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LeBron James to the Sixers adding up

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How the Philadelphia 76ers could sign LeBron James in free agency

Will LeBron James play out the twilight of his career with the Philadelphia 76ers? Considering how easily they can carve out enough cap space to offer him a maximum contract, no one should discount them as a possible landing spot.

On Feb. 27, Sixers color commentator Alaa Abdelnaby lit Twitter ablaze when he said the following on Philly Sports Talk (via Matt Haughton of NBC Sports Philadelphia): “I’ve told this to a few other people, and I have no problem saying this. My brother lives in the Philadelphia area and he told me that LeBron, last week through a superintendent, was in the area checking out some private schools during the All-Star break.”

When reporters asked James about the reported school visit prior to the Sixers-Cavaliers game on March 1, he quickly brushed it off. Then again, he’s smart enough to deny such a rumor regardless of whether it’s true.

Either way, the speculation linking James to the Sixers isn’t going away anytime soon. And while the team doesn’t currently have enough salary-cap space to offer him a max contract, it could get there with a few minor moves.

In September, the NBA projected the 2018-19 salary cap to be set at $101 million, per Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports. That remains subject to change until early July—it could go either higher or lower, depending on how much revenue the league brings in throughout the playoffs—but James’ max contract will fluctuate accordingly. He’ll be eligible for a starting salary worth 35 percent of the cap, which would be $35.35 million based on the NBA’s latest projections.

How do the Sixers stack up cap-wise? As of now, they have nine players under contract next season for a combined $67.4 million, assuming Joel Embiid does not make the All-NBA first team this season. (If he does, his extension will begin at $30.3 million rather than $25.25 million, depriving the Sixers of an additional $5.05 million in cap space.) Philadelphia also has cheap team options on Richaun Holmes ($1.6 million) and T.J. McConnell ($1.6 million), both of which the Sixers will likely pick up.

With those 11 players under contract, the Sixers already would have approximately $70.6 million in salary commitments for next season, leaving them a few million short of the requisite cap space for James’ max contract. They’re also in position to have two first-round draft picks, provided the Los Angeles Lakers don’t finish between second and fifth in this year’s lottery. Those two first-rounders will immediately count on the Sixers’ books based on their respective rookie-scale amounts.

Heading into March 4, the Sixers would be slotted to select 11th (via the Lakers) and 18th (their own pick). The rookie-scale salary for the No. 11 overall pick is nearly $2.8 million, while the scale amount for the No. 18 pick is roughly $1.95 million. Provided Philadelphia doesn’t trade one or both of those picks, the two rookies would count for roughly $4.75 million against the team’s books.

After adding the salaries for those two first-rounders, the Sixers will have roughly $75.3 million in salary commitments heading into free agency. That leaves them with approximately $25.7 million in cap space once they renounce the rights to all of their free agents and their cap exceptions, which is still $9.65 million shy of what they’d need to offer James a max contract.

So, how could they carve out that additional space? They could pursue any one of the following strategies.

Option 1: Stretch Bayless and pray for a discount

The Sixers can immediately save $5.7 million by stretching Jerryd Bayless’ $8.5 million salary for 2018-19 over the next three seasons. That alone wouldn’t give them enough cap space to sign James to a full max deal, but they’d have roughly $31.4 million available.

Would James be willing to take nearly $4 million less than his 2018-19 max salary? The Sixers shouldn’t bank on that.

“Teams who hope to pitch James next July ought to plan to have the max to offer, which is projected to be about $35 million,” ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne wrote in mid-December. “For now, there are no plans for James to grant a Kevin Durant-esque discount to any team so that friends can get paid or a better roster can be constructed.”

A few months ago, James told reporters he was hoping to “break the mold, so when the next guy comes, he can still get $200 or $300 million and be 33 years old.” If the Sixers are serious about luring James, they need to get to the full $35.35 million figure.

Option 2: Trade Bayless + Justin Anderson or the No. 18 pick

If the Sixers instead found a way to trade Bayless without taking back any salary in return, they’d have roughly $66.75 million committed to their 12 remaining players (including the two first-round picks). That would leave them only $1.1 million short of the $35.35 million they’d need to offer James a full max deal.

Carving out that remaining space isn’t as simple as trading any one of their remaining, players, however.

When teams have fewer than 12 players on their books, they’re subject to an “incomplete roster charge” equivalent to the minimum rookie salary for each player under 12. So, if the Sixers wanted to entice teams to take on Bayless’ remaining contract by adding another player, they’d have to factor in an incomplete roster charge of $831,311 for each additional player they included beyond Bayless.

Packaging Bayless with one of Furkan Korkmaz (owed $1.74 million in 2018-19), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot ($1.54 million), Holmes ($1.6 million) or McConnell ($1.6 million) would still leave them a few hundred-thousand short of a full max for James. Justin Anderson, who’s owed $2.5 million in 2018-19, would be the most logical candidate to dangle in terms of the cap implications.

Anderson, the 21st overall pick in 2015, will enter the final year of his rookie contract in 2018-19. Whichever team acquired him would thus absorb matching rights for him as a restricted free agent in 2019. Would a package of Anderson and one or more second-round picks—the Sixers have four (!) in this upcoming draft alone—be enough to convince another team to take on Bayless’ expiring deal?

The Sixers could also attach the No. 18 pick to Bayless’ contract to carve out enough cap room for James’ full max. They’d have less than $15,000 in remaining cap space after a James max if they went that route, though.

Option 3: Trade Bayless + two of Holmes, Korkmaz and Luwawu-Cabarrot

If rival teams refuse to bite on the Anderson bait, the Sixers could instead package Bayless with two of Holmes, Korkmaz or Luwawu-Cabarrot. Even if they trade the cheapest two members of that trio, Luwawu-Cabarrot and Holmes, they’d have roughly $35.7 million in cap space, giving them nearly $380,000 to spare after doling out a max deal for James.

Holmes will enter the final year of his contract next season, after which he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. While he’s productive in limited minutes, his inconsistent playing time this season suggests he’d likely be on the chopping block. Giving up Korkmaz or Luwawu-Cabarrot in a cap dump wouldn’t be an ideal use of resources, especially since both still have two years remaining on their cost-controlled rookie deals, but the Sixers may have no other choice if James isn’t willing to take a penny less than a max contract.

In terms of finances, the Sixers might be better off pursuing Paul George, whose max salary next season is 30 percent of the cap ($30.3 million based on current projections), rather than James. Stretching Bayless would give them enough cap space to sign George to a max deal without having to give up any of their other young players. George has given no indication that he’s considering Philadelphia as a possible free-agent destination, though.

If James expresses the desire to sign with the Sixers, general manager Bryan Colangelo presumably would stop at no lengths to accommodate him. Luckily, the Sixers already aren’t far away from being able to offer James the full max deal he’s likely to demand.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com. All contract information via Basketball Insiders. All scale information via RealGM.com.

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