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De’Anthony Melton is the key to the 2024 NBA trade deadline for the Sixers

If the Sixers look to upgrade their starting lineup at the trade deadline, are we sure Melton won’t be included in the deal?

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Sacramento Kings v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

With the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline less than two weeks away, asking prices are coming into focus. Even for most role players, teams are reportedly demanding at least one first-round pick.

James Edwards III of The Athletic reported the Detroit Pistons want “a good first-round draft pick and a good player” for Bojan Bogdanovic. Michael Scotto of HoopsHype reported the Brooklyn Nets want the “equivalent of two first-round picks” for Dorian Finney-Smith. Scotto also said the Golden State Warriors would need “a package involving an All-Star player or an overpay of draft picks to even consider” trading Jonathan Kuminga. So, there’s that.

If the Sixers believe Kyle Lowry will sign with them after his likely buyout, that could change what they’re targeting at the deadline. A backup ball-handler would become less of a priority, so they could turn their attention to the wings and bigs that they’re also considering. They haven’t shown up in many rumors to date—if anything, they’re mostly just batting down their reported interest in the likes of Zach LaVine and Dejounte Murray—but the next two weeks will be telling.

The Sixers are obviously set at center and point guard with Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, respectively. Nicolas Batum has been a godsend, but he’s a wild card leading up to the trade deadline given his uncertain future beyond this season. Some fans might ship Tobias Harris out for a Crumbl cookie, but his $39.3 million contract makes him harder to move unless the Sixers acquire a star on a max or near-max deal.

That leaves De’Anthony Melton, who has missed each of the past six games and nine of the past 11 with a lumbar spine issue. According to Liberty Ballers’ Paul Hudrick, Melton is ramping up to return to play and is traveling on the team’s road trip, but he won’t be reevaluated until Wednesday and will be listed as out until then.

Kelly Oubre Jr. has been starting in Melton’s place, but he’s been largely disastrous over these past few weeks. If the Sixers aren’t confident that Melton will get back to full strength soon, they can’t risk an overreliance on Oubre in a playoff run during this Embiid season. That could cause them to reconsider whether they need to target an upgrade at 2-guard between now and Feb. 8.

If they do, they’ll have to seriously consider including Melton in the return.

Melton, who’s on an $8.0 million expiring contract, has started in all 33 of his appearances this season and 58 of his 77 games last year. He’s averaging a career-high 11.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.1 threes and 1.6 steals in only 29.1 minutes per game, albeit while shooting only 39.3 percent from the field.

Melton’s efficiency is a concern, but he’s otherwise an archetypal three-and-D guard in a league that prioritizes his skill set. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll have to settle for a penny less than the $12.95 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception in free agency this offseason, if not far more. Not only will his experience starting for a championship contender work in his favor, but a change in the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement could as well.

Under the previous CBA, teams had to hit the salary floor—90 percent of the cap in a given year—by the final day of the regular season. If they didn’t, they had to distribute the shortfall (however far below 90 percent they were) to the players on their roster. Other than that, they faced no penalties.

In the new CBA, teams have to hit the salary floor by the first day of the regular season. If they don’t, they forfeit their share of the pool that luxury-tax teams pay the rest of the league. With the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers currently poised to have nine-figure tax bills, each non-tax team will likely walk away with an eight-figure check. Teams will go to great lengths not to forfeit that payment.

The Indiana Pacers might have recently become trendsetters regarding the salary floor. They handed Bruce Brown a two-year, $45 million contract this past summer, which they flipped earlier this month along with three first-round picks for Pascal Siakam. The Raptors have a $23 million team option on Brown for the 2024-25 season, so it was effectively either a one- or two-year balloon contract.

It’s unclear whether the Pacers gave Brown such a hefty deal with salary-matching purposes in mind or if it was just to help them reach the salary floor. Either way, other teams could follow suit this offseason and hand out large, short-term contracts to players who should maintain their trade value. Like, say, three-and-D players.

If Melton is heading into free agency expecting at least $15-20 million annually, his role on the Sixers would likely determine whether they’d be willing to re-sign him at that price. If they acquire an upgrade at 2-guard and push Melton to the bench, he also might prefer a starting opportunity elsewhere this summer. Although Melton’s optimal role from a team perspective might be as a third guard off the bench, one would imagine that a 25-year-old who has started in all but 19 of the 110 games that he’s played over the past two seasons would beg to differ.

The Sixers can only offer three first-round picks at the trade deadline—they can access two more on the night of the 2024 NBA draft—so they’ll have to be cautious with who to trade one for. Their fully unprotected 2028 first-round pick from the Clippers should be a highly valued trade asset in particular. They shouldn’t be willing to give that up for anything short of a star.

The combination of Melton, Robert Covington’s expiring contract and a 2026 first-round pick (either their own or the OKC/HOU/LAC pick that they’re owed) should at least get other teams to answer the phone. That might not be enough for either LaVine or Murray, but perhaps they wouldn’t even need to include a first-round pick and could flip Melton, Covington and a second-rounder or two for Bogdan Bogdanovic or someone of that ilk.

By no means do the Sixers have to trade Melton by the deadline. The Sixers’ starting five of Maxey, Melton, Batum, Harris and Embiid has a thermonuclear plus-33.3 net rating. They might largely be looking to reinforce their bench rather than mess with their full-strength starting lineup.

However, Maxey and Embiid are the Sixers’ only two untouchable players at the deadline. No matter how much value the supporting cast provides, they’re all expendable in the right circumstances. That includes Melton, particularly if the Sixers make a move that would push him to the bench and keep him there long-term.

In all likelihood, the Sixers will choose to keep all three of Melton, Batum and Harris. But they should be open to using Melton—whom they might lose for nothing in free agency this summer—to acquire a long-term answer next to Maxey if they believe they can find an upgrade at that spot.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.

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