Fresh off a second-round postseason knockout at the hands of their longtime rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers now must look ahead to a crucial offseason.
After finishing the regular season on a 16-game winning streak and notching a first-round victory against the Miami Heat, the Sixers cemented themselves as a legitimate Eastern Conference force. Though inexperience and a lack of discipline did Philadelphia in against the Boston Celtics, the team’s young core gives it enormous upside moving forward.
General manager Bryan Colangelo now has a two-year window in which he must round out his roster around the budding star duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Embiid’s five-year, $146.5 million max extension kicks in next season, and Simmons will soon follow suit with a megadeal of his own. He and fellow second-year big man Dario Saric will be eligible for extensions that begin in the 2020-21 campaign, which means the Sixers need to make their big free-agent splash either this summer or next. Otherwise, barring a drastic spike in the salary cap, their pathway to sizable cap space will close off after 2019.
Who should the Sixers have on their free-agent wish list heading into this summer? Let’s dive in.
Where they stand as of now
Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Sixers have nine players under contract for roughly $67.4 million in guaranteed salary, provided Embiid does not win Defensive Player of the Year or make the All-NBA first team this season. (Either honor would raise his salary for next season to $30.3 million rather than $25.25 million, based on the projected $101 million salary cap.) If they pick up their $1.6 million options on T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes, they’ll be sitting at nearly $70.6 million with 11 players under contract.
Philadelphia is also likely to have two first-round picks headed its way in June: its own (No. 26) and the Los Angeles Lakers’ selection. If L.A. doesn’t finish second or third during the May 15 draft lottery, the Lakers’ first-rounder will head to the Sixers (likely No. 10 overall). The combined cap hold for those two picks figures to be around $5.2 million and would apply to the Sixers’ books immediately, unless they agree to draft-and-stash one or both of the players they select.
Provided the Sixers pick up their options on McConnell and Holmes and keep both first-round picks stateside, they’ll have approximately $75.8 million on their books heading into the new league year. That leaves them roughly $25.2 million in cap space if they renounce the rights to all of their free agents. If they went that route, they’d also have the room mid-level exception at their disposal, which is projected to be around $4.4 million.
The $25.2 million of cap space alone wouldn’t be enough to lure the likes of a max-contract player such as LeBron James or Paul George. That doesn’t mean the Sixers shouldn’t pursue either of those options this summer, though.
4. Plan A: LeBron James
If James is interested in coming to Philadelphia, the Sixers figure to move heaven and earth to make it happen.
The four-time MVP will be eligible for a maximum contract with a starting salary of $35.35 million, and ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne reported in mid-December that he didn’t plan “to grant a Kevin Durant-esque discount to any team so that friends can get paid or a better roster can be constructed.” To accommodate those demands, the Sixers would thus need to free up an additional $10.15 million in cap space.
Provided they could find a willing trade partner, dumping Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson without receiving any salary in exchange would be the easiest way to do so. The two will combine to earn nearly $11.1 million in 2018-19, so sloughing them off would create enough cap space for James (even after factoring in an incomplete roster charge of $831,311 for having fewer than 12 players under contract). They could otherwise use the Lakers’ 2018 first-rounder to entice another team to take on the final year of Bayless’ deal, but that would be a far less optimal use of resources.
What reason would James have to join this young Philadelphia team? For one, he may be interested in more of an off-ball role heading into his 16th season, according to FS1’s Chris Broussard:
You know who would enable him to move into such a role? Ben Simmons.
With the Celtics looming large over the Eastern Conference — particularly once they get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back — the Sixers may give James his best chance of continuing to make deep playoff runs. If they won 52 games and finished third in the East without him, imagine what they’d do with him, a reintegrated Markelle Fultz and the No. 10 pick in this year’s draft (say, Mikal or Miles Bridges?) all in the fold. They’d also have the room mid-level exception to round out their depth chart with ring-chasers.
3. Plan B: Paul George
If James decides to stay in Cleveland or take his talents to the Western Conference, the Sixers should pivot toward Paul George as their plan B.
Whereas Philadelphia would have to jump through hoops to carve out enough cap space to sign James to his $35.35 million max salary, George is only eligible for a starting salary of $30.3 million since he has fewer than 10 years of NBA experience. If the Sixers used the stretch provision on the final year of Bayless’ deal, they’d open up an additional $5.7 million in cap space for next season, which would enable them to squeeze George in without any further alterations.
George has given no public indications that he’s considering Philadelphia as a landing spot, but the appeal would be easy to understand for both sides.
From the Sixers’ perspective, George would fill a number of voids that the Celtics exposed during the playoffs. He’d give them the go-to wing scorer they desperately need, one who’s adept at creating offense for himself and his teammates off the dribble. He’s active defensively, having ranked second in the NBA in steals per game this past season, which would make him a terrifying fit alongside Simmons, Embiid and Robert Covington in the Sixers’ starting five. George is also a career 37.6 percent three-point shooter, and he knocked down a career-high 244 triples this past season in Oklahoma City.
While a return home to Los Angeles reportedly appeals to George, he’d join two established top-tier players if he went to the Sixers. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Julius Randle all have the upside to reach that level eventually, but Embiid already made his first All-Star Game appearance this year, and Simmons figures to follow suit next season. Having that caliber of talent around him would afford George the luxury of being able to survive off nights, such as his 2-of-16 clunker in Oklahoma City’s closeout Game 6 loss against the Utah Jazz.
Outside of the Houston Rockets, no realistic landing spot would give George a better chance to win right away than the Sixers. Whether he’ll legitimately consider them as a free-agent destination remains anyone’s guess, though.
2. Plan C: A Kawhi Leonard trade?
If the San Antonio Spurs can’t resolve their differences with Kawhi Leonard, they might decide to cut their losses and trade him to the highest bidder. And while the Sixers may not have as many enticing trade assets as Boston or other potential suitors, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year has the power to influence where the Spurs send him.
Unless Leonard cannot overcome the mysterious quadriceps injury that limited him to only nine games this past season, he’s a veritable lock to decline his $21.3 million player option for the 2019-20 season. If he tells his agent he’s unwilling to re-sign with a particular team if they trade for him, they’ll have less incentive to offer San Antonio the sun and the moon to acquire him.
Would Leonard consider making Philadelphia his new long-term home? The familiarity he has with Sixers head coach Brett Brown, who spent more than a decade in the Spurs organization as the team’s director of player development and later an assistant coach, could go a long way toward deciding that.
As ESPN.com’s Bobby Marks suggested, the Sixers could structure a deal for Leonard around Saric, Fultz, Bayless and the Lakers’ 2018 first-round pick. They could also sub in Covington if the Spurs wanted to replenish their wing depth in a Leonard trade. While the Sixers could instead decide to wait it out until 2019 and attempt to sign Leonard as a free agent, there’s no guarantee he’ll be available then, as he could always make peace with the Spurs and sign a five-year, $219 million supermax contract extension this summer.
Besides, in an ideal world, Leonard wouldn’t be Philly’s only major addition this summer.
“I can construct you a way that Philadelphia could trade for Kawhi Leonard and sign LeBron James,” Windhorst said on ESPN’s SportsNation in late April.
Windhorst didn’t delve into specifics, but the fact such a move is even theoretically possible speaks to the wide number of paths available to the Sixers this offseason.
1. Plan D: One-year deals
If the Sixers’ major offseason gambits fall short, they’ll likely revert to the strategy they pursued this past summer. Rather than signing veteran contributors to multiyear deals, Philly could instead splurge on one-year contracts to roll over its wealth of cap space to 2019, when the likes of Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton all may hit the market.
Given their need for wing depth and shooters, the Sixers should focus there first.
Re-signing Redick could be an option, as he averaged a career-high 17.1 points per game during the regular season while burying 42.0 percent of his triples. Though he’s a minus defensively, the Sixers still managed to outscore opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during the regular season, which suggests his offensive upside outweighs his shortcomings on D.
If Spurs 2-guard Danny Green turns down his $10 million player option for the 2018-19 season, he could be a sneaky three-and-D target for Philadelphia as well. Green isn’t as prolific from three-point range as Redick, but he received a second-team nod on the NBA’s All-Defensive squad in 2016-17, and he finished sixth among shooting guards in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus-minus this past season. Given Brown’s familiarity with Green from their San Antonio days, a reunion wouldn’t seem out of the question.
If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is willing to take another one-year balloon deal like he did with the Los Angeles Lakers this past season, his career-high 38.3 percent mark from downtown may pique the Sixers’ interest. Avery Bradley may likewise intrigue them if they believe his struggles during the 2017-18 season were an outlier rather than a sign of what’s to come from him moving forward.
Trevor Ariza would make sense fit-wise if Houston opts to go in a different direction, although he may not be willing to sign a one-year deal. The same goes for Denver Nuggets sparkplug sixth man Will Barton, who’s likely looking to lock in long-term security after a career year. Wayne Ellington and Gerald Green could be potential targets to replace Marco Belinelli as a bench shooter, and the Sixers also would be wise to sniff around Seth Curry if he’s over the stress injuries that sidelined him throughout this past season.
In other words, the Sixers have a myriad options at their disposal when they consider how to improve their roster this summer. It’s up to Colangelo and the rest of Philadelphia’s front office to chart out the best path forward and execute accordingly.