will push the Timberwolves above the second apron, which would severely restrict their flexibility for the rest of the 2024-25 season.
If they fall short of the Western Conference Finals this season, they might feel compelled to explore the market for either Rudy Gobert or Karl-Anthony Towns, since they have more than more than $100 million committed to centers alone next year. The Sixers obviously don’t need a center so long as Joel Embiid is in town, but they could potentially work their way into the deal as a salary-dumping ground if needed.
The salary-dump route might sound a little too Process-y amidst Embiid’s prime and Tyrese Maxey’s ascension to stardom, but this offseason might not be typical in that regard. Salary dumps are usually fringe rotation players, not every-night starters. The looming threat of the second apron could change that over the next few months, though.
Would the Warriors consider attaching assets to get off the three years left on Andrew Wiggins’ $109 million contract? Might the Damian Lillard-less Portland Trail Blazers want a do-over on the five-year, $160 million deal that they handed Jerami Grant this past offseason? Could the tax-conscious Hawks look to trim salary by sending De’Andre Hunter into another team’s cap space?
As the Sixers’ free-agent options dwindle, that could help inform their approach to the upcoming Feb. 8 trade deadline. If they don’t need to hoard $50-plus million to offer a max contract to a free agent, there’s no harm in spending some of that space early by acquiring someone on a multi-year contract. They could still have more than $30 million in cap room even if they trade for Dejounte Murray, for instance, which would leave them with plenty of offseason flexibility.
Ideally, the Sixers would aggregate everyone whom they don’t play on re-signing this summer and flip them for a long-term starter by the trade deadline. That would allow them to operate as an over-the-cap team this summer, so they could re-sign most of their own free agents via their Bird rights. But if they wait to make their big move until the offseason, it’s worth remembering that an openness to salary dumps could be even more valuable than usual this offseason.