Remember when Joel Embiid scored a franchise-high 70 points and the Sixers’ vibes were uncharacteristically great? That was roughly two-and-a-half weeks ago.
Since then, Embiid suffered a lateral meniscus injury that required surgery Tuesday and will likely sideline him for the next 6-8 weeks, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. Meanwhile, the Sixers have been in free fall without him, having lost six of their past seven games heading into Wednesday’s home showdown with the Golden State Warriors.
Embiid’s injury likely threw a wrench into the Sixers’ plans ahead of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline. Whereas they might have once felt pressure to go all-in amidst a historic Embiid season, that may dissipate if they’re unsure when—or if—he’ll return this year. They might instead be more inclined to make on-the-margins upgrades now that don’t meaningfully impact their grand offseason plans.
Luckily, we’re starting to get some concrete clues from insiders about how Daryl Morey and Co. are approaching Thursday’s deadline.
How Joel Embiid affects their deadline stance
Some fans may be ready to write off this season in the wake of Embiid’s injury. The Sixers do not appear to be in that mindset as of now, though.
On Tuesday’s episode of NBA Today, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the Sixers “are very much weighing the possibility” that Embiid returns this season and will continue to be buyers” at the trade deadline as a result. Charania characterized the Sixers as “active so far” and hoping to add another wing and/or another scorer.
Charania did note that Embiid’s return will hinge both on how his rehab goes over the coming weeks as well as where the Sixers are in the standings by mid-to-late March. If they’ve fallen into the play-in mix—or out of the play-in entirely—it might make less sense to rush Embiid back than if the Sixers snag home-court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.
Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports reported that the Sixers are “exploring conversations with a variety of teams,” but he noted that they’ve “left rival teams with the impression they are still wary of taking back long-term salary at this juncture.” The Sixers could create around $55 million in cap space this offseason, and they appear to be operating with that very much in mind ahead of the trade deadline.
Still, for those of you who are already doom-scrolling Tankathon… at least wait until Friday.
A stopgap big man is the Sixers’ most obvious need in the wake of Embiid’s injury. They can’t count on Paul Reed and Mo Bamba to hold down the center spot in his stead, especially with zero depth behind them. If either of them miss a game—much less both of them—the Sixers would have to go with Marcus Morris and/or Tobias Harris as small-ball 5s at times out of necessity.
Andre Drummond, Kelly Olynyk and Mike Muscala are among the options who would make sense for the Sixers to target. They shouldn’t give up a first-round pick for a stopgap option, although they might be more inclined to pay up for someone who could play alongside Embiid upon his return. A reliable floor-spacing big would give them an element that they’ve lacked in recent years. (Think of it as their very poor man’s version of Kristaps Porzingis in Boston.)
They also need more three-point shooting in general. They rank 26th in the league with 31.4 three-point attempts per game and 27th with only 11.4 makes per game. That’s dropped to 28.5 attempts per game over their past six games, and they hit only 9.7 per game (33.9 percent).
Injuries were a huge factor, as De’Anthony Melton missed all six games, Embiid missed five and Harris, Morris and Nicolas Batum (among others) bounced in and out of the lineup. But without Embiid’s league-leading 35.3 points per game on the floor, the Sixers can’t lose the math problem with the three-point line as well. They should be looking for high-volume, high-efficiency options who can help them level the long-range playing field.
With Robert Covington’s health status still up in the air, the Sixers would also benefit from adding another three-and-D wing. They might have to go through the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler just to get to the NBA Finals, after all.
What can they even trade?
Embiid and Tyrese Maxey are the only two players on the Sixers who should be effectively untouchable at the trade deadline. Beyond that, the Sixers have 11(!) expiring contracts and a bundle of draft picks to offer.
Harris ($39.3 million), Morris ($17.1 million), Batum ($11.7 million), Covington ($11.7 million) and Melton ($8.0 million) are the Sixers’ most notable expiring deals to varying degrees. Of those five, the Sixers would likely prefer to use Covington’s contract for salary-matching purposes first, if only because of his uncertain rest-of-season outlook.
The Sixers shouldn’t be looking to salary-dump Batum, Melton and Harris just because they’re on expiring contracts. They have Bird rights on all three this offseason, so they could re-sign any or all of them if so desired. But since any of them could leave for nothing in free agency, the Sixers should be open to moving them in certain frameworks.
Beyond that, the Sixers have up to three first-round picks and six second-round picks available for trade at the moment. They’ll gain access to two more—their own 2024 and 2031 first-round picks—on the night of the 2024 draft. The crown jewel of that haul is an unprotected 2028 first-round pick from the Los Angeles Clippers, whose three stars will either be ancient by NBA standards, on another team or retired by then.
The Sixers shouldn’t be willing to move that Clippers pick for anything short of a star. However, they might be open to dealing the 2026 first-rounder that they’ll receive from the Clippers, Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder (the worst of the three) for certain needle-moving players.
Drummond, Olynyk and Muscala would all make sense as stopgap center targets, as would Charlotte’s Nick Richards and Memphis’ Xavier Tillman. The Sixers shouldn’t pursue higher-end options such as Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton or Jonas Valanciunas of the Pelicans, particularly if their contracts extend beyond this season (such as Atlanta’s Clint Capela).
Fischer highlighted Indiana’s Buddy Hield—a longtime #FutureSixer—and Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanovic as two known targets for the Sixers. Hield is on a $19.3 million expiring contract that would be easy for the Sixers to match, while only $2 million of Bogdanovic’s $19 million salary for the 2024-25 season is guaranteed until June 29.
The Sixers have repeatedly batted down their reported interest in Chicago’s Zach LaVine (before his season-ending foot surgery) and Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray, as they seemingly don’t want another high-usage, on-ball player taking those reps away from Maxey. Instead, they might turn to the buyout market to fill their need for another ball-handler if the Charlotte Hornets wind up waiving Kyle Lowry.
The 37-year-old Lowry is a Philadelphia native and a Villanova product who could help lift his hometown team until the reigning MVP returns. The storylines basically write themselves. Lowry also won a ring under head coach Nick Nurse in Toronto, and Daryl Morey put his career on the fast track for acquiring him back in his Houston days. That should give the Sixers a major advantage over other teams in the buyout market, with or without Embiid.
Beyond that, expect the unexpected. Maybe the Sixers will swoop in on either Dorian Finney-Smith or Royce O’Neale from the Nets. Maybe they’ll swing a deal for Washington’s Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. Maybe they’ll swipe Cody Martin from the Hornets or Alec Burks from the Pistons. With their arsenal of expiring contracts and draft picks, there’s no shortage of possibilities for the Sixers to explore.
What they end up doing is anyone’s guess at this point.
Let’s wrap up on everyone’s favorite topic: the luxury tax.
The Sixers are roughly $4.3 million above the $165.3 million tax line at the moment. Their tax bill would be only $6.5 million, a pittance for an owner who recently chipped into a $6 billion effort to purchase the Washington Commanders, but that isn’t why they might look to dip below that line at the deadline.
Since the Sixers paid the tax in both 2020-21 and 2021-22, they’d activate the repeater-tax penalties for next season if they stay above the tax line this year. If they drop below it, they’d completely reset the clock on the repeater tax, which means they wouldn’t be subject to it until 2028-29 at the earliest.
Sixers fans by and large don’t care about tax issues, but the ownership group is presumably mindful of them. When you’re getting taxed $6.75 for every $1 spent—which will be for teams roughly $15 million over the tax line starting in 2025-26 (see: page 184 here), teams will likely try to push off that repeater rate as long as possible.
Trading Furkan Korkmaz’s $5.4 million expiring contract into another team’s traded player exception would push the Sixers more than $1 million below the tax line, leaving them enough room to sign Lowry on the buyout market and still stay under the tax. It would likely cost them at least one second-round pick to dump Korkmaz that way, though.
Instead, the Sixers figure to try using larger deals to help them duck below the tax as well. They did the same when they moved Matisse Thybulle at last year’s deadline, so don’t be surprised if they make a financially motivated move or two by Thursday.