The Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline is roughly two weeks away, and it’s still anyone’s guess as to what the Sixers will wind up doing. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are already off the table, and the Sixers’ interest in Zach LaVine appears to be tepid at best.
Will they take a swing at trading for Lauri Markkanen or Dejounte Murray? Will they instead focus on role players like Bogdan Bogdanovic or Dorian Finney-Smith? Or will they keep their powder dry for the offseason, when they have the ability to create more than $55 million in cap space?
One thing they shouldn’t do? Go after a player on a max contract unless he’s a picture-perfect fit alongside Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.
The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement was designed in part to make superteams unsustainable over the long haul. It introduced a second salary-cap apron, currently set at $17.5 million above the luxury-tax threshold, along with severe roster-building restrictions for teams that cross said line. As of July 1, teams over the second apron won’t have a mid-level exception, can’t aggregate contracts in trades, can’t trade a first-round pick that’s seven years in the future and can’t acquire contracts when they sign-and-trade their own free agents elsewhere, among other things.
For a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are swimming in future draft capital, those restrictions might not thwart them from building around three max players. They have enough draft picks to continually replenish their supporting cast even if it’s difficult for them to acquire impact players via trade or free agency.
The Sixers are not the Thunder, though. They’ve already traded away two future first-rounders, and they might not have one of their own second-round picks until 2029. They will likely have their own first-round picks in 2024, 2026, 2028 and beyond, but it’ll be nearly impossible for them to sustain a championship-caliber rotation if they’re building around three stars on max deals.
Let’s use Siakam as an example of why.
Since Siakam has eight years of NBA experience, he will be eligible for a max contract that starts at 30 percent of next year’s cap. Based on the current $142 million salary-cap projection for the 2024-25 season, his max deal would start at $42.6 million. Embiid is in the first season of his four-year, $213.3 million max extension and is set to earn $51.4 million in 2024-25. He and Siakam alone would account for roughly $94 million in salary, which would leave the Sixers less than $48 million below the cap before factoring in any other players.
Maxey is headed for a max deal of his own this offseason. He’ll get 25 percent of next year’s salary cap ($35.5 million) if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team, and he could receive up to 30 percent of the cap ($42.6 million) if he does. Either way, the Sixers will keep his paltry $13.0 million cap hold on their books until they handle the rest of their free-agent business.
Let’s say Maxey falls short of an All-NBA nod but signs a 25 percent max contract this offseason. Maxey, Embiid, Siakam, Paul Reed ($7.7 million) and Jaden Springer ($4.0 million) would combine to make $141.3 million next season. Again, the current cap projection is $142 million.
Let’s briefly explore why it’d be difficult for them to sustain a championship-caliber supporting cast regardless of whether they acquired a third max player like Siakam via trade or free agency.
The trade route
Let’s say the Sixers trade Tobias Harris and all three first-round picks for a star whom they re-sign on a 30 percent max this offseason. That leaves them basically at the cap after factoring in Maxey’s extension, but they can use Bird rights to re-sign their own free agents.
The Sixers have full Bird rights on Melton, Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington and Furkan Korkmaz (lol), which means they can re-sign any of them to anything up to their maximum salary even if they’re over the cap. They have Early Bird rights on Danuel House Jr., which should let them offer him a starting salary around $13 million, and they have non-Bird rights on everyone whom they signed this past offseason, including Kelly Oubre Jr. and Patrick Beverley, which lets them offer only 120 percent of what each player earned this season.
Those are the only rules governing whether the Sixers can or can’t sign any of those players this offseason. But they also need to be mindful of the second apron unless they’re willing to deal with the new CBA’s cavalcade of trade restrictions.
Based on the $142 million cap projection for next season, the second apron currently projects to land at $190.8 million. A minimum salary projects to be around $2.1 million next year, so the three-max Sixers would be less than $30 million below the second apron if they signed 10 players to minimum deals. Re-signing Melton to anywhere near his market value—likely at least $15-20 million per year—would push them near the second apron alone.
If the Sixers re-sign any of Morris, Covington, Batum or Oubre on minimum or near-minimum deals, they’d be in better shape to sustain their bench depth with a three-star model while staying under the second apron. But if any of them want eight-figure deals, the Sixers would quickly begin to feel the financial pinch.
The bigger issue will be if some (or all) of them leave. Batum’s wife hinted last summer that this season would be his last. The Sixers can hope that Morris’ return home to Philadelphia and Covington’s return to his Process home will convince them to re-sign on cheap deals, but Batum and Oubre are far bigger wild cards this summer.
If Batum and/or Oubre leave and the Sixers are over the second apron, they won’t have a taxpayer mid-level exception to give a free agent. They’ll only have minimum contracts to hand out. Perhaps they find another Oubre-like steal on a minimum deal, but the volume approach that the Phoenix Suns took in the opening hours of free agency this past offseason hasn’t reaped many dividends yet.
Perhaps the Sixers’ top-end talent wins out in the playoffs regardless of their depth. But their supporting cast from 4-15 would be a challenge to fill out each year.
The free-agent route
Let’s say the Sixers instead stand pat at the trade deadline with an eye on handing out a 30 percent max contract in free agency. They’d have two main options in that scenario.
If they renounced their rights to every free agent not named Tyrese Maxey and trade away their 2024 first-round pick, they’d have more than $56 million in cap space this summer. They could sign someone to a 30 percent max and still have around $15 million in cap space left, along with the $8.1 million room mid-level exception. Beyond that, though, they’d only be able to hand out minimum contracts.
They could instead keep Melton’s $15.2 million cap hold on the books and still have nearly enough space to hand out a full 30 percent max contract. (They’d be less than $200,000 short based on current projections). They’d also have the $8.1 million room MLE at their disposal, but they’d be limited to minimum contracts beyond that as well.
Keep in mind what the Sixers would be giving up in either scenario. After renouncing all of their free agents except Maxey (and possibly Melton), the Sixers couldn’t use Bird rights to re-sign those guys once they go over the cap. Unless they’re able to retain someone via the room MLE or re-sign some of their free agents to minimum deals, they’d be at risk of losing losing Harris, Batum, Oubre, Morris, Covington and Beverley.
Free agency isn’t the only way for the Sixers to spend cap space this offseason. They could use some of that space on a trade that’s unbalanced salary-wise, or they could use it to facilitate a salary-dump. They aren’t likely to get a third player on a max deal that way, though.
The alternate path
Rather than pursue a third star on a max deal, the Sixers should aim their sights on a third star who’s already on a below-max contract.
Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray, who has popped up in the trade rumor mill in recent weeks, would be one such example. Murray signed a four-year, $114.1 million extension with the Hawks back in July, which doesn’t even begin until next season. He’s under contract through at least 2026-27 and is projected to take up less than 18 percent of the cap in each of those years.
While Murray is appealing from a financial perspective, the Sixers appear to be lukewarm on him. Kyle Neubeck of PHLY Sports noted the Sixers have recently “started pushing back on the possibility of trading” for Murray, as the Hawks’ price for him “is still high,” and he isn’t a “plug-and-play fit for the Sixers, either.” (Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported the Hawks want two first-round picks for Murray, while Michael Scotto of HoopsHype added that they aren’t “looking to take back salary past this season.”)
There has been no indication that the Brooklyn Nets will consider moving Mikal Bridges by the trade deadline, but more than anyone else, he’s the guy for whom the Sixers should empty their trade clip. He’s in the second year of a four-year, $90.9 million contract and will earn only $23.3 million in 2024-25 and $24.9 million in 2025-26. Unlike Murray, he’d be an ideal fit next to Embiid and Maxey from a skill-set perspective, too.
Markkanen is another dream trade target for many Sixers fans, and he’d fit this same bill salary-wise (for now, at least). Markkanen is earning only $17.3 million this season and only $18.0 million in 2024-25, although he’s set to become a free agent in 2025. That means the Sixers would have 1.5 seasons at most to reap the benefits of his below-market contract.
Markkanen might not even stay on said deal that long. Since his incumbent team can only offer him 140 percent of his 2024-25 salary as the starting salary of an extension, he’s an obvious candidate to renegotiate his contract this summer. The Sacramento Kings did the same thing with Domantas Sabonis this past offseason, and the Indiana Pacers did so with Myles Turner last January. The Sixers could do the same thing if they traded for him, but he’s likely to be on a max or near-max deal by 2025 regardless.
San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson is the wild card in this regard. He’s in the first year of a four-year, $74 million contract, and his salary drops from $20 million this season to $19 million next year and $17.5 million in both 2025-26 and 2026-27. Johnson isn’t a star on the same tier of Bridges or Markkanen, but he did average 22.0 points per game last year on 45.2 percent shooting. He’d be a viable swing on a long-term wing option to plug between Embiid and Maxey.
Fans might prefer pursuing a bigger-name star such as LaVine. But once the dopamine hit from that Woj bomb fades and the reality of roster construction around a three-max core sets in, it would become increasingly difficult for the Sixers to sustain a championship-caliber supporting cast around Embiid, Maxey and their third star.
The two-max-and-depth approach might not be as headline-grabbing, but it’s the right approach for a Sixers team that’s already light on draft picks moving forward.