The Philadelphia 76ers were four bounces of the basketball away from making the Eastern Conference finals. That was the difference between Kawhi Leonard’s second round Game 7 winner falling through the hoop or falling off. Despite the disappointing loss, it was another big step forward for the Sixers last season.
Joel Embiid became an All-NBA player, Ben Simmons made the All-Star team, and first-year general manager Elton Brand swung two huge trades to acquire Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. With that internal development and Brand’s aggressive trading, the 76ers set themselves up to be immediate contenders, while possibly solidifying their long-term future as well. Now, a big offseason looms and it’s one that seemingly only has two paths.
As it stands today, Philadelphia only has four players signed to standard NBA contracts: Embiid, Simmons, Jonah Bolden, and last year’s first round pick Zhaire Smith. Yet, they project to be well over the cap due to retaining Bird rights for Butler and Harris, as well as Early Bird rights for J.J. Redick. The first path the 76ers can take is the most logical one, and probably the most likely as well.
That path involves re-signing all of Butler, Harris and Redick. Butler will have max offers waiting for him from other teams, so Philadelphia will probably have to go there as well. And given Butler’s often cantankerous nature, it’s probably best to avoid giving him any sort of offer that he might find insulting.
Harris is a bit more of a mystery box. He’s very good, and has improved almost every season, but he’s never made an All-Star team and many see him as a tier below the max salary players. That said, because of the cap environment this summer, Harris could garner a max offer from a desperate team that misses out on adding a star and has cap space to either spend now or lose. Additionally, Harris is clearly the fourth or even fifth option if Butler also re-sings. Harris could want to go elsewhere to have a bigger role.
Redick's free agency has less nuance. If Philadelphia re-signs Butler and/or Harris and remains a contender, they’ll use Redick’s Early Bird rights to give him a modest bump in salary and keep him around. If they lose either Butler or Harris, they could be in a position to use some cap space to bump Redick’s salary even more. And, lastly, if they lose both Butler and Harris, Redick could make the decision to move to another contender.
Philadelphia's other free agents are also in interesting spots. T.J. McConnell is arguably the team’s first decision point. He’s been a key backup behind Simmons at the point guard spot, but isn’t an ideal fit because of his lack of shooting. He could also be looking for a bigger role this summer and might find it as lots of teams have rotation spots to fill at point guard.
The other two free agents of note are Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott, who both came over in the Harris trade. Marjanovic is close to Harris and that duo have made it clear they would like to play together going forward. Marjanovic is also a solid backup to Embiid because he can only really play for 15-20 minutes a night, and that’s all that is available behind the Sixers' franchise center.
As for Scott, he did well in Philadelphia as a backup stretch four. He doesn’t have a whole lot to his game beyond shooting, but that’s a valuable skill in today’s NBA. He’s someone the 76ers would like to retain, but the lack of Bird rights is a potential issue there.
James Ennis and Furkan Korkmaz were both varying degrees of disappointing last year for Philadelphia. Ennis struggled for most of his time with the 76ers before having some good moments in the playoffs. If he gets a bigger offer elsewhere, the Sixers will have to let him go, as they are limited in what they can do to re-sign him. Korkmaz is in a similar position, due to the 76ers declining their team option for the third year of his rookie scale contract. The most Philadelphia can pay him is just over $2 million, but that should be enough to bring him back if they so choose.
They’ll rely on both Smith and rookie Matisse Thybulle to give them rotation minutes next season on the wing. Both are lauded for their hard nosed approach to defense and that should earn them playing time right away. That would be a boon to a depth-challenged team.
As you can see, the first path this summer involves Philadelphia doing what they can to retain their own players. They’ve built a solid roster and would do well to keep it moving forward. The idea then would be to use various exceptions to add the depth that they lost when they traded away players to acquire Butler and Harris.
The second path would be harder for the 76ers to feel good about. It involves any, or all, of Butler, Harris and Redick leaving. That would could open up cap space, but with so many roster spots to fill, it’s unclear how Brand would approach building a team for next season. Philadelphia might be behind in chasing star replacements at that point, and that could mean the best route is to spread that money around as many second and third tier free agents as possible.
Given the price they paid to acquire Butler and Harris, and how it pushed the 76ers away from “The Process” years and into contention, it’s a good bet they’ll do whatever they can to re-sign both players. That, combined with some savvy depth signings, should make Philadelphia title contenders in a suddenly wide-open NBA.
Guaranteed Contracts (5): Jonah Bolden, Joel Embiid, Shake Milton (Two-Way), Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (0): None
Potential Free Agents (10): Jimmy Butler, James Ennis III, Tobias Harris, Amir Johnson, Furkan Korkmaz, Boban Marjanovic, T.J. McConnell, Greg Monroe, J.J. Redick, Mike Scott
“Dead” Money on Cap ($0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s): Matisse Thybulle
Maximum Cap Space: $61.4 million
Projected Cap Space: None. $31.8 million over