Philadelphia has worked out of a place of uncertainty to rise to the top of the east early on. With cap space for free agents, the 76ers might not be done.
After another gut-wrenching second-round exit in the NBA Playoffs, one that saw Philadelphia blow a 3-2 lead with an opportunity to close things out in the confines of their own arena, the franchise’s direction was in question. James Harden had a player option that most assumed would be declined to negotiate a new deal — potentially in Philadelphia — but as everyone saw play out in a very public manner, that is not what went down.
Instead, Harden opted in to the final year of his previous deal, but he threw in a trade request while he was at it. The situation had hints of déjà vu baked into it, considering the team went through a similar song and dance just two seasons ago with Ben Simmons. For Morey, however, this was even worse, considering the expiring Harden contract and his deteriorating play.
After weeks of cat-and-mouse appearances from Harden through training camp and initially into the regular season, Morey finally pulled the trigger on sending Harden to his preferred destination of the LA Clippers. With it, many on the outside assumed that the 76ers would take a step back. After losing a player who led the league in assists last season, it’s reasonable to come to that conclusion.
Instead, the Philadelphia 76ers have raced off to a 8-1 start, with the lone loss coming to Milwaukee by a point on Opening Night. Since, the team has rattled off six victories in a row, including a big one over their division rival, the Boston Celtics.
Joel Embiid is back to leading the league in scoring while also dishing out a career-high in assists. Tyrese Maxey has not only taken an expected leap with Harden gone, but the 23-year-old has catapulted himself into potential All-Star conversations. Tobias Harris is playing some of the best basketball of his career in Nick Nurse’s new system, and some of the signings on the margins, such as Kelly Oubre, are also thriving in their roles.
Things are looking sunny in Philadelphia of late, but if you take a closer look, it gets even better for Morey and the 76ers. Let me explain.
For the last few years, the overarching theme of the Philadelphia 76ers is that they lacked cap space and assets. After years of tanking to fill up the treasure chest with draft picks and prospects, the team ran through that collection real quick, opting to trade for players like Harris, Harden, and Jimmy Butler.
But now, with Harris’s contract set to expire after this season and no big-money contracts on the books outside of Embiid, the 76ers find themselves in an unfamiliar position heading into next offseason. According to Spotrac, the 76ers are projected to have roughly $39.8 million in cap space to play around with when looking at free agents. In fact, it can have even more — up to $65.8 million — but assuming the team will use some of that to keep current rotation players like De’Anthony Melton and Oubre around, that’s unlikely.
Additionally, we can’t forget about Maxey. Some might wonder why the team hasn’t signed him to a well-deserved extension, but it was prudent for Morey to wait until the Harden situation unfolded before doing so — something that Maxey and his representation seem to understand. After a start to the season that sees the fourth-year guard averaging career-highs in points (25.4), assists (7), and rebounds (5.1), the expectation is that Maxey and the Sixers will reach a contract resolution sometime next summer as a restricted free agent.
There’s another factor at play. If/when the Sixers and Maxey agree to an extension this upcoming summer, the new cap hold on the deal won’t come into play until 2025-26. If they had agreed to something this last summer, the hit would come in 2024-25. Therefore, the available cap space that the 76ers will eventually have to throw at free agents would not be as much as it is now.
So, with Embiid locked up and Maxey eventually getting to that point, Philadelphia could be an intriguing destination for players looking to get the bag next summer or for veteran players looking to contend. The 76ers are set to be major players for big-time free agents for the first time since signing Harris back in 2019 (I don’t count the Al Horford signing).
Not only that, but remember that treasure chest that had gone dry from questionable front-office decisions the last half-decade-plus? Well, it’s no longer empty.
Don’t get it twisted — the Philadelphia 76ers are a far cry away from the overflowing trove of assets they once had when Sam Hinkie was stockpiling them throughout The Process. But thanks to the Harden trade, here’s what Morey has to work with moving forward:
- 2026 first-round pick (LAC/OKC/HOU) OR 2026 first-round pick (PHI)
- 2028 first-round pick (LAC)
- 2029 first-round pick (PHI)
- 2024 first-round pick (PHI)
- 2031 first-round pick (PHI)
These are the first-round picks that Philly is able to offer in a trade (the first three can be offered after Jan. 1, while the remaining two can be offered on Draft Night). So to clarify, the Sixers can offer up to three first-round picks this season in addition to a handful of expiring contracts and up to five first-rounders on draft night if they want to.
Once a team that never had a shot at obtaining some players due to lack of assets, the 76ers will be at the forefront of discussions for guys like OG Anunoby or Zach LaVine the rest of the season.
Or they don’t have to do that at all. Thanks to the team’s blazing start and the encouraging play from Maxey as the lead guard and second star on a potential title-winning squad, the front office has flexibility (wait, what???) moving forward. Morey can sit back and see how things unfold for the next little bit instead of feeling forced into any rash decisions.
That’s not to say that any of this is without risk. I mean, we’re talking about the 76ers, after all. Something is bound to go wrong. But in a situation that once seemed bleak, Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers are playing with house money for the rest of the 2023-24 campaign.
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