The Philadelphia 76ers are an organization that prides itself on being a championship-level team, yet they have had trouble advancing past the Eastern Conference Semifinals in recent years. After already making a change on the sideline by firing Doc Rivers and hiring former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, the Sixers may very well be poised to make a change in their backcourt with James Harden's free agency decision looming.
Harden owns a $35.64 million player option for the 2023-24 season that many around the league are anticipating him opting out of. Leaving the Sixers after just one full season and signing elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent is a very real possibility for Harden, which is why Philadelphia has begun giving thought as to who could replace the former league MVP. According to league sources close to the organization, Raptors All-Star guard Fred VanVleet has emerged as a potential replacement for Harden this offseason.
Fred VanVleet's free agency
VanVleet, who enters the offseason with a $22.82 million player option of his own, is expected to opt out of his deal with the Raptors to become a unrestricted free agent this summer. In one of the weaker free agent classes in recent memory, VanVleet projects to be one of the top talents available and arguably the best free agent guard given his age and skill set.
After a disappointing 41-41 season that resulted in them missing the playoffs, the Raptors enter this offseason knowing that change is on the horizon. There are no indications yet as to what Masai Ujiri and Toronto's front office have planned in terms of making another championship-like push or going through some kind of rebuild or retool process, but VanVleet is currently in the prime of his career and ready to capitalize on his value.
VanVleet has proven to be one of the better playmakers and facilitators in the league, and he already won a title in Toronto in 2019. The Sixers have been looking to add championship-level talents to their roster, and sources say the Raptors guard is high atop the team's target list should Harden leave Philadelphia this offseason. Leaving Toronto for Philadelphia is not that crazy of a scenario for the 29-year-old guard.
Fred VanVleet on Sixers hiring Nick Nurse
Philadelphia is in a better spot than Toronto to contend for a championship right now with Joel Embiid coming off an MVP season, and the connection VanVleet has with Nurse holds a lot of weight. VanVleet has always spoken highly of his former coach, which continued recently when he made an appearance on Stadium's Inside the Association.
“He's just a different voice that they haven't heard before, something outside the box who is going to bring new ideas, creative ideas,” VanVleet said of Nurse joining the Sixers. “It will be a breath of fresh air for them and anytime you're changing head coaches, that's pretty much what you're looking for. A new identity, a new voice for guys to kind of rally behind. … I think he'll have some success. Hopefully not too much if I'm not there and I'm staying in Toronto, then we want him to fail. But other than that, I am happy that he landed on his feet.”
— Stadium (@Stadium) May 30, 2023
VanVleet went on to claim that the bond he shares with his former coach from the five seasons they spent together in Toronto and the championship they won in 2019 is a “lifelong thing.”
How would Sixers land Fred VanVleet?
The idea of the Sixers replacing Harden with VanVleet this offseason is certainly a move that would raise many eyebrows across the league. VanVleet is a proven star who can play with or without the ball in his hands, and he's a two-way guard who already knows Nurse's system. Alongside guard Tyrese Maxey, the Sixers would have a very steady backcourt duo that would be comfortable playing off of Embiid.
Pursuing the Raptors All-Star in free agency is not as easy as it may sound, as the Sixers already carry a hefty payroll. Not including Harden's player option for next season, Philadelphia's total salaries exceeds $128 million, just about $6 million below the salary cap of $134 million. Unless they were to move contracts around prior to the start of free agency, the Sixers may not have the ability to sign VanVleet outright, making a sign-and-trade with the Raptors the most likely path to them landing him this offseason.
P.J. Tucker is set to make $11 million next season before having a player option next summer, while Tobias Harris is entering the final year of his contract valued at $39.2 million. Both players could be key options for the Sixers to potentially deal in a sign-and-trade to make the money work. De'Anthony Melton at $8 million and Furkan Korkmaz at $5.3 million are two other cost-saving options as well.
Another potential route is doing a sign-and-trade with Harden that sends him to the Rockets, which would create a trade exception worth around $33 million. Depending on VanVleet's salary desires, Philly could then be able to absorb the guard into that exception in a sign-and-trade deal with Toronto.
Other Fred VanVleet suitors
Projected to earn over $30 million annually in a new contract this offseason, VanVleet will have other suitors in free agency, assuming he does opt out of his contract with Toronto. The Orlando Magic have long been linked to VanVleet, while the Houston Rockets are another team to watch entering the offseason. Harden returning to the Rockets may very well open the door for the Sixers to pursue VanVleet, but Houston has options seeing as they will have close to $50 million in cap space.
While unlikely at this time, the San Antonio Spurs are another team that could sneak into the VanVleet sweepstakes. With Victor Wembanyama coming into San Antonio as the top overall pick, the Spurs could very well look to escalate their rebuild with a big-name free agent addition. The Spurs can open up close to $40 million in cap space this offseason.
Sixers have plenty of urgency
Another season ending in playoff disappointment for the 76ers has created a sense of urgency within the organization. Winning is the only thing on the minds of president Daryl Morey and general manager Elton Brand, which is why they are preparing for all scenarios as free agency rapidly approaches. It is worth noting that the Sixers would like to retain their current star in Harden, so that remains their priority entering the offseason.
This mindset is not necessarily shared, though, as Harden departing the City of Brotherly Love this offseason remains a strong possibility. The Sixers' financial situation is a little complicated, but they do have the ability to bring in a player like VanVleet on a new four-year, $120-130 million contract this offseason if they are willing to pay the taxes associated with such move.
The Sixers have not advanced past the Eastern Conference Semifinals since 2001 and have lost in this round of the playoffs five of the last six seasons. Ending this drought and making the conference finals is something Philadelphia is looking to do with immediate urgency, especially with Embiid playing the best basketball out of any player in the entire NBA.