The Philadelphia 76ers made their first major addition of the 2022-23 offseason by hiring Nick Nurse as head coach. Another big splash may be in order with James Harden widely expected to have a homecoming with the Houston Rockets. That splash could come in the form of Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, another star expected to hit the open market.
VanVleet softly floated the idea of following Nurse to Philly, saying that he hopes his former coach doesn't have too much success against him if he's still on the Raptors.
“If I'm not there and I'm staying in Toronto, then we want him to fail,” he said with a smile on Stadium's Inside the Association. He added that he's happy to see Nurse get another job, evidenced even further by his reaction to the news breaking.
A day after that clip hit the internet, ClutchPoints' NBA insider Brett Siegel reported that VanVleet is one of the Sixers' main targets to replace Harden, who's currently expected to rejoin the Houston Rockets. Like Harden, VanVleet has a player option that he is most likely going to decline. The 29-year-old point guard will be one of a few stars to be a free agent this summer. For numerous reasons, he would be a sound fit with the Sixers.
Over the last four seasons, Fred VanVleet has averaged 19.3 points, 6.7 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 39.9 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from deep. That field goal percentage jumps out and, admittedly, it's worrisome for someone with that volume of shots. But the way he impacts the game in numerous capacities makes up for it, and then some.
Adding VanVleet would help Nurse ease into things with the Sixers, who have a roster he is unfamiliar with. P.J. Tucker — who spent the back half of the 2016-17 season with the Raptors, when Nurse was an assistant coach — is the only player currently on Philly's roster who has played for him in any capacity. Nurse previously said that VanVleet sets the tone and always competes to win. Those intangibles would serve the Sixers well as they try to wash off the stench of repeated playoff failures.
The Sixers' primary goal this offseason is to improve the team around Embiid, likely adding more quick shooters and long, switchable defenders (or retaining the ones they had last season) in the margins. Keeping Harden to co-pilot the offense was their preference, but all signs suggest that they won't get it. Having FVV as a Plan B makes sense for more reasons than just his history with Nurse.
Yes, the backcourt of Tyrese Maxey and VanVleet would be undersized since neither player is taller than 6-foot-3. But the skill that each player has would overcome those concerns. One clear impact VanVleet would have is as a defender, where he has shown a knack for generating extra possessions in various ways.
Don't get it twisted: Fred VanVleet's defense is good. He's adept at poking the ball away from defenders and getting his hands on passes, anticipating where it's going and either deflecting/stuffing the attempt or sitting perfectly in position to pounce on it. His small but stout frame allows him to get close to the ball against taller opponents but not get powered through when they drive:
Having him around to teach Maxey how to poke the ball away from behind and use his hands to cause chaos would speed up his development on that end of the court. Maxey's shooting would not only be aided by VanVleet, but it would aid VanVleet, too. The fit between them would be too good for concerns over height to seep in.
While VanVleet had a poor shooting season last year and has never been a strong finisher inside the paint, he has been a pretty good shooter from distance in years past. In four of his six seasons as a legit rotation player, he has posted an above-average three-point percentage four times. His most efficient days came when he had two other high-volume scorers to lean on, which Embiid and Maxey would provide.
VanVleet is in the bottom quartile of shooters inside the arc at his position. This is an area of the game where lacking size can be an issue, especially without elite burst or hops. He partially offsets this inefficiency by drawing a decent amount of shooting fouls and shooting a high percentage from the free-throw line. His 3.7 free throws per game last season ranked 39th in the league — not amazing, but still pretty good.
Additionally, he's a good playmaker who avoids turnovers and keeps the ball moving. He could operate in the pick-and-roll with Embiid, feed Maxey on the break and find open shooters and cutters. Last season saw him post a career-high in assists per game (7.2, which ranked 12th) and his second-lowest turnover percentage (10.2 percent).
Harden's departure could actually help the Sixers land VanVleet since they don't have the cap space to sign him. They could sign-and-trade Harden to Houston — along with a draft pick to make it worth their while — rather than simply letting him sign. Such a trade would leave them a trade exception that will likely be worth about $33 million (Harden is likely to be subject to base year compensation rules, so his outgoing salary in a sign-and-trade would be worth his 2022-23 salary). An exception that big should offer plenty of space to absorb VanVleet's new contract.
The Sixers could also use the contract of Tobias Harris in a trade for VanVleet, leaving the Raptors (or a third team) with the veteran wing and his massive cap hit. However, since Harris' contract can be used for other trades that shake up the roster, going the route with the trade exception appears to be more useful.
While Fred VanVleet is talented, the harsh truth is that Harden is still the better player right now, meaning that he's still the best option as a co-star the Sixers have for Embiid, flaws and all. He may be on the decline, but he's still one of the craftiest offensive players in the league. His playmaking will especially be missed.
VanVleet wouldn't be brought in to be the new Harden — and nor should he. He can't wheel and deal like Harden can. What he can do is keep a second star guard in the Sixers' lineup and bridge the gap between the team and its new head coach.
The Sixers losing Harden would mean that they will probably have to lean further into an identity center around their defense. Fred VanVleet can greatly help there while serving as a secondary/tertiary offensive engine and shooting threat. As a contingency plan for Harden skipping town, Philly would be hard-pressed to find one as sound as Steady Freddy.