In a week, the Sixers will face a major challenge to their championship hopes: free agency. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will be heavily pursued free agents. J.J. Redick will have plenty of opportunities to go elsewhere. Mike Scott and James Ennis will have opportunities to go elsewhere as well. Even Boban Marjanovic could be gone.
The good news for the Sixers is that they don’t come into free agency totally lacking a roster. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are returning All-Stars. First round picks from the last two drafts Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle will be rotational pieces that should provide vast improvements at perimeter defense. Jonah Bolden logged significant minutes in the front court last year and showed flashes. Marial Shayok and Shake Milton could find a home at the end of the bench filling out this roster. That’s not a bad place to start from. Thybulle and Shayok still need to sign contracts, and Milton is heading into the second year of a two-way contract, but the Sixers currently have about $40 million of cap space allocated towards the $109 million cap, and the $132 million luxury tax cap.
The Sixers essentially have three options heading into free agency. The first is the most popular- re-sign their players and run it back. This option requires the Sixers to likely have to offer the five year, $189 million maximum to Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, a hit of about $38 million a year, each. They would likely have to pay J.J. Redick about $12 million to bring him back next season. Scott and Ennis would likely cost the Sixers between $8-12 million (call it $10 million) to run it back too. The team would likely still need to bring in a center/power forward option to back up Joel Embiid, and probably still wants a point guard option off the bench, and possibly another shooter. Adding up just the costs to keep these players, the Sixers would spend $100 million. They would be over the cap, and over the luxury tax too. This would severely limit the size of their exemption usage, and their ability to add anyone in the season. The Sixers absolutely would be a taxpayer under this plan, and probably would be for the foreseeable future, given Ben Simmons looming extension. It’s an option to do this, but it’s one that gives the Sixers minimal flexibility.
Option two is to look outside, and there’s reason to think the Sixers could do this. Players such as Al Horford, Danny Green, Julius Randle, Patrick Beverley, Malcolm Brogdon, Dewayne Dedmon, Kyle O’Quinn, and even Kawhi Leonard have been linked to the team. Obviously Leonard would require a maximum deal, while rumors peg Horford’s cost at around $28 million per year, for four years. The rest of these players would come in at lesser prices, and fulfill different needs. Green could provide a replacement, or at least another option to Redick, depending on cap space. Randle, like Horford, provides another big man to help soften the load on Embiid, while providing starter minutes. Dedmon and O’Quinn would be true back-ups at the four and five. Brogdon and Beverley would help fill out the back court nicely.
Option three is what appears most likely- a combination of the two. It probably starts with re-signing one of their two free agent stars, continues with either bringing back Redick or bringing in Green, and concludes with bringing in a power forward like Horford who can double as Embiid’s playoff back-up. The savings from not super maxing two players are what the Sixers use to fill out some depth on their bench, including a passable point guard, a center to get through the regular season, and hopefully another shooter. This pathway probably also puts the Sixers in the tax, but perhaps not for five years, and perhaps with a deeper roster.
While it’s worth worrying about, I don’t believe the Sixers will strike out altogether. They are simply too close to a championship, in a decent financial situation, and can offer their two stars more money than anyone else. While last Summer’s pursuit of LeBron has probably soured this front office on chasing Kawhi, I can definitely see the Sixers bringing in the pieces they need. With that said, they probably need four to six rotational pieces they could trust in big games, which is a lot. While running it back may be popular, it just might not be feasible under the circumstances.