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5 bigs the Sixers should pursue at the NBA trade deadline after Joel Embiid’s knee injury

The Sixers suddenly need a short-term stopgap at center thanks to Joel Embiid’s meniscus injury.

Philadelphia 76ers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

With six days to go until the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline, the Sixers find themselves in a pickle.

On Thursday, the Sixers announced that Embiid has a lateral meniscus injury in his left knee and will be out through at least the weekend as they evaluate treatment options. It’s currently unclear when—or if?—he will return this season, although the Sixers seemingly expect to have a better idea of that in the coming days.

Embiid’s timeline to return could affect the Sixers’ overall aggressiveness at the trade deadline. If they don’t expect him back at full strength by the playoffs, they may feel less pressure to make an all-in move. They were already telegraphing their intention to roll over their flexibility to the offseason, where they could create somewhere around $55 million in cap space, even before Embiid went down.

Either way, Embiid’s injury further incentivizes them to go shopping for another big man between now and Thursday. Whether it’s as a short-term stopgap or a rest-of-season fill-in, they need someone else beyond Paul Reed and Mo Bamba to soak up minutes at center.

The Sixers have plenty of expiring contracts to dangle, including Marcus Morris Sr. ($17.1 million), Robert Covington ($11.7 million) and Furkan Korkmaz ($5.4 million), along with up to three first-round picks and six second-round picks. That should be more than enough to snag a backup big man who can fill in as a starter as needed.

The Sixers shouldn’t be in on high-end center options unless a) Embiid is out for the year and b) they plan on trading him this summer. They already owe him $51.4 million next season, so spending more at that position would be a poor allocation of resources.

With that in mind, the following five big men should be on the Sixers’ radar leading up to the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

Andre Drummond, Chicago Bulls

Who wouldn’t love a reunion with an old friend?

Drummond played only 49 games with the Sixers in the 2021-22 season before they sent him to the Brooklyn Nets in the James Harden/Ben Simmons swap, but he quickly became a fan favorite during that time. The UConn product averaged 6.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks in only 18.4 minutes per game with the Sixers, and he started 12 games in Embiid’s absence.

Drummond is who he is at this stage of his career. The 30-year-old won’t provide much offensively outside of a few feet from the basket, but he remains one of the league’s most prolific rebounders on a per-minute basis. He’s hauling in 8.3 boards—including 3.3 offensive rebounds (!)—in only 15.9 minutes per game with the Bulls this season.

The Sixers have been far better on the offensive glass this season under Nick Nurse than they were in recent years under Doc Rivers, but that was with their 30-10 machine manning the middle. Their defensive rebounding rate has plummeted with Embiid off the floor this season, in part because Embiid ranks in the 91st percentile leaguewide in defensive rebounding percentage.

Drummond could help fix that more than any other realistically obtainable option. He’s also on a $3.4 million expiring contract, so he wouldn’t impact their offseason flexibility whatsoever.

Kelly Olynyk, Utah Jazz

If the Sixers want to pursue a higher-end option than Drummond, Olynyk might be their best bet.

The Sixers got a firsthand view of what Olynyk could provide in their 127-124 win over the Jazz on Thursday night. The 11-year veteran finished with 14 points, three rebounds and three assists in only 19 minutes off the bench. He’s averaging a career-low 8.1 points per game on the season, but he’s chipping in a career-high 4.3 assists despite playing only 20.5 minutes per night.

Olynyk is not a rebounding magnet like Drummond, but he’s a far more prolific three-point shooter. He’s shooting a career-high 42.7 percent from deep on low volume this year (1.7 attempts per game), and he’s knocked down 37.0 percent of his career attempts from long range. That shooting range could make him far more playable alongside Embiid than Drummond, Reed or Bamba are.

The Sixers aren’t the only team likely to be interested in Olynyk, though. Michael Scotto of HoopsHype recently reported that Olynyk has “drawn interest from various teams across the league” and “is considered Utah’s top trade candidate ahead of the deadline by rival executives.” Longtime NBA insider Marc Stein said the same back in mid-December.

The Sixers might have no interest in getting involved in a Danny Ainge-driven bidding war for Olynyk. But if Utah would settle for Covington’s expiring contract and the 2026 pick from the Clippers/Thunder/Rockets that the Sixers received in the Harden trade, that’s at least worth considering. Like Drummond, he’s also on an expiring deal ($12.2 million) that would not impact their offseason plans.

Mike Muscala, Detroit Pistons

The Process Sixers already came full circle this season with Covington returning to Philly. Wouldn’t it be fitting for the post-Process Sixers to come full circle as well?

Muscala is the legend who effectively gifted Tyrese Maxey to the Sixers back in 2020. It only seems fair for them to rescue him from the dregs of the NBA’s basement and give him a shot at winning his first ring.

The Pistons acquired both Muscala and Danilo Gallinari in mid-January for Marvin Bagley III, Isaiah Livers and a pair of second-round picks. Since doing so, they have resembled an actual NBA team for the first time all season. Still, both Muscala and Gallinari are on expiring contracts and don’t figure to factor into Detroit’s long-term plans given their respective ages.

Muscala has played sparingly since arriving in Detroit, averaging only 3.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game. He has started only 41 games across his 11-year NBA career, so unlike Drummond and Olynyk, he’d be more of a bench-only option in Philly. Still, he’s a career 37.6 percent shooter from deep who could help stretch the floor alongside Embiid (upon his return), Reed or Bamba. The Sixers could also trot him out at center in 5-out lineups.

Like Drummond and Olynyk, Muscala is on a $3.5 million expiring deal, so he wouldn’t affect the Sixers’ offseason machinations. Furkan Korkmaz and a second-round pick might be enough to get this done, and such a framework would help trim the Sixers’ tax bill, too.

Nick Richards, Charlotte Hornets

We’re now entering the sicko portion of the trade target list, but Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports reported Friday that Richards is “receiving quite a bit of interest from rival teams,” along with P.J. Washington.

Washington is in the first year of a three-year, $46.5 million extension, so he would slice into the Sixers’ offseason flexibility. They’d still be able to create around $40 million of cap space, but that would take them out of the running for a dream target such as LeBron James or Paul George barring further moves.

Richards is also in the first year of a three-year contract, but he’s earning $5 million both this season and next, and his $5 million salary in 2025-26 is fully non-guaranteed. He’s also averaging a career-high 9.6 points on 68.8 percent shooting and 7.8 rebounds in only 25.1 minutes per game for the rudderless Hornets.

Richards is more in the Drummond mold offensively than an Olynyk/Muscala type. He has hit exactly one three-pointer across his four-year NBA career, and his average shot distance this season is 2.9 feet away from the basket. Of his 199 field-goal attempts this season, only 10 have come outside of the restricted area or the paint.

Richards isn’t as prolific on the glass as Drummond, but he’s in the 67th percentile among all bigs leaguewide in defensive rebounding rate and the 72nd percentile in offensive rebounding rate. If the Sixers can land him—perhaps with Cody Martin and/or Process legend Ish Smith?—without giving up a first-round pick, it could be a sneaky home run for them.

Xavier Tillman, Memphis Grizzlies

Richards wasn’t the only big man whom Fischer mentioned as attracting interest from around the league. He said Tillman “has generated a wealth of interest from playoff teams” as well.

The Grizzlies have done an impressive job of not letting go of the rope amidst a Sixers-esque avalanche of injuries to key players, but they’re currently 13th in the West. With Ja Morant out for the season and Desmond Bane, Marcus Smart and Brandon Clarke likely sidelined through the All-Star break, the Grizzlies should already have their eyes on the 2024-25 season.

They made one move Thursday which suggests they’re thinking that way, as they sent Steven Adams to the Houston Rockets for Victor Oladipo’s expiring contract and three second-round picks. The Grizzlies projected to be hovering around the second apron next year prior to that deal, so they gave themselves some additional offseason flexibility by dumping the $12.6 million that Adams will make next year.

Tillman is on a $1.9 million expiring contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent in July. With Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Santi Aldama in the fold, it’s hard to imagine the Grizzlies shelling out big bucks to retain Tillman as well. They might be open to taking the best offer they get for him at the deadline rather than losing him for nothing this summer.

Tillman is shooting a career-worst 40.8 percent from the field this season and is only averaging 6.0 points and 4.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game. Since he’s on a minimum deal, no team will have salary-matching issues trading for him, which could drive up the Grizzlies’ asking price. He’s thus probably more of a long shot for the Sixers.

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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