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The Sixers have a $289 million problem on their hands

The Philadelphia 76ers are in trouble. In addition to falling behind two games to none against the rival Boston Celtics in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, the Sixers are cap-strapped for the coming years.

The 76ers’ playoff hopes died the moment All-Star guard Ben Simmons suffered a season-ending knee injury during one of the seeding games. But they had problems before Simmons went down. Most notably, Al Horford—who signed a four-year, $109 million ($97 million guaranteed) in the offseason—has proven ineffective when sharing the court with superstar center Joel Embiid.

Finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, the Sixers have been a major disappointment. They invested heavily in Horford and Tobias Harris. Harris inked a massive five-year, $180 million deal last summer to remain in Philadelphia. Neither Horford nor Harris stepped up their play in the first two games of the postseason. In fact, they have been downright awful. Horford tallied 10 points, while Harris shot 10-of-30 from the field.

Horford has struggled mightily, which has been the theme all season long. It’s why he was relegated to the bench during the regular season. The 76ers inserted Shake Milton into the starting lineup over Horford, who is earning $28 million this year. Horford returned to the starting-5 initially after Simmons’ injury, but was sent back to the second unit for Game 2 in favor of Matisse Thybulle.

Horford shot a career-worst 45% from the field this season. In an effort to provide more space for Embiid in the paint, Horford often lurked behind the perimeter on offense. He attempted a career-high 4.3 three-pointers per contest. Despite a shortened regular season in which Horford suited up for 67 games, he launched a career-most 283 three-pointers. These high totals are a cause for concern, especially considering he shot 35% from downtown, his worst percentage since his playing days with the Atlanta Hawks.

The Sixers are paying the price—literally and figuratively—for handing a mammoth contract to Horford, who turned 34 in June. Horford is no longer quick enough to play the 4 in a league that features smaller and quicker lineups. The 76ers should have known Horford could not mesh with Embiid. But the 76ers were too motivated to snatch Horford away from the Celtics, who had Philadelphia’s number for years. Horford delivered plenty of great moments for the Celtics against the 76ers, prompting the latter to give the big man a lucrative contract.

It will be nearly impossible to find a trade partner for Horford. The same could be said for Harris, who displayed flashes of excellence this season but not nearly enough for a guy making $33 million this year. The 76ers were counting on Harris in the absence of Simmons. But the forward has shot just 33.3% with zero 3’s while averaging more shot attempts (15) than points (14) in two playoffs contest.

Philadelphia locked up Harris for five years with top-notch money, despite the 28-year-old failing to ever reach elite status in the NBA. Harris has not been selected to an All-Star team and likely never will. But he’s here to say in Philadelphia—as is Horford—unless general manager Elton Brand manufactures a creative trade.

The 76ers’ poor front-office decisions are on full display these playoffs. As Horford and Harris struggle, Celtics star Jayson Tatum is playing MVP-level basketball on his way to soon ending the 76ers’ underwhelming campaign. Philadelphia infamously passed on Tatum in the 2017 NBA Draft—despite trading up for the No. 1 overall selection. The 76ers drafted guard Markelle Fultz, who they traded to the Orlando Magic in his sophomore season.

Tatum, who earned his first career All-Star selection in February, dominated each of the first two games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. He produced 32 points in Game 1, grabbing 13 rebounds with three blocks in a close victory. The 22-year-old followed that up with a 33-point outing in Game 2, hitting 12-of-20 shots (8-of-12 on 3’s) with five assists and five rebounds in a rout. Tatum has done most of his damage with the underachieving Harris guarding him.

While the 76ers are witnessing before their eyes the mistake of shelling out $289 million to Horford and Harris, former guard/forward Jimmy Butler is enjoying his best pro season with the Miami Heat. The 76ers did offer Butler a max contract last summer, but he declined and defected to Miami. While it’s not the 76ers’ fault he did not want to return, they should be blamed for using the money intended for Butler to sign Harris and Horford. It’s a miscue the 76ers paid for dearly this season. And barring a brilliant trade, the 76ers’ most recent offseason will stymie the franchise for another 3-4 years.