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How Joel Embiid’s knee injury could impact Tobias Harris’ future with the Sixers

If the Sixers don’t expect to re-sign Tobias Harris this summer, should they look to move him by Thursday’s NBA trade deadline?

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Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sixers find themselves in an unenviable position less than 48 hours before the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline. Star center Joel Embiid is expected to be sidelined for at least four weeks after he underwent a procedure Tuesday on a lateral meniscus injury in his left knee, and it’s unclear when (or if) he’ll return this season.

The best-case scenario is that he’ll be back in a month or two, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. The worst-case scenario is that he’ll be done for the season. However, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said there “continues to be a belief that the door isn’t closed on the possibility of Embiid returning this season.”

That uncertainty clouds the Sixers’ outlook at the trade deadline. If the Sixers expect Embiid to return by the playoffs, they need to tread water as best they can until then. They’ll have to pursue another big man to complement Paul Reed and Mo Bamba until Embiid returns, and they may need to add more scoring punch to help replace his league-leading 35.3 points per game.

If Embiid is out for the season, though, the Sixers might instead start looking ahead to the offseason, where they have the ability to create around $55 million in cap space. If they aren’t feeling pressure to maximize a peak Embiid season, they likely won’t want to sacrifice much—if any—of that offseason flexibility with a move at the trade deadline.

Either way, they’re facing a decision with their 11 (!) soon-to-be unrestricted free agents. That includes Tobias Harris, who is (mercifully) in the final year of his five-year, $180 million contract.

If the Sixers decide to ride out the season with Harris, they’re reportedly poised to face competition for him in free agency. James Edwards III of The Athletic reported Monday that the Detroit Pistons “remain interested” in Harris, who played for them from 2016-18.

“While a move before the deadline for Harris wouldn’t surprise me, the feeling I’ve gotten is that the Pistons are more likely to go after Harris in the summer using cap space,” Edwards wrote. “Detroit appears to be on the fence about giving up any type of asset for a player it could simply sign this summer.”

Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday that the Pistons have “long shown an interest in a reunion” with Harris. However, he noted the Sixers seemingly don’t want to flip Harris in a framework for Bojan Bogdanović, who’s owed $20 million this season and has only $2 million of his $19 million salary fully guaranteed in 2024-25.

The Pistons’ interest in Harris puts the Sixers in a pickle, though. They should only keep him past the deadline if they’re OK with potentially losing him for nothing in free agency, because the Pistons have more than enough cap space to sign him. If they’re insistent on getting something in return for Harris, they should consider moving him by Thursday.

Harris’ $39.3 million expiring contract is one of the biggest salary-matching chips that any team can offer at the deadline. With the second apron looming over roughly one-third of the league next season, teams in search of long-term cap relief would likely seek out the Sixers due to their wealth of expiring deals. The Sixers could also offer some combination of Marcus Morris ($17.1 million), Robert Covington ($11.7 million) and Furkan Korkmaz ($5.4 million), but Harris’ contract is by far their largest expiring deal.

The key is whether the Sixers are willing to preemptively cut into their offseason flexibility at the trade deadline. If not, they’d have to do an expiring-for-expiring swap, which likely wouldn’t generate a huge return for them.

For instance, the Sixers could call up the Charlotte Hornets and see if they could flip Harris for Gordon Hayward, but the Hornets likely wouldn’t want to attach additional assets. That framework wouldn’t necessarily make the Sixers better this year even if Embiid returns, but they would acquire Hayward’s Bird rights, which would allow them to re-sign him this summer even if they’re over the cap. If they’re more open to continuing a partnership with Hayward beyond this season than Harris, that would at least be worth considering.

The Sixers could open additional doors at the trade deadline if they decide to effectively punt on this season and are willing to take on longer-term deals. Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine would be one such example of that.

LaVine is now out for the season after undergoing foot surgery, which further diminishes his already minimal trade value. Even before news of LaVine’s surgery broke, NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reported that there was “a growing feeling among rival executives that the Bulls may have to attach another asset to move LaVine,” which sources told him the Bulls were “hesitant to do.” He also floated the possibility of them flipping LaVine in a salary dump for expiring contracts, although he said the Bulls “weren’t at that stage yet.”

The Sixers have spent the past few months batting down any reported interest in LaVine, so this might be a non-starter either way. If the Bulls change course and decide to salary-dump him this summer, the Sixers could always take him into their cap space then. But to create that amount of cap space, they’d have to renounce the rights to most of their free agents, including Harris and at least one of De’Anthony Melton and Nicolas Batum.

The Sixers could instead use Harris’ expiring contract to acquire LaVine now—either as a salary dump or with additional assets attached (ideally)—which would then allow them to operate as an over-the-cap team this offseason. They wouldn’t be able to make a big free-agent splash, but they would be able to re-sign the likes of Melton, Batum and their other free agents via whichever Bird rights they have on each player.

That’s one option, but that approach doesn’t seem to be on the table for the Sixers at the moment. On Tuesday’s edition of NBA Today, Wojnarowski told ESPN’s Malika Andrews that the Sixers are remaining aggressive even though they aren’t certain when (or if) Embiid will return.

“They know there’s risk in doing a deal or deals here and then he doesn’t come back this season, or he’s not himself,” Wojnarowski said. “But I think they’re willing to live with that risk because they have the reigning MVP, a player who was on the way to another MVP this season, and if they can have him healthy in the playoffs or healthy enough, they want to have a group around him that gives them a chance.”

That seems to suggest Harris will stick around beyond the deadline in hopes of a late-season return for Embiid. But if the Sixers change course between now and 3 p.m. ET Thursday, they could use Harris as a way to get a jump-start on their offseason plans.

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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